|Balcony view, Ventotene|
It is late September, the end of the tourist season; the islanders are friendly and there is a cameraderie among visitors. We exchange happy smiles and greetings, sharing our luck in being here and knowing this secret.
|Inside the prison, Santo Stefano|
The picturesque and craggy island I am looking at from my balcony is Santo Stefano. Until fifty years ago, it would have been a sight to have provoked a shudder. This was one of Italy's prison islands, but the large Bourbon-era prison building was abandoned in the 1960s; its crumbling ruin can be visited on guided tours.
Ventotene itself was a prison, though a gilded one, two thousand years ago, when Rome's first emperor, Augustus, sent his daughter Julia into exile here. The scanty ruins of the elegant imperial villa can be visited (guided tours only) on the headland above Ventotene's modern port, where ferries dock. Around the corner is one of the island's best sights, a Roman port carved out of the island's soft rock. Arched caves dug by Romans to store goods – deliveries for the villa, perhaps – are now used by fishing and diving businesses.
|Zuppa di lenticchie, Ventotene|
As I walk the few yards between the piazza and my hotel after dinner, I see a woman swimming alone in the cove under the hotel as a beam of moonlight shimmers over the waves. In the far distance a cruise ship passes by, lit up like a Christmas tree, crowded with ten times as many people as this green little island. It slips gaudily over the horizon and I sit back on my balcony, hearing only the wind and the waves. I know where I'd rather be.
|Fishing boats in the harbour|
It is possible to reach the Pontine islands in a day from the UK, by catching an early morning flight to Rome. From Fiumicino airport, take the Leonardo Express train into Rome's Stazione Termini, then change to a local train heading south, checking timetables and buying a ticket to Formia. Alight at Formia, walk downhill to the port, catch an afternoon ferry and you could be enjoying a late afternoon drink in the island sunshine. On Ventotene I stayed at Villa Iulia, at €50 a night.