Gorgona: the secret island of the Tuscan Archipelago
The Tuscan archipelago with its ‘Caribbean beaches’, its mild climate and the many evocative views it offers us, also hides some secrets that only few know, especially those coming from afar.
Looking at the horizon from Monte Pisano peaks you will surely see the island of Gorgona in the distance and, on the clearest days, you will glimpse it along with its bigger sister, the Island of Capraia, and a portion of Corsica in the distance.
Although pretty close to the coast, you will not find a daily ferry that reaches Gorgona island. You’re maybe looking for accommodation to spend your holidays in one of the islands of Tuscan Archipelagus and you’ll find offers for Elba or Capraia islands or Pianosa perhaps, but Gorgona will not be mentioned: what will be the reason?
You may think that mass tourism has not arrived yet on the coves and beaches of this mysterious island in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea and, having boarded a private boat, you could try and get closer to the island, but you would be immediately invited to go away.
The archipelago has another island unreachable on your own: Montecristo, we know the island is not inhabited and the ban exists in order to protect its extremely delicate natural environment.
For Gorgona the situation is quite different ….. it isn’t a desert island, there are permanent residents, others are seasonal, and moreover there are farms, an important vineyard, livestock and farmlands. Every morning in Gorgona the tractor engines are turned on, the farm animals wake up and are cared for, people wear their coveralls and start doing their jobs, someone at the grocery, others in the fields or along the precious rows of vines or at the buildings maintenance. Boats leave from Gorgona loaded with products from the island, nevertheless no one can come close …
Maybe you already knew it, maybe you guessed it, but the time has come to reveal the secret of the island …
Gorgona is the last prison island in Europe. Calling it a prison might seem weird: you can find cells here as well, but instead of fences made of steel and barbed wire there are cliffs and crystal clear waters. The inmates here do not walk in line heads down, they drive tractors, manage building sites and take care of the maintenance of the island with a lot of passion.
The island has not always been a penal colony: its history dates back to the origins of humanity as proved by rests of the Neolithic period and then moving on to more recent times there are evidence of Greek settlements. As in the case of Pianosa, in the old times sailors used Gorgona as a landing place for the supply of drinking water.
There are traces of Etruscan and finally Roman presence as testified by the rests of a Roman Villa visible on the eastern side of the island. After the Roman period, Gorgona remained uninhabited until the Benedictine monks arrived around 1000 AD and then the Cistercian monks who populated the island throughout the Middle Ages. Thereafter Gorgona has been contested between Pisa and Genoa maritime republics and then subjected to Florence at the time of the Medici Family in 1400. After the annexation to the kingdom of Italy in 1896 Gorgona became the agricultural penal colony we know today.
We could not miss such a mysterious island, just a few steps from the Terre di Pisa and from Monte Pisano, that’s why we decided to visit it.
Let’s find out with a guided tour
As previously told you this island is not reachable for tourist purposes and this is partly true, but participating to a guided tour and observing some rules such as leaving cell phones and cameras and after checking your criminal record by the prison administration, this is possible.
After an early wake up to reach the Porto Mediceo in Livorno together with the guides of Azimut-Treks we embark on a ferry that takes us to the small port of Gorgona Scalo in about two hours of navigation
In our case, the navigation was very quiet and already after the first hour, observing the horizon, the island began to get closer and closer. Shortly before arrival at the port, the crew collected cell phones and cameras, so if you were waiting to see photos of cells, inmates and the town of Gorgona Scalo we are sorry but we will not be able to satisfy you; in fact, everything will be up to your imagination and we rely on our ability to tell what we have seen, being able to make you imagine and virtually experience this enchanted place. At the same time, however, you will find photos of some beautiful cliffs and other views of the island sent to us by the guides and which we like sharing to let you appreciate this unique island of the Tuscan Archipelago.
As the boat approaches the port, the sentry box, the houses and the whole small town of Gorgona Scalo become clearer. The bright colors of the houses, the scent of the Mediterranean scrub typical of the islands and the chirping of the seagulls begin to compose the background that will accompany us throughout the day. Once off the boat, some inmates are arranging the walls of the sentry box while someone with a tractor is transporting food and pet food.
The rule is very clear: “do not communicate in any way with prisoners” and even if it is difficult not to respond to greetings, hints of a smile or simply a ‘ciao’, we decide that the best thing to do is to respect this directive, even unwillingly. The desire to talk with those who experience the island every day is great but we admire the well-established gears of a prison system that is different from the ordinary.
