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Pianosa: Between Dream and Reality

The “Inaccessible” Island

The islands of the Tuscan Archipelago are a perfect encounter between dream and reality: half of them are almost inaccessible, which makes them highly desirable.

The position and conformation must have inspired the prisoner’s soul since four (out of seven) have had the function of exile or prison over the centuries.

In my insane passion for the inaccessible islands of the Tuscan Archipelago, I cut them into pieces: every year a new piece to discover.

This year I gave myself Pianosa, the former prison island, an unspoiled paradise that can only be visited with authorized guides.

I always imagined that the Tuscan islands which carry a woman’s name, Gorgona, Capraia, Elba and Pianosa, were somehow mysteriously connected. According to the myth, the origin of these islands, nicknamed the seven pearls of Venus, is linked to a jewel that fell from the neck of the goddess of beauty and love.

I arrive in Pianosa after an awakening at dawn, taking the deserted road by car to Piombino and crossing the sea crammed into a ferry with other onlookers.  On the way, in Elba, the ferry loads dozens of holidaymakers with umbrellas, towels, food and water. There are a lot of passengers; the Park has just increased the allowable number of daily visitors to 450 amid much controversy and understandable concerns for the ecosystem. Finally, after a stormy crossing of wind and waves, we land in the flat Pianosa, the ancient Planasia.

Here everything is fragile and protected, the species of fish are still many and free, they come close because they do not feel the threat. Swimming in this transparent and full of life water is an unexpected joy.

Almost all holidaymakers stop in the Caribbean Cala Giovanna, a magnificent bay, a long strip of fine white sand that welcomes us when the ferry arrives and the only beach on the island where you can stop freely, swim and sunbathe. In fact, you can very well land in this wonder and stop for a day at sea – actually an earthly paradise to lie in the sun, dive in search of fish, let the children play and enjoy all the possible shades of blue that combine sea and sky.

If you want to take a stroll, from Cala Giovanna you can enter the small town with its crumbling wonders; the old houses, the Napoleonic harbor, the wild inlets, the architecture of the ancient penal colony; a disrupted ensemble of ancient buildings and reinforced concrete.

We, on the other hand, have given ourselves a trek with one of the authorized guides. We keep the bath in paradise for the end of the day, when we will be beautifully cooked (read: exhausted) by the tour.

Of course, it’s early August, there is the sirocco and sub-Saharan temperatures that come with it, summer has done its job and we must enjoy the warmth and sun as we set out to discover scents, stones and unspoiled nature.

Fortunately, the maximum altitude here is 29 meters above sea level and the walk will be bumpy but not impossible. It may seem like a small detail but if you are a couch cat it is not, I assure you.

As soon as we abandon those whole came for marine relaxation Pianosa begins its magical unveiling.

Valentina, our excursion guide, is prepared and engaging, passionate about botany and all details. It is a pleasure to listen to her tell of stratifications, both human and rock, as she helps us to survive the scorching gusts of the hellish wind.

From a geological point of view Pianosa is a beautiful stratification that offers surprising games of rocks and plenty of shells and fossils on which we continually stumble.

Glacial Pianosa was densely inhabited and later was a natural port, a rest stop for the Mediterranean routes, as revealed by the artifacts and numerous caves which were shelter for the living and burial for the dead.

We dream while Valentina tells us of magnificent residences, Roman ports and production sites and of a marine archeology mission that has recently found an expanse of perfectly preserved and almost all intact Roman amphorae, marble and bricks.

The Roman remains are clearly visible and allow you to see and imagine life on the island. The Villa of Agrippa, unwanted grandson of Emperor Augustus who was exiled to Pianosa for homosexuality and debauchery, is the perfect location for lounging and getting lost in the blue. The Villa has a small theater, spas and swimming pools, plenty of marble, marine-themed decorations and mosaic floors, overlooking the sea and the Elbe.

The Romans also built an astonishing system of catacombs (a tour here is a must), three and a half hectares of tunnels and tombs, a dense network of galleries and enormous openings for meetings and celebrations of religious rites, which went on until Christian era.

The penal colony in Pianosa on the other hand, was formally established in 1856; Napoleon previously took possession of the island and used it as a punitive territory for undisciplined soldiers in 1814 . Pianosa remained a prison for a couple of centuries (President Sandro Pertini was detained here). It was a maximum security prison until 1998, the prison of the Red Brigades and terrorist organizations. After the Falcone and Borsellino attacks it was also charged with particularly dangerous mafia inmates until 2011, when it was closed forever.

Today the prison structure is abandoned and dilapidated. The reinforced concrete wall that surrounds the ghost town divides visitors from the beautiful Cala Giovanna and the ruins of Agrippa’s villa, a slap in the face of beauty.

Fortunately, nature is so luxuriant and the color of the sea so unsettling that the sadness of this cumbersome industrial archeology passes immediately.

The few inmates in semi-free Porto Azzurro Prison House take incredible care, together with some cooperatives, of the maintenance of the buildings, cultivation of the fields, vegetable gardens and management of both the Brunello restaurant and Milena Hotel (ten rooms created inside the nineteenth-century residence of the director of the Penal Colony).

Porto Azzurro is a great example of an “inclusion” project, as is already the case in Gorgona where prisoners and prison police manage the small food bar in town together. 

In both Gorgona and Pianosa, it’s worthwhile to ask, who is doing the detaining and who is being detained?

And here too, as in Gorgona, the silence, the smells and the colors are amazing.

But how do you describe the scent of myrtle, rosemary and juniper that suddenly assails you or the vertigo of beauty that makes you waver when, after turning a curve, behind the bushes, a heavenly cove of sedimentary rock that looks like a pan of sugar opens up?

How do you tell the thrill of running stealthily in the large prison garden to see a huge and very rare specimen of Ephedra Foeminea, a plant that looks like Mafalda, has existed for 130 million years, was the food of dinosaurs and synchronizes its pollination with a full moon?

How do you tell the lacerating and nocturnal sound of the Berte, rare visually impaired birds that manage to find their nest and identify fishing areas through the sense of smell?

Or the rare peregrine falcon that nests here on inaccessible cliffs and rocky ridges?

How do you tell about the prateria di posidonia spared by fishing or the groupers, lobsters, sea bream, snapper and moray eels that can be seen swimming?

Or the small and slender Corsican Gull that has stable colonies here and shares the islets of La Scarpa and La Scola with the other birds?

Or, finally, the very small spontaneous orchids that bloom in spring, 17 species including the Marmorata, a beautiful endemic species that exists only here?

Perhaps the recommendation that one hears constantly on the way over, “have respect for this paradise”, is the best comment that can be made about Pianosa.

It will be difficult to forget the amazement of blue and green, water and rocks, the scents of flowers and shrubs, the fossils at every step and the fish swimming undisturbed among the Roman ruins.

And our day, a perfect fusion of dream and reality, a kind of timeless journey, magically ends with a school of dolphins swimming and playing undisturbed around the ferry: there could not have been a better goodbye.