Travel /
Toscana

The Italian Island of Gorgona

“It is difficult to describe the almost mystical, suspended atmosphere that reigns supreme on the island of Gorgona.”

As soon as the boat from Livorno enters the small harbour, the sense of being in a place outside time, a place that belongs to no era and yet to all, takes hold. The island seems to have a woman’s profile from the Tuscan coast and, like a siren, beckons sailors and dreamers. It appears lush and soft, perfect for exploring and falling in love with. Be careful, however, because Gorgona is the last penal colony in Europe, thus access is only permitted to small organised groups and at the discretion of the prison police. 

It is the smallest, greenest, and wildest of the islands in the Tuscan Archipelago National Park. Still, perhaps it is also the most special because in the vineyards and cultivated fields of the small fishing village the forbidden coexists with integration and the desire for redemption. 

Prisoners and residents coexist in a profound harmony that makes this island a perfect example of integration. In the large yellow house above the harbour there is the bar and canteen with its large terrace overlooking the sea is the centre of the village. This is where people, whether inmates or residents depending on time of day, meet to watch football matches, play pool, have a coffee, or buy cigarettes. 

The small cemetery, almost hidden in the woods, is enclosed within four old walls. It tells the story of generations and generations of inhabitants who are buried here, whose surnames seem to overlap, and whose ties dissipate over time. Then there is the Medicean Tower, in the upper part of the village, whose remains still bear the signs of the extraordinary era in which it was built; and the Rocca Vecchia, on the western side, which like a guardian observes the sea from the Pisan era in which it was built. To fill your eyes with the sea, head for Cala Maestra. Blue poetry.

We forget that here the inmates are crucial; some of them serve coffee behind the bar or that they continue to cultivate the vines planted by Carthusian monks in the 1700s making one of Italy’s most expensive and sought-after white wines, Gorgona. Nature, history, and its population are tangled on Gorgona Island: rosemary permeates every breath of wind, the Medici towers still stand at the island’s summit, and an ancient Roman villa, Villa Margherita, now houses an open-air prison. And it is precisely the fact that it has long been forbidden to go near its shores (the prison has been there since 1869) that has preserved its coastline and vegetation. Today, it is still a hidden and little-known paradise (remember: to visit it, you must book in advance), a nature reserve capable of welcoming and allowing ancient plants, wild and farmed animals, human beings either ready for a new life or linked to this land for generations and generations to live in harmony.