My favourite Mediterrean island

It was Francesca Amfitheatrof, Louis Vuitton’s high-profile artistic director for jewellery, who introduced me to the very low-profile Ventotene. A habituée since childhood, Amfitheatrof spoke rapturously of a scantly visited place that had somehow remained virtually unchanged from those 1980s days.

I soon learnt how such a unicorn state of affairs might have come about: Ventotene was, for most of the year, a real pain in the ass to get to. When I went in late September, it was a two-hour trundle on a shabby Intercity train from Rome’s Termini station to a coastal port called Formia. From there, after milling around at the ferry dock for an hour or so, it was another two hours over the water to this bluff-ringed speck measuring less than 3km long and at most 800 metres across — technically one of the Pontine Islands, but almost as close to Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples, as it is to Ponza.

On Ventotene, the filtering effect of this journey is bolstered by the brevity of the season and the scarcity of accommodation (a handful of hotels, none with more than 25 rooms). In September, it was a cinch to find a table with a view, a quiet path to walk alone, a gozzo to putter around the island’s perimeter in. The tiny port, carved out of volcanic rock that swirls in mesmeric morphological patterns, dates back to the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the island was known as Pandataria.

The ancient alcoves along its perimeter now house cafés, restaurants and a few diving centres (the surrounding seabed is rich with posidonia and gorgonian soft corals, the odd shipwreck resting among them). Augustus also maintained a pair of stonking summer palaces here, and banished his adulterous daughter, Julia the Elder, to a life of exile in one of them. A mile off its south shore is the even tinier island of Santo Stefano, where in the 18th century the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV elaborated on the Augustan exile theme by building an actual prison.

Financial Times
7 July 2024