Island in the Sea
69 miles southeast of Rome as the crow flies, is a world of blue. The wild Palmarola is a nearly uninhabited floating paradise in the archipelago known as the Isole Ponziane, aka Pontine islands, could be Italy’s best-kept secret but explorer Jacques Cousteau spilled the beans when he declared Palmarola “the most beautiful island in the world”. And It is.
From a distance, tiny Palmarola is just a rock delicately floating in the Tyrrhenian’s blues. Sail in a little closer (because that’s the only way you can get here) and you are face to face with the leftovers of a Jurassic World. Named Palmarola for its dwarf palm trees, the island is a lovely lump of prehistoric rock, rough and craggy coastline, and nail-biting cliffs. And for blue lovers like myself, Palmarola is the palette of indigo, lapis and cobalt and a symphony of cerulean, sapphire and sky blue.
Every morning, boats filled with day-trippers make the 30-minute sail from neighboring island Ponza for a dip in the crystalline and azure waters of Palmarola’s cale and coves, and a swim through Palmarola’s gorgeous grottoes which rival Tiberius’s famed hangout. In July, I was part of the flotilla, visiting Palmarola six times over four days. Like everyone else, we spent our time aquatically exploring- snorkelling the grottoes and “beaches”, and sailing around the islands in search of wild goats (yes, they roam the cliffs and death-defyingly trek the most dangerous precipices) and incredible architecture. Don’t get me wrong, there is an island to explore (and more on that later), but it’s Palmarola’s rock formations that will blow your mind and keep you coming back.
Palmarola’s stark white coast line and monumental rocks could be the backdrop for a neolithic or even post-apocalyptic film. 20,000 years ago or 1000 years in the future, it wouldn’t matter. Palmarola is cinematic, and that’s thanks to its rocks- small and big- and each formation has its own name and personality- il Faraglione (distinctly stacked rocks emerging from or dropped in the water) formation), la Forcina (the hairpin), la Cattedrale (the Cathedral for natural gothic architecture) and Le Galere (the jails, or rough rocks). And each has been waiting for millennia for you to swim, snorkel and sail. We drove through Faraglione and La Forcina, swam around La Cattedrale and gave ourselves hot obsidian stone massages at Le Galere. In our days, we never did make it to the famous Grotta del Gatto (the cat’s grotto), a spring of sweet water hidden in an internal grotto. And then there’s Lo Scoglio di San Silverio. . .
The Pope and Palmarola
Nope. Not Francis. Let’s go back nearly 1500 years ago. It’s 537, and Pope Silverio has just been banished to Palmarola by Belisarius, military commander of the Byzantine Empire. Fair enough, the uninhabited island is the perfect spot for a treasonous pope. There isn’t much to do, and definitely not enough to eat. Silverio dies of starvation within weeks. For a few centuries, Silverio is just another in the long line up of obscure popes, until a terrible tempest takes him out of the annals of anonymity. Fishermen sailing the Pontine Islands are caught up in the squall and call out to Silverio who miraculously appears to the them, and they survive. Thanks to divine good will, Silverio becomes a saint and then patron saint of Ponza. And today, pilgrims and explorers hike Lo Scoglio di San Silverio, a kind miniature version of Morro Rock, to its peak – the Capella di San Silverio, San Silverio’s chapel.
From the overlook, you can spy into the few manmade structures on the islands – private homes (the fabulous Fendi sisters), spartan fishermen’s dwellings that are now rented out as vacation spots, and O’ Francese, the island’s other pilgrimage destination and the only restaurant. Owner Giuseppe Tagliamonte fell in love with Palmarola in 1958, built a few summer homes carved into the cliffs (aka fishermen’s dwellings), and then opened a restaurant with the most beautiful and obstructed view of the sea. All you need to know is bring cash in case there is no signal for the credit card POS isn’t working (it usually isn’t) and what to order, and in my opinion, it’s very easy: any fritti (fried food, my preference are anchovies), local wine (a carafe comes with peach quarters), and spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti with clams).
Mic Drop. That’s Palmarola.
How to Get There
The only way to get to Palmarola is by sea, in particular by gommone (dinghy), yacht or sail boats. For those who won’t be chartering a private sail boat, all you have to do is have a little patience and get yourself to Ponza by public transport ferry departing from Anzio, Terracina, Formia, San Felice Circo and Napoli – about an hour long ferry ride. Once in Ponza, you’ll need to hire a private gommone (Barcaoli Ponzesi is Ponza’s consortium of hired boats and are very well experienced) to travel the seven nautical miles (30 minutes) to Palmarola.
Pro Tip: Palmarola is just one of six Pontine islands – Ponza, Ventotene, Palmarola, Gavi, Zannone and Santo Stefano- each a distinct personality and incredible to explore whether with snorkels or sneakers. So book a room on Ponza and hire a gommone for a few days of exploring. PS if you don’t have time for a lunch but do want a snack, Il Barchino dei Gelati sails over to you selling Algida ice cream, the Italian equivalent of Mr. Good Bar.
Feature image: Isole Ponziane. Photo by Erica Firpo.