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.
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.