I looked around as we emerged from the crowded bus into the seaside piazza, and I knew our gamble had paid off.
White, sandy beach skirted the deep blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea that lay straight ahead. Behind me, magenta bougainvillea spilled out of window boxes and clung to the walls and balconies of modest, low-slung hotels and cafes. The ancient town of Sperlonga rose abruptly on my left, capping a rocky headland with buildings of cream, almond and bone. Yes, this location would do just fine.
My husband, Steve, and I had wanted a few quiet days with our daughters, Katrina, 13, and Valerie, 9, near the end of a June trip to Italy two years ago. It would give us time to unwind after a couple of weeks of immersion in the art and history — and the heat and crowds — of Florence and Rome. Tour books warned us that the coastal towns directly west of Rome were dirty and crowded. "Be there by 7 or 8 a.m. if you want a spot on the beach," friends told us. The popular resorts along the Amalfi Coast south of Naples were too far. Then we happened upon a few sentences in a travel guide about the Tyrrhenian coast, little more than an hour from Rome by train. The details, even after an Internet search, were sketchy, but we learned that the area's beaches had been awarded the European Blue Flag for cleanliness.
We decided against the more populated coastal cities of Terracina and Gaeta and settled on the town of Sperlonga, nestled midway between them along a semicircle of beach known as the Riviera di Ulisse, or Ulysses' Coast.
According to legend, Ulysses moored his ships in the Gulf of Gaeta and lived for many years on the slopes of Monte Circeo with the enchantress Circe. During the Roman Empire, the area became a favorite holiday destination, particularly with Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-3). (The word sperlonga comes from the Latin speluncae for the caves that are typical of the region.)
Sperlonga's brief period as a leisure resort for noblemen was followed by centuries of isolation and decline.
Tiberius' villa was occupied by monks for several centuries, until they moved to the greater safety of the rocky promontory above the beach, 180 feet above sea level.
Watchtowers along the coast remain as evidence of a long-standing threat of invasion by sea. The Saracens and other invaders plundered Sperlonga repeatedly between the 6th and 18th centuries. It was only after World War II that Sperlonga reclaimed its function as a leisure resort.
Today, the town is a popular summer destination for Italian families and a smattering of other Europeans. Few Americans visit, and not many locals speak English, but we managed to get around fairly easily using the minimal Italian we had learned before our trip.
Family idyll As with most seaside resorts, Sperlonga has daytime activities that center on the beach and the water. Many people stay at one of the family-oriented hotels that line the beach and the main street, Via Cristoforo Colombo, in the modern section of town. Each hotel maintains its own stretch of beach and provides umbrellas, lounge chairs and towels. Broader, tree-fringed beaches on the other side of the old town cater to campers, day-trippers and other visitors.
Sperlonga's long beaches are among the cleanest in the region, and locals intend to keep it that way. Each morning while we ate our breakfast, a hotel employee swept away the clumps of seaweed and other debris that had washed ashore overnight, taking care to leave a pleasing pattern of rake impressions behind.
From a lounge chair on the beach, I could hear the laughter of children playing at the seaside public park and preteens splashing around on inflatable rafts.
The ambitious can water-ski, scuba dive or sail. Ferries to the island of Ponza launch from nearby Terracina. At our children's urging, we rented a pedal boat for an hour and took it out just far enough to enjoy the slide on the back of the boat.
Later in the day, we explored the Torre Truglia, the best preserved of four watchtowers that once stood sentry over Sperlonga. The tower, which sits on an elevated spit of land, was built in 1532 over an existing Roman lookout tower and was reconstructed in the 18th century. The view takes in miles of beach.
Although it's tempting to forgo traditional sightseeing on a seaside holiday, my daughter and I decided the next day to walk along the beach to the ruins of a villa built in the 1st century by Emperor Tiberius. The villa once was surrounded by a residential area for nobility, military barracks and a market. Excavations suggest that there was also a small port. The ruins lay hidden until 1957, when they were uncovered by a crew constructing a coastal road.
Inside a vast cavern being used as a depository for construction equipment, workers found a trove of marble statuary fragments, thousands in all. Experts now think that a grotto in Tiberius' villa was the site of a monumental marble sculpture garden that paid homage to Ulysses' Odyssey; they're still trying to determine whether the sculptures are Greek originals or Roman copies.
