Sperlonga is a medieval village built atop a cliff overlooking a stretch of the Mediterranean known as the Tyrrhenian Sea.
one of the Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia, "the most beautiful villages of Italy," designated by the Borghi Italia Tourist Network, an organization dedicated to bringing visitors to Italy's lesser-known cultural wonders. Sperlonga fits the description. The old city is a whitewashed warren of passageways and staircases opening onto cafes and shops, decked in flowers, with a beach-view piazza at the very top where people promenade from sundown until the late hours.
And though the newer town is packed with lodges and restaurants, it's barely a mile wide, from the beach to the highway that skirts the coastal mountains. The first summer tourist to Sperlonga may have been the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who reigned near the beginning of the first century and built a villa next to a grotto at the farthest end of the beach. It was only discovered in 1957 when the Italian government was building a highway past Sperlonga to Capri and Naples to the south. Construction crews began unearthing relics and fragments of statues, and when government archaeologists descended on the town to take them away, the Sperlonga residents came out en masse and blocked the trucks. The artefacts remained in Sperlonga, and the government built a national museum on the site. When they excavated the artichoke fields down by the waterline, they uncovered the ruins of the villa with its fish ponds. The grotto revealed more statuary, most of it dedicated to the Greek hero Ulysses who, according to legend, had sailed past the coast there more than 1,000 years earlier. Off in the distance stands the Promontory of Circe, where Ulysses supposedly lived with the witch goddess for a year, again according to legend - though in 20 BC, the difference between myth and history was likely hazier than it is today. The name "Sperlonga" comes from the Latin word for "cave." Researchers determined that the emperor and his court languished in the natural cool of the grotto cave by the villa, which had its own fresh-water pool - until, according to historians, part of the roof caved in, nearly crushing Tiberius. He took it as an omen and moved to Capri, but he left behind a giant tower topped by a signal flame at the base of the old city. It and subsequent towers were destroyed by pirates over the years. The one that stands today was built in the 1700s. In the fifth century, enraged Christian monks destroyed the pagan statues, and the villa was buried beneath the earth until 1957. But after its rediscovery, Sperlonga became a mecca for the 1950s and '60s cultural idols, the actresses Brigitte Bardot and Marlene Dietrich, the artist Andy Warhol, the writer Albert Camus and the playwright Arthur Miller among them.