Benito Mussolini, at the height of his power, was a paranoid man. As fascist dictators are wont to do, he rounded up political dissidents and sent them far away where their catchy ideas couldn't catch on. One such troublemaker was the Communist Altero Spinelli. Banished to Ventotene, a volcanic island between Rome and Naples, Spinelli got to thinking about a unified Europe -- not the kind of unified Europe that Hitler and Mussolini envisaged. Spinelli thought a federalist model of government, not unlike that of the United States, would keep the continent from tearing itself apart with wars. And thus Spinelli's Ventotene Manifesto, written on the island in 1941, became a charter document for the European Union -- the superstate that drafts important rules about the proper curvature of the banana and identifying knock-off handbags.
Today, the only manifestos being penned in Ventotene are in the form of postcards. The island, just 2km long, is a true Mediterranean idyll. It resembles more a tiny Greek island. But there it is, just over 2 hours from Rome by train, then boat, the perfect place to brush up on EU history without having to go anywhere near Brussels.
Ventotene is a rare piece of undeveloped island paradise, overrun with wild artichokes, asparagus, fennel trees (yes, trees!) and a thick carpet of flowers. The restaurants serve whatever the fishermen catch, and the locals can pluck from the fields. The ancient Romans settled the island back in the day and thus there's remnants of a humble 2,000-year-old settlement. And looming creepily in the distance is the island of Santo Stefano, a jail built by the Bourbons in the 17oos, Italy's Alcatraz. The Bourbons designed it to keep both criminals and mentally unwell people stuck there so their wanton ways wouldn't disturb mainland Italians. It was only shut down in the 1960s.
Today, Ventotene attracts mainly scuba divers as the waters around the island are crystal clear. We just took it easy on the beach, marveling that we were so close to Rome and yet seemed to have the island largely to ourselves.
As for Spinelli, there's a monument to the man erected last October in a shabby courtyard off the island's port town. The municipal building also flies the 25 flags of the EU. But that's about it. No special dishes named after the man, no beach towels bearing his likeness. Still, Mussolini wouldn't be happy with what the locals have done to his old island of exhile.