Little pearls of the Tuscan archipelago


Legend has it that the Roman goddess Aphrodite rose from the sea to reach Eros, the God of love. While she was emerging from the water she adjusted the pearl necklace she was wearing, but it broke. Aphrodite tried to catch the loose beads but seven of them fell into the sea. Instead of sinking they floated, became covered with vegetation and populated by animals. This is the story of the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago: Elba Island, Giglio Island, Island of Capraia, Island of Giannutri, Pianosa Island, Island of Montecristo and Gorgona Island. Aphrodite must have been wearing a rather strangely necklace, given the difference in size between the islands, that range from 224 square km with the Island of Elba to just under 3 square km with Giannutri Island! All seven islands are part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, but from a naturalistic point of view Giannutri, Pianosa, Capraia and Montecristo, the smaller ones, are the most unspoilt - even though, as we will see, it is not always easy to visit them! We at are here to give you all the right tips!

GIANNUTRI ISLAND: this is the island located further south and has an area of less than 3 square kilometres - 2.6 km to be exact! Its coasts are predominantly rocky and jagged and the highest promontory is Monte Mario at 78 metres. It is covered mainly with Mediterranean vegetation and from a wildlife point of view, it is an important stopping point for migratory birds. Giannutri is an island also populated by gulls, the shearwater or the shag. If you are lucky, you may happen to see the Caretta-Caretta turtle. Keep your eyes open... even underwater!
Let’s get to the part that probably interests you most, thus beaches, but before I’ll tell you how to get to Giannutri. Ferries for Giannutri leave from Porto Santo Stefano, on the Argentario commercial port, daily in summer and less frequently in winter. Giannutri ferries usually arrive in Cala Spalmatoio, more rarely at Cala Maestra Giannutri. The only town is Spalmatoio-Ischiaiola, where you can also find the only bar, the only restaurant and a grocery store. As for sleeping in Giannutri, bear in mind that there are no Giannutri hotel facilities. Instead, you can book a b&b in Giannutri  or apartments. Make sure you arrange in advance because there are not many! Now we know where to sleep we can start to visit Giannutri! Of course, you can always decide to visit this island just for the day. 
Now for the Giannutri beaches: the island is pretty rocky and therefore there are no beaches, but delightful coves. They can be reached by different routes that all more or less start in Giannutri village centre. Being a protected area, you can swim only at Cala Maestra and Cala Spalmatolo. As for diving, there are many possibilities, just think of the ca wreck. What is there to see in Giannutri apart from the sea? You can visit the Roman ruins near Cala Maestra, where the Roman villa Giannutri dating back to the second century A.D. is located. For trekking lovers, this is definitely a great place where to find interesting and picturesque routes. If you are looking for a quiet place to escape the crowds, a holiday in Giannutri is not ideal during the summer months. In fact, during the day, there is always a Tuscan Islands cruise that carries a significant amount of tourists. If you love peace and relaxation, choose the period from March to June and from September to November.

ISLAND OF PIANOSA. The name of this island anticipates its features, since it is mostly flat. The coasts alternate rocky stretches to sandy beaches! Well, to be precise, there is just one sandy beach, enough to satisfy those seeking to sunbathe. Covered by the typical Mediterranean vegetation, Pianosa Tuscany presents numerous species of sea birds that are widespread in the Tuscany National Park. Worth mentioning is the peregrine falcon, a rare presence in the rest of Italy. You have probably heard of the Pianosa Prison: from 1865 the Agricultural Penal Colony was operating on the island, which in 1968, became a Maximum Security Prison. Pianosa Island prison was active until 2011 and housed prisoners accused of crimes related to mafia. The presence of the Prison in Pianosa, the prison island, has effectively safeguarded its seabed, one of the most intact of the archipelago. Its spectacular seagrass and the amount of species that find a perfect habitat here are truly marvellous. To see this Tuscan islands’ pearls what better than to swim in its waters: although the island is part of a protected area, Pianosa diving has been possible since 2013 only through accredited diving centres.
If you are wondering how to visit Pianosa, bear in mind that you can only visit via organized Pianosa tours for a limited number of participants, or by booking your accommodation well in advance. Hotels in Pianosa are one option for accommodation, otherwise you can choose to stay in a holiday home or a bed and breakfast. Ferries for Pianosa depart from Piombino or from Rio Marina and Marina di Campo (Elba Island). Once you arrive on the island you just need to decide how to visit Pianosa: excursions on Pianosa Island Tuscany can be made by bus, on foot, by horse and cart, mountain biking and canoeing. 
What about what to see in Pianosa? You definitely have to visit the Neolithic tombs located in some small caves, the Villa and Theatre of Agrippa Postumo that date back to the Roman period and the Christian Catacombs. As for the village, where there is only one bar, one restaurant and the only hotel on the island, try to give a look to the Exhibition Hall: sometimes there are interesting exhibitions on show. Fun fact: you will see an imposing concrete wall which effectively divides the village from the rest of the island. This is the ‘Muro Dalla Chiesa', commissioned by the magistrate especially with symbolic value: the mafia inside the wall, the government free outside.
Our mini-tour will end with a bit of relaxation on the beach of Cala Giovanna, a real luxury on these islands!

