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Niki Swallow

July 30, 2018

The smaller islands of the Tuscan Archipelago

Gorgona, Montecristo and Pianosa

Legend has it that Venus was swimming in the limpid blue waters of the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Tuscanywhen she lost seven pearls from her necklace. These pearls became the seven islands of the Arcipelago Toscano, outcrops of rock which have been known since ancient times. Elba, Giglio, Capraia and Giannutri are well-trod by holiday makers, but how many tourists ever reach Gorgona, Pianosa and Montecristo, three of the smallest and most remote islands of the group?
The answer is very few as visitor numbers to thesefascinating natural paradises, now protected as part of theParco Nazionale dell’ Archipelago Toscano (the largest marine park in Europe) , are strictly controlled.

The relative lack of human interference means that the nature and marine life on and near the islands, each of which is unique, has remained remarkably intact. Here you will find one of the most beautiful and well-populated marine habitats of the Mediterranean whose rocky depths harbour bass, lobsters, moray eels and octopus who hide among colourful sponges and rare corals and it’s not unusual to see schools of dolphin ploughing the waters. It is to preserve this that private boats must keep their distance and no scuba diving or fishing is allowed anywhere near the coast.
If you are lucky enough to go ashore on any of these undiscovered gems, you will be struck by two things. Firstly, the profound silence which is only broken by sounds of the sea, the wind and the seagull’s swooping cries and secondly, the evocative scent of the macchia (typical Mediterranean scrub vegetation), a heady mix of myrtle, juniper, rosemary, broom, ilex and sweet, baked earth which emanates from the islands and is particularly powerful under the mid-summer sun.

The northernmost (and smallest) island of the archipelago lies 37kms off the coast of Livorno. Rising to a height of 225metres above sea level, from a distance its silhouette resembles a flattened pyramid. It is abeautiful and wild place, its rocky terrain almost entirely covered by macchia which is a haven for wild rabbits, a range of seabirds and over 400 species of flora and fauna.

The island has ancient origins but has had little permanent human presence. The Etruscans and Romanscertainly passed through and, in the Middle AgesBenedictine and Cisternian monks founded a monastery. The Pisans built the ‘Torre Vecchia’, perched precipitously on a rock 200 metres above the sea, in the 12th century and in 1600, the Tuscan Granduca ordered the construction of the "Torre Nuova" which was subsequently used as a jail. The island was declared a penal colony in 1869.

Today, Gorgona’s population is 300 made up mainly of convicts who live in an open prison and work the land both to feed themselves and maintain the island in its pristine natural state.

Visits to Gorgona are subject to the discretion of the prison authorities. However, at the time of going to press, visits had been suspended. Normally, guided tours leave from Livorno on Thursdays. You must apply for the permit at least a month in advance. Tour by Cooperativa Parco Naturale "Isola di Gorgona" autorized of Ministero di Grazia e Giustizia.

Thanks to Alexandre Dumas’ novel, Le Comte de Montecristo, the name of the wildest and southernmostisland in the archipelago is instantly evocative of adventure and romanceMysterious, magical and beautiful and lying 40 kms south of Elba, Montecristo is formed of a dramatic, heavily-wooded granite massMonte Fortezza, which rises to a height of 645 m. Its rugged and craggy shoreline is made up of deep inlets slashed into the rock; at the top is a ruined Benedictine monastery founded in the 7th century and dedicated to St. Mamiliano who came to the island to escape his persecutors. He lived in a cave (the Grotta del Santo) where he is said to have slain a dragon. Legend has it that in the 15th century, pirates buried their treasure here; no treasure has ever been found, but it inspired Dumas’ famous novel.

In 1852 George Watson Taylor, a wealthy Englishman, bought the island and built a villa with a luxuriant garden at Cala Maestra which was later to be used as a hunting lodge by Vittorio Emanuele III.

The abundant and unusual examples of flora and fauna on the island include the famous capra selvatica or wild goat, a splendid horned beast similar to the ibex which is believed to have been introduced by the ancient Greeks and which is found nowhere else in Italy. There are also rare vipers, wild rabbits and a huge variety of birds including peregrine falcons and ospreys. The island is surrounded by deep, inky blue waters where an incredibly rich marine life thrives; rarities include the monk seal and precious red coral. Montecristo has its own marine park which protects the sea bed and underwater life for 500metres from the shoreline; swimming, diving, fishing and any kinds of boats (apart from the authorised few) are strictly forbidden.

Guided visits to Montecristo is difficult. No more than 50 people are allowed on the island at once and there is a limit of 1,000 visitors a yearPriority is given to visits for study purposes and waiting lists can run into years. Applications must be made in writing to the Corpo Forrestale dello Stato at Follonica (ph. 0566 40019 ). Visitors must arrange their own transport to the island.

The name is derived from the Roman word ‘planasia’ and indeed, Pianosa is as flat as a billiard table, rising only 29 metres from the sea at its highest point. It is covered with low macchia broken only by olive trees, giant cactus and agave and surrounded by crystal clear waters. Its long history as a place of banishment has given the island a rather sinister reputation, but it is now open to visitors.

Like GorgonaPianosa’s history goes back a long way. It was a significant Roman settlement; Postumo Agrippa was exiled there by his grandfather the Emperor Augustus (the remains of his villa can still be seen in Cala Giovanni on the east coast) and important catacombs were built between the 3rd and 5th centuries BC. The island was populated by the Pisans in the 14th century and later, Napoleon built the small fort that overlooks the pretty port. In 1858, the penal colony was founded. Sandro Pertini (future President of the Republic) was imprisoned here in the ‘30s and during the mafia crisis of the early ‘90s, it was transformed into a high security prison hosting mafiosi and terrorists. The last inmate was transferred in 1997 and Pianosa is now back in the hands of nature where it belongs.

Visitors today will be impressed by the silence, the vivid colours, the bizarre rock formations, the wild flowers, the limpid green water and the beating sun for there is very little natural shade on Pianosa. By contrast, there are the man-made sights; the forbidding but now eerily deserted prison buildings, the high wall constructed in 1978 to separate the jail from the rest of the island, Agrippa’s ruined villa and the catacombs.

Toremar (ph. 081 0171998, runs ferries between Piombino and Pianosa on Tuesdays for a maximum of 150 passengers; in high season it’s advisable to book ahead. Once on the island, swimming is only permitted at Cala Giovanna near the port. You can explore on foot (keeping strictly to laid out paths) or by mountain bike .  


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