My boyfriend Cesare is a self-confessed sea addict. He can’t get enough: sun, sand, salt on the skin, boats, bays or fishing villages. Anything sea related, remotely marine and he’s hooked. The winter months can often see Cesare rather sad and forlorn, pining over image after image of the salt water confection that Instagram’s search section has wisely prioritised for him, or scrolling through Netflix’s never-ending film selection, perking up when a suitably seafaring option arises. On one such occasion, on a particularly dreary February evening of this year, the maritime movie of choice was ‘The Count of Montecristo’; an adaption of Dumas’ notorious novel of 1844. The treacherous tale of a young and innocent man flung into a world of deceit and despair, forced to sail storm-ridden seas and join forces with pirates and villains alike, had me gripping on to my pillow for dear life. I looked over at Cesare, in the hopes that an equal face of horror would give me some consolation. But quite to the contrary there he was, sat bolt upright, a grin emerging and a twinkle to his eye. This could mean one thing and one thing only: my boyfriend’s summer juices were rousing within; plans were stirring and he had just one destination in mind.
I have spent four glorious Italian summers with Cesare and his infatuation for the country’s surrounding waters has led me to explore some of Italy’s most magical destinations; in main its many islands dotted as hidden gems amid the bordering Mediterranean and Adriatic and each of which holding its own unique quality. While wild Sardinia brags the most beautiful beaches, Ponza, which is located twenty miles off mainland Mount Circeo, boasts an array of tiny rainbow houses that bring cheer to the soul. Capri, with its steep walk into the town centre, offers views like no other and the finest and freshest cuisine to boot. Far off the Sicilian coast, Panarea was made for parties’ and the neighbouring Stromboli, an active volcano, bears an unsettling energy arising from its bubbling red lava core. Yet I had never dreamt that the heavily protected Island of Montecristo, so shrouded in mystery and scarcely permitted to visit, would make its way onto my list. But with thanks to Cesare’s skilful perseverance, prompted I may add by a certain 19th century fictitious Count, an appointment to visit the island was affirmed and we set off on August 10th to tour its territory
We departed for Montecristo at the crack of dawn, sailing from the Tuscan beach-laden peninsula of Monte Argentario that is tied to the mainland by two ropes of land. The trip in itself was a one-hour wonder; the sky filled with shades of orange and pink and a light layer of fog only enhanced the dreamlike conditions. As we approached Montecristo, it too was just waking, and a blanket of clouds was lifting itself slowly to reveal the island’s rugged structure of craggy peaks and granite cliffs. The sight was formidable and immediately recalled stormy scenes of Dumas’ Dantes’ perilous struggle to stay ashore. Thus, I was rather disillusioned when we arrived at the islands only harbour, Cala Maestra, where any concept of danger would be instantaneously submerged under the picturesque scene of static turquoise waters swashing onto a deserted white sand beach, a distant winding path leading up to a solitary red bricked house and a mountainous backdrop that was surprisingly rich in vegetation. To cap it all, as we tied the boat up against the harbour’s solitary buoy, hundreds of flying fish splashed in and out of the water as I’d never seen before. With next to no human intruders, it was clear that the sea-creatures of Montecristo had full freedom to reign in their domains.
Two straight-backed female carabinieri (Italian police officers), bearing guns and donned in full official attire, were waiting for us at the pier. Their rather hostile appearance however was not matched in their temperaments and they greeted us with warm smiles and friendly ‘ciaos’, before politely informing us that by no means was the water to be swam in or even touched. A policy, which had been put in place in 1971 when Montecristo was made a state national reserve and not, they assured us, in any way linked to the medieval belief that the once monk-inhabited island possessed holy water of miraculous powers. The carabinieri were to be our tour guides for the day and after a brief ID verification and the filling in of various documents, we began our walk up the winding path as the officers filled us in on the island’s fascinating history.
They told us of the island’s Etruscan beginning whose ancient people were first to put foot on the land and exploited its forests of oak trees for fuel. They spoke of the 5th century Saint Mamilian, who in escaping from the King of Vandals, hid in one of the island’s caves and how two centuries later the Benedictine monks built a chapel in his name on the very same spot he had found refuge. The Monastery of St Mamilian and its monks lived in peace on the island for the following eight hundred years until its invasion by the Ottoman Turks, who stormed their home, gathered them up and forced the holy men to slavery. Three centuries later the ownership of Montecristo was thrust from the land-grabbing hands of Napoleon’s empire, to the dukes of Tuscany, on to an eccentric Englishman of the name George Taylor Watson and finally to the Crown Prince of Savoy, who from 1899 established the island as royal hunting ground.
The officers’ story was on occasion interrupted to allow the crossing of one of the islands many goats, that remain the only wild breeding species of their kind left in Italy today. Black-bearded and beady eyed, these rather adorable fellows are in fact a nuisance for Montecristo conservationists as they continuously munch on the island’s rare plant species. Our tour continuing, we were led into gardens, wired off from any bleating intruder and brim full of handsomely exotic shrubs; bright pink blossoms, fuzzy little yellow ones, some that smelt deliciously of lemon and others that despite their daisy-like appearance were oddly pungent of curry. The purple flowered Vitex Agnus-Cactus prompted a chuckle from one of the police officers as she explained that the plant’s supposed chaste properties had the medieval monks bringing its leaves to bed with them in the hope they would ward off any indecent dreams. Tempted to pocket a few branches to sneak under Cesare’s pillow, I abandoned the plan quickly as the carabinieri began to clap their hands together to scare off an approaching viper and without hesitation we hurried onto explore our final destination; the Royal Villa.
As we sailed off from Montecristo, our boat may not have been laden with chests of jewels and fat gold coins as was Dantes’, but our minds were alive with adventure and filled with the treasures that the day had stored in us. With a quick glance back to ensure the police officers were nicely out of sight, I plunged my hands over deck, taking with me a handful of the forbidden blues. Rebellious, I know but after all I’m the girlfriend of a self-confessed sea addict, not a saint!