After leaving the seaside, we go up some stairs through the cute alleys of the village until we reach what is defined as the ‘most beautiful terrace in Tuscany’: it is very difficult to state so, in fact Tuscany is full of terraces with breathtaking views, but it certainly captivates us with the 360° panorama amidst the blue of the sea.
Time for a short break at the shop and then we start our beautiful ring walking around the island. We go up along the dirt road that lead us to the north side, Cala Maestra, after crossing the fields and the vineyard that gives birth to the highly prized “Gorgona” wine. Alternating stretches of pine forest and exposed distances overlooking the Apuan Alps as a border to the horizon, we reach the viewpoint of the Cala named from the Mistral wind, which at certain times of the year dominates it strongly, and here we allow ourselves a well-deserved break with this view for which any attempt of description would not be enough.
When the time has come to leave this scenic spot, we begin walking to the center of the island where the Torre Vecchia rises on its rocky back. Along the way, still characterized by sections of pine forest and others exposed, we meet the old cemetery: a sacred place bordered by a high wall consumed by time and salt, hides the tombstones of the many “Gorgonesi” who have spent their lives on this wild island over the years. A feeling of tranquility fells down on us, only the rustle of the wind in the trees interrupts the silence and peace of this small, almost forgotten and still meaningful holy-field.
Leaving the cemetery and reaching the tower we are enchanted by its grandeur. A cantilevered construction on the rock that maintains its charm despite the state of abandonment, Built in the thirteenth century by the Pisa Republic it played an important role in protecting its borders for years . Its strategic position permitted to control a large part of the Corsica channel and to warn in time the borders protection system by means of smoke or light signals.
It’s time for lunch “with a view”
The tower kept carrying out its defensive functions during the period of Florentine domination until it became part of the prison in 1800.
Underneath the tower, surrounded by the sea and in the shadow of the pines, the time has come to give us a unique lunch break before leaving to the highest point of the island and finally to the Garibaldi’s Tower, where we will visit the agricultural section. of the penal colony.
So we set out and after 10 minutes walking we reach the highest point of the island where there is a radio / radar station from which we can admire the 360° island panorama. Again, trying to describe what you can see from here, especially on clear days, would be very difficult: we were just amazed. Below the island and its buildings, looking east the Tuscan coast and the Apuan Alps at the horizon, the Island of Elba to the south, Corsica and Capraia to the west … A breathtaking viewpoint hanging over the blue sea.
Reluctantly we leave this place to go down again towards the town, getting pretty close to ‘section 41Bis’, the hard prison. A detached and totally isolated section, now disused, where were held inmated involved with ‘mafia’ crimes. Today horses and cattle live in the area of this section: isolation is not a punishment, only a privilege that allows them to live in nature peacefully.
We keep walking down to the agricultural colony where the well-kept stables house dairy cows, sheep and poultry. The dairy and the cellar where cheeses and wine are produced are a little further down and we can follow the “scent of Bacchus” that after so many years pervaded this portion of the island.
Let’s go back to Livorno
Going down a little further we reach the Garibaldi’s Tower -named by the south wind that at certain times of the year blows strongly towards the island – and then return to the village and visit the few remains of the Roman Villa that we mentioned at the beginning.
A black and white mosaic on the floor, the walls that divided the rooms and the remains of fountains and artifacts make us jump for a moment back to the Roman Era when this place for ‘Otium’ was in all its splendor.
After admiring the remains of the Villa we return for a short break on the terrace and wait for the ferry departure time, and the feeling is to go back enrichedm, knowing that that black dot on the horizon that we see every day from Monte Pisano is not just an island but a unique place in Europe where some people who have made a mistake are given a chance in a different way. We are not here to judge whether this is right or wrong, but we can certainly say that Gorgona is a unique and wonderful island to visit at least once in a lifetime.
How to visit this island?
During the year, guided tours are organized on the island departing from the Medici Port of Livorno. We visited the island with the guides of Azimut-Treks who thought of everything, from access to the park, to the ferry to the management of the names to be sent to the police headquarters to request the authorization to visit. In addition to the great organization we were fascinated by the beauty of the island but also by the great professionalism in knowing how to tell anecdotes and history of what we encountered along the way.
Find all the information to visit the island on the Azimut-Treks official website