Ferries and hydrofoils pull into the Porto Nuovo (new port), an artificial extension of Cala Rossano on the northern tip of the island. Although this is not the most picturesque introduction to Ventotene, you will immediately see the striking red-brown tufa walls that characterize the entire perimeter of the island. Much more interesting than Porto Nuovo is the Porto Romano (Roman port) to the south. The circular boat basin, lined with brightly painted fishing boats, was created in the Augustan era, 2,000 years ago, by excavating some 60,000 cubic meters (2,118,880 cubic ft.) of tufa from this section of the island. The Porto Romano is where most tourist excursion boats are moored, and is where you should come to arrange boat rentals and day trips around the island or over to Santo Stefano. On the inland side of the harbor is the Porto Romano's most distinctive feature, arches in the volcanic stone that served as offices and storage sheds during Roman times; today, they shelter fishing and boating gear for the marinai (seamen) of Ventotene. The waterfront Bar Mariposa (Porto Romano 22; tel. 0771/85144) is the collective hangout for one and all down here. By day, it's a coffee and gelato joint; by night, it's a piano bar that sees a fair amount of action.
The town of Ventotene lies directly above the Roman port. To get from sea level to the main square of town, everyone uses the zig-zagging Rampa Marina, a lemon-yellow switchback climbing three stories up to Piazza Alcide de Gasperi, also known as Piazza Chiesa for the presence of the Bourbon church of Santa Candida (1769). Along the Rampa Marina are a few "rest stops" in the form of boutiques selling sun and swim gear and faux-hippie island duds.
At the top of the ramp, walk south to Piazza Castello, the epicenter of Ventotene town and a textbook example of authentic Italian seaside village charm. The coffee bar here, with tables out on the square, is Da Verde (Piazza Castello 19; tel. 0771/85235), which sees some nighttime traffic in high season. The Bourbon castello that gives the square its name houses the comune (city hall) and the Museo Archeologico (tel. 0771/85193), in which finds from the Villa Giulia and other Roman structures on the island are exhibited.
From Ventotene town, Via Olivi runs southwest along the central axis of the island. End to end, the street is 2.5km long (1 1/2 miles), and it takes 30 minutes to walk the full length in either direction. Out on the island, you'll find a few guesthouses and hotels strewn among the fields of lentils, as well as some raggedy Roman ruins, including cisterns and a necropolis. The silence and sense of isolation out here, combined with rampant growth of agave, broom, and particularly fat ferns, is sublime.
Outside of the simple pleasure of strolling Ventotene town and watching village life play out in Piazza Castello, there are some interesting ancient ruins that round out the cultural side of things on the island. Immediately south of the Porto Romano, below the lighthouse, is the Peschiera Romana (Roman fish pool). Here, the Romans devised an ingenious system of manmade "tanks" (like the Porto Romano, dug out of the existing tufa) in which they corralled and cultivated seafood to be consumed at the elaborate banquets held by the exiled imperial family on the island. This fascinating ruin, along with the "Grotte di Pilato" eel farm on Ponza, is one of the few surviving examples of Roman "fish engineering." The Peschiera Romana is best visited from the water and, if possible, with a snorkel or diving gear.
The most extensive Roman remains, those of the 1st century A.D. Villa Giulia, occupy 30,000 sq. m (322,917 sq. ft.) at Punta Eolo, the northernmost tip of Ventotene. (The archaeological park is always open, free admission, no phone; to get there, take the ramp that leads from Cala Rossano toward Ventotene cemetery.) This was the principal residence for the exiled progeny of Augustus; in accordance with the Lex Julia -- laws passed to improve morals in Roman society -- adulterers were punished by banishment or worse. Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus himself, was among the dissolute of Rome and promptly sent to Pandataria (the ancient name for Ventotene) for her infidelity. When she got here, she lived in style. Though the structure is now reduced to skeletal brickwork, the villa was equipped with sumptuous nymphaea and baths overlooking the sea, and their foundations can be clearly discerned around the site.
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