Ponza port follows the curve of the bay, flat topped powder blue, dusty terracotta, rose pink, faded broom yellow stack up the hill that rises steeply from the quayside. The town is divided into two by a thick rock rampart through which is a tunnel. It looks out to sea, the view defined by a long, lumpy arm of land, as if it had been thrown out in protection, and by a myriad of rocks and islets between.
6.30 am. Ponza port is beginning to stir in the pearly early morning light. The sky is an effortless, cloudless, infinite blue. The sun is bright and the air warm already. The sea is flat calm. Smooth tongues of water slip easily onto the sand that edges part of the bay. Boats scarcely move at their moorings. Light flickers against the underside of the fishing boats. The air smells of heat and salt.
A dove coos somewhere, a cock crows, sparrows chirrup. There’s the sound of a motorino firing up, the saw-buzz of a scooter, the wuhwuhwuh of the early morning aliscafo departing, shouted greetings, a young woman chatting to a neighbours as she sets out tables in front of a bar.
More people are going about their business. A young man straddles his scooter and whizzes off. His T-shirt reads ‘I came. I saw. I crawled.’
More cafes are getting set up for the day. There’s a sudden flurry of taxis to the far end of the port. Another aliscafo comes in wuhwhuwhuw. A man checks the boats ready for hire. They’re moored in rows, filling part of the port.
I stop to talk to a fishmonger in his shop by the quay. He’s hacking out the cheeks of a monkfish with a huge knife. As he brings down the blade, his whispy white hair leaps up on his head. His aim is unerring. I inspect the boxes of fish laid out in boxes on his slab – scorfano – scorpion fish – sea bass, small whiting, prawns.
– The cheeks, he says, the best bit of the fish.
– Are there still plenty of fish in the waters around Ponza? I ask.
– Less than there used to be, he says
– Because the boats Procida and Ischia come and fish here as well.
– Where did the swordfish come from? I ask, pointing at a headless, muscular body on another slab.
He gestures to a boat tied up at the quay. I go out to take a look.
Four very large swordfish, each wrapped in plastic, are laid out on its deck, their swords resting on the gunwale. The crew look at me suspiciously when I ask if it’s ok to take a photo of the fish. Perhaps they think I’m an EU fisheries inspector or a Greenpeace activist, although I don’t remotely look like one. I’m a portly bloke with modest Italian and a camera. We caught them a long way out, says one of the crew. Four swordfish this size are worth a lot of money.
The sun’s hot now. The town is ticking over – deliveries to the restaurants and bars; a column of passata bottles and mineral water left by a door; one or two of the shops peddling beachwear and seaside gear are opening their shutters, hopeful young women decorating the outside with wraps and bags and swim stuff. There are a few early strollers and even a jogger.
Time for breakfast at the Pasticceria Napolitana, a sfogliatella and a normale, a single expresso drawn from a machine with a pressure lever that you only see in Naples these days. Ponza was settled with people from Torre del Greco and Procida, all within the purlieus of Naples, where coffee is a second article of faith. Those sibbilant, front-of-mouth Neapolitan accents abound on Ponza, s’s coming out as ssch’s and vowels barked rounded and elongated – ‘sschfoglia-a-tella’,’norma-a-le’.
If you’re not interested in water activity, there’s not much point in heading for Ponza. In it, on it, under it, that’s why people go there. Oh, you can do a little light shopping, eat a lot, and even walk if you like, but there are no sights, although there is a remarkable Roman tunnel that cuts through a headland, and a fish pool the Romans used to keep eels, there are no must-see Roman remains, remarkable churches, lost masterpieces. There’s just about room for another small village, Le Forna, which tumbles into the sea on the north-eastern end of the island. Aside from that, it’s rent a boat, hop on a boat, jump of a boat, eat, sleep and wander through the town, which will take you approximately 20 minutes if you stop to linger at a shop or two, 10 minutes if not. This makes it a very restful place to rest. There’s a lot to be said for emptying the mind of everything save immediate sensation. Breakfast is splendid.