Hiking, snorkelling, birdwatching, biking: these days you can walk, go for a bike ride. Take in the most authentic scents of the Mediterranean and eat locally produced food on the former prison islands in the Tuscan Archipelago.
Gorgona, Capraia, Montecristo and Pianosa are still not fully accessible to tourists. In some cases, this is because the prisons are still in operation, but it’s also mostly due to the fact that these islands are delicate oases of nature, like the island of Montecristo, which remains well-preserved thanks to strictly limited access to visitors.
Read on for our recommended itinerary through some of these islands: Gorgona, the smallest, immersed in crystal-clear waters off the coast of Livorno and home to a prison farm; Pianosa, a flat sheet of land surrounded by sea that once hosted the oldest of all the prisons in the archipelago, today one of the best-preserved examples of the Mediterranean ecosystem, with crystalline sea bottoms, cliffs and plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities both on foot and by bike; and Isola d’Elba, the largest island in the archipelago and Napoleon’s unique choice for his exile and imprisonment: the frigate HMS Undaunted delivered him to Portoferraio on May 4th, 1814.
We depart for the island first thing in the morning from Livorno, which soon appears on the horizon after a short journey of just over an hour. Gorgona is still a prison headquarters, so the visit is only available in groups and visitors can’t leave the main path. Cameras and smartphones are not allowed, so officials will hold onto them during the visit. Apart from these small restrictions, Gorgona offers the tranquillity and silence that can be expected on an island immersed in the colours and scents of the Mediterranean.
The itinerary usually includes a walk on the white roads, through the residential area and in the tranquillity of the pine groves and oak tree forests. You can eat a lunch of locally produced (0 km) products prepared by the inmates and offered at the “Prison Picnic,” served at wooden tables under the shade of the oak trees. In the afternoon, you’ll visit the Old Tower, built by the Pisans, the Church of San Gorgonio and Maestra Bay. In the summer, you can go swimming in the clear waters of the marina before returning to Livorno.
To organize a visit, you ned to reserve a spot at the Livorno Tourist Office: comune.livorno.it
After Livorno, we’ll go by car to Piombino, where we’ll catch the ferry to Portoferraio. We’ll dedicate the morning to a quick excursion on the Enfola Promontory, an itinerary that offers panoramic views of the coast and immerses you in the scents of the Mediterranean scrub.
The route begins amongst the sandy white beaches of Scaglieri and Forno, before moving to Punta Penisola, surrounded by a dense forest of oak trees, typical of the Elban scrub, and ending at the Gulf of Viticcio and the large piazza on the Enfola Promontory, where you’ll find a historic tuna-fishing net. After this walk, we’ll return to town and in the afternoon, visit some places linked to Napoleon: the Town Hall, once the bakery that made bread for the Cosimo I’s garrison and Napoleon’s two residences, Villa dei Mulini, with its garden overlooking the sea, and Villa San Martino, his summer residence.
The walk continues through the streets of the historic centre, with its fish markets and small shops. We recommend stopping for an aperitivo to taste one of Elba’s DOC wines.
We’ll spend the night in Portoferrio and in the morning, we’ll head to Marina di Campo, where a ferry will take us to Pianosa.
From Marina di Campo, we’ll cross the stretch of sea that separates Elba from Pianosa, where we’ll arrive in about an hour. From the small port, it’s an easy walk along the coast as we explore the nature and history of the island and its penal colony. Next is a visit to the ruins of the villa of Agrippa Postumo, Emperor Augustus’s grandson, who was exiled to the island following a political move that favoured Tiberius’s ascent to the throne.
After the villa, another set of ruins awaits us: the so-called Casa del Marchese, or Marquis’s House, located – not by coincidence – at the point furthest from the port. This is where inmates suffering from tuberculosis were sent to recover.
One of the most beautiful coves on the island is found nearby. As we wait for the ferry that will take us back to Elba, let’s take a walk through the ghost town and its streets named after figures tied to the fight against the mafia. Access to Pianosa is limited to 330 people per day. Activities by bike and on foot as well as snorkelling in the clear, blue waters of the small bays can be organized for visitors.