MONTECRISTO ISLAND. If I were to ask you the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of this island, I'm sure many of you would answer: 'The Count of Monte Cristo'! In fact, Alexander Dumas, after having stayed on the island, drew inspiration from this area and its legends for his adventure-filled novel. How to blame him… Montecristo is a fascinating island, wild, bare and truly wonderful. It is entirely hilly - the most important relief is Monte della Fortezza at 645 m of height. Its coasts main features are overhanging rocky cliffs. Many exemplars of the Montecristo goat live on the island, a wild goat native of the Middle East, which arrived on the island via human agricultural developments in ancient times. As we all know, goats love to graze, so plants such as heather have to be fenced off to be protected! 
Since 1971 the entire island has been a Nature Reserve and therefore there are many restrictions when visiting it. Let's have a look at what these entail. To begin with, before visiting you must apply for an access or visit permit via the State Forestry. And if you are wondering how to get to Montecristo island: Montecristo can be reached by boat, which must be booked in advance and submitting all necessary information to the State Forestry. Swimming, surfing and diving are forbidden within 1 km from the coast. The only berthing location in Monte Cristo is Cala Maestra: you cannot drop an anchor, but you can use a buoy from the port. The access permit, which might take several months to be issued, lets you visit Cala Maestra, the Royal Villa and the Botanical Garden. The 'visit permit', for which the waiting time can last as long as three years given that it is only granted to 1,000 visitors a year, allows guided tours only along certain paths. It is not possible to stay overnight on the island. The only exceptions are made for the two agents of the State Forestry Corps stationed on the island and for the island custodian and his family.
The island has a very interesting history, and is characterized by a succession of attempts to colonize this rugged land. Archaeological finds at Cala Maestra Montecristo show human presence on the island as far back as the Roman times. In medieval times, the island was inhabited mostly by monks, and it is probably for this reason that  the original Greek name 'Oglasa' was changed to 'Monte Cristo'. The Monastery of San Mamiliano was erected on top of the remains of the Roman temple of Jupiter, which inspired many legends about the alleged treasure contained in the apse of the chapel. A treasure chest was indeed found in 2004 i the Abbey of San Mamiliano... but in Sovana, in the province of Grosseto, and not in Montecristo! On the island there is also the Cave of San Mamiliano, where another legend relates the story of a Saint who defeated a dragon by holding the cross. Returning to the island, from the 1800s onwards the island witnessed several attempts of colonization and establishment of human settlements: two German hermits failed due to their incompatible personalities, a married couple and finally, the most famous attempt, the English botanist George Watson Taylor, who bought it in 1852 and seemed to have much in common with Dumas's Count in the tale of Montecristo. He built beautiful gardens with exotic species, the Royal Villa and the library. In the following years the long list of hermits and owners continued and the island passed from being a penal colony to a hunting reserve. Fortunately in 1971 the Nature Reserve was established and the island was preserved from the ravages of  unauthorized planning developments.

ISLAND OF GORGONA. With its 2.34 square km, it is the smallest pearl of the Tuscan Archipelago but certainly not the least valuable. It is predominantly mountainous and covered by rich Mediterranean vegetation which also includes chestnut trees and alder. It is currently home to a penal colony run by the Ministry of Justice. It seems that the island has been inhabited since Neolithic times and only sporadically by the Etruscans and Romans; after these populations human presence on the island has been primarily limited to hermits and monks. Their presence is witnessed by the Monastery of San Gorgonio, where the saint's relics are kept. Eventually, however, even the Carthusians, due to frequent raids of pirates, left the island. Cosimo de Medici tried to reinforce its defences by strengthening the existing Torre Pisana. The Grand Duke Leopold thought of populating it with Lucca farmers but after repeated attempts his operation did not give the desired results and the island remained basically deserted. Let's get to the point: can you visit Gorgona? On the Island of Gorgona visits are permitted but, being the seat of a prison, there are limitations. The visit is permitted only on certain days of the week for a maximum number of tourists. Would you like to know how to get to Gorgona? Simple, ferries to the island of Gorgona are those running services between Livorno, Capraia and Elba. Once you arrive in the vicinity of Gorgona, you will be picked up by a patrol boat that will take you to Cala Maestra Gorgona: don't worry, they will not take you to jail! They will instead take you on a guided tour of the Gorgona National Park and its most beautiful spots: you will reach Cala Scirocco and Cala Martina and go high on the mountains from where you can observe the pirouettes of the numerous birds that live in Gorgona. You are only allowed on the island if you are older than twelve. So, if you have younger children, unfortunately you'll have to give up, at least until they are a bit older! Swimming is not allowed on most Gorgona island beaches, but there are plans to lift the ban, at least on some of them. For diving, instead, there is still a long road. Still, try to find out more.

If you like the sea, the one with wild waves, not just with gentle frothing and frilling, choose one of these islands for your Tuscan islands Holidays. Whether for a weekend or even for a day trip, you will have the chance to be surrounded by beautiful, unspoiled nature. Let the scenery overwhelm your mind... and you will never want to leave! So, dear modern Countess and Count of Montecristo, are you ready for an adventure?

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