Among the scenes depicted by the statues are Ulysses blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus and, the centerpiece of the grotto, the Scylla group, with the mythic part-human, part-eel monster abducting Ulysses' shipmates. It is believed that the statue groupings were positioned in and among circular and rectangular basins used for breeding fish and plants in a semi-saltwater habitat.
Fragments, restorations and reconstructions of the statuary are exhibited at the Sperlonga National Archaeological Museum, adjacent to the ruins of the villa. The museum's existence is a triumph for the local populace. In the late 1950s, the people of Sperlonga, fearing that the statuary would never be returned, physically prevented the removal of the pieces to Rome for examination. The museum was built in 1963 to house the archeological discovery.
A night on the town In the evening, the action moves to the historic center of town perched high on the limestone headland, surrounded by still-intact medieval walls. Sperlonga is a place to stroll: Only one auto road heads into town. Most people ascend from the beach area along narrow, cobblestone paths that at times are barely wide enough to accommodate two people abreast. Stairways wend drunkenly up and down between buildings constructed one on top of the other. Frequently, they change direction from north and south to east and west and open unexpectedly on breathtaking vistas of the sea.
Boutiques and restaurants are tucked into the residential streets near the town center, but the busiest area is the short, level stretch between the Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Europa, site of the town hall and the new and old churches. Unfortunately, when we visited, the 12th century church, Sanctae Mariae de Spelonche, was closed for long-overdue restoration.
Pizza and seafood are the preferred foods along the coast. Other regional specialties include octopus, fried squid and prawns, grilled or baked sole and gilthead, and pasta sauces made with crabmeat. We stopped one evening in a tiny grocery to pick up a picnic of fruit, bread and cheese. We enjoyed it while seated on an overlook that afforded a spectacular view of the sea, beach and mountains.
Later, while exploring a quiet section of town, we noticed a small arbor. Hidden behind the grapevines was a charming outdoor movie theater where moviegoers sat on white plastic chairs lined up on the grass. A pleasant sea breeze provided the ultimate in climate control.
Months after returning home, we extolled the pleasures of Sperlonga to an Italian acquaintance living in the U.S., who revealed that the town had always been his favorite locale in the old country. We understood completely.
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A seaside odyssey
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Rome is available on American, Continental, Lufthansa, Delta, British, Northwest, Air France, Aer Lingus, KLM, Swiss and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $949.
From Rome, take a Naples-bound train, exiting at the Fondi station. A 15-minute bus ride will take you to Sperlonga.
To call the numbers below, dial 011 (international code), 39 (country code), 077 (the area code) and the local numbers.
WHERE TO STAY:
Small, moderately priced beachfront hotels are a good bet for visitors. If you come in June, you'll enjoy great weather and smaller crowds. August is the busiest season, with Easter and July close on its heels.
Hotel Aurora, 15 Via Cristoforo Colombo, Sperlonga 04029; 154-9266, http://www.aurorahotel.it . A delightful, family-run hotel, with piano bar, gardens and private beach facilities. Doubles $138-$211 with breakfast, parking and beach facilities.
Grand Hotel La Playa, Localitá Fiorelle, Sperlonga 04029; 154-9496, http://www.laplayahotel.it . This hotel, which I did not see, is seaside with a restaurant and bar, pool, Jacuzzi, tennis court and private beach facilities. Doubles are $219 with breakfast.
La Sirenella, 25 Via Cristoforo Colombo, Sperlonga, 04029; 154-9186, http://www.lasirenella.com . This seafront hotel has a restaurant and private beach facilities. Doubles from $82 with meals.
WHERE TO EAT:
Ristorante Amiclae, 77 Via Cristoforo Colombo; 154-8545. A restaurant on the beach popular with locals and known for its fish and wine.
Ristorante Gli Archi, 17 Via Ottaviano; 154-8300. A charming place in the old city center that serves good food.
Ristorante Torre Truglia, Via Torre Truglia; 154-9474. The food is average, but the view from the outdoor tables is spectacular — halfway up the mountain, with the old town above and the sea and its crescent-shaped beach below.
TO LEARN MORE:
Italian Government Tourist Board: 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .
— Theresa Gawlas Medoff