Pianosa: between nature and detention
What links an island surrounded by turquoise waters in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea and an impregnable fortress once occupied by Italy’s worst criminals?
We are on Pianosa, an island in theTuscan Archipelago a few kilometers south of Elba Island. Of all the islands in the Archipelago, just as its name implies, Pianosa has a maximum elevation of 29 m.a.s.l. as all of its emerged land is mostly flat. An island that carries with it millennia of history-just think that traces dating back to the Upper Paleolithic have been found on Pianosa, that there is a dense network of catacombs, and that even Napoleon Bonaparte lived on Pianosa for quite some time, leaving traces of his past still appreciable today. Pianosa: between nature and detention
Pianosa unlike Gorgona and Montecristo where access is totally prohibited except for organized tours with limited places, can be reached independently by scheduled or charter ferries connecting the island to Elba and the port of Piombino. The island is divided into two well-defined areas: The open-access village that occupies a very small part of Pianosa and the former prison that covers the rest of the emerged area. Just the access to the former prison area, which is still frequented by inmates of the Porto Azzurro prison on Elba Island, is open for visits but only with tours organized by guides authorized by the Park.
Please note: Pianosa is a very special island whose care and preservation over time is also the responsibility of those who visit it. The almost totally abandoned village can be visited independently but access to structures even if open, removal of property even if abandoned and weathered, and damage in general is prohibited both by law and by moral duty to the island’s history
How to book a visit
Booking a visit to Pianosa has become increasingly easy over the years, in fact many guides organize weekend departures from Piombino with guided walking tours along itineraries varying in length and difficulty suitable for young and old. We visited Pianosa with guides from Azimut Treks who we feel we can recommend for their professionalism, courtesy and knowledge of the area. In fact, all you have to do is choose the date, make a reservation and board the ferry, and they will take care of the rest, who will know how to give you an unexpected day in a real unexpected natural paradise.
Now…Let’s talk about the island
The island as mentioned earlier is divided into two areas, one is that of the village to this day almost totally uninhabited but where the Association for the Defense of Pianosa has always fought for the enhancement of this unique and once highly populated place. In the village we find, for example, the ancient harbor, Fort Teglia: wanted by Napoleon Bonaparte as a barracks at the time impregnable, the house of the Agronomist today totally renovated, TheMilena hotel the only accommodation facility on the island and the large refreshment point flanked by the island’s visitor center. Many other structures characterize the village, which is undoubtedly worth a solo visit to soak in the silence of the island, “disturbed” only by the waves crashing on the cliffs and the chirping of birds.
A clear line between good and evil
The island of Pianosa in its more modern past was the site of a large prison that for some time also housed the maximum security section known as 41-bis. A very common past for the islands of the archipelago, suffice it to say that the island of Gorgona still serves as a house of detention and that in a small part Pianosa offers to Inmates from other institutions the opportunity to work and serve their sentences in an alternative way to traditional Italian prisons. (An article about our visit to Gorgona is available here.)
But how to divide a country inhabited by ordinary citizens and a prison populated by people who are serving sentences even for very serious crimes?
The Pianosa prison was quite different from traditional prisons; it did not consist of a single concrete building surrounded by barbed wire but was, and still is to some extent, spread over the island’s territory. The maximum-security sections, the ordinary-regime cells, the officers’ homes, the church and all the agricultural areas used by prisoners within a short distance of the school, the bar, and the civilians’ homes.
Beyond the walls of Pianosa
A long concrete perimeter wall built in the 1970s bisects the island, not quite equally in fact thearea left to civilians covers only a small portion. A questionable-looking concrete wall that for years demarcated the boundary between freedom and detention, between good and evil. Structural improvement of the ancient prison walls still visible today a few meters from the more modern enclosure ordered by General Dalla Chiesa.
A clear line that as anticipated divided and still divides the civilian from the detainee but within it has a “promiscuous” area where the two populations could in a very protected way share a very important moment: mass. In fact, the church on Pianosa was the only place where these two populations went to meet, not mixing but sharing a common belief.
Upon entering the prison everything changes, a mix of modern and less modern structures imposes itself along the track leading to the northern sector of the island with buildings that are often abandoned and left to decay but at the same time give an immediate picture of what life was like inside the prison. Cells now open and assaulted by rust, abandoned manufacturing facilities and offices that nature is slowly reclaiming give way to the island’s great flat expanse along a road that like a spine bisects Pianosa. It only takes a few kilometers to find the Pollai area, an area with ancient origins but at the same time still well maintained today where inmates grow vegetables and fruits in complete autonomy. Once chicken coops, now schematically laid out and richly colored where those who have made mistakes have the opportunity to contribute their labor giving birth to excellent quality fruits and vegetables.
A fortress within a fortress
Leaving the Pollai, the spine of Pianosa running north grants a quick and fleeting view of what was once a real fortress within a fortress itself surrounded by the sea. This is the 41-bis section called the “Agrippa Section.” Here there were no vegetable gardens, sentence discounts or outdoor living. 41-bis inmates were doing hard time. In solitary confinement, away from everything and everyone, to serve long or indefinitely long sentences because of mafia or terrorist backgrounds. Today, the Agrippa section is completely abandoned and visitation is unfortunately not allowed but just its presence in the distance like a cathedral in the desert makes one realize how important it was for that era to segregate those inside serving a sentence from any outside influence.
Between nature and history
The visit to Pianosa continues. There are many structures along the route such as the former sanatorium and its history, the Roman port, and the various watchtowers used during the Lead Years period to control the waters bordering the island and which still ensure that unauthorized access to the coast is prohibited. The country then, in addition to its most important buildings, hides little secrets fallen into oblivion as the ancient power plant which for decades has provided energy for prison activities, the lighthouse and the old port with the area for quarantine of livestock but also the Carabinieri barracks to date operational and a research center of the NRC. Visiting Pianosa is in our opinion something to do at least once in a lifetime especially for those living in Tuscany since as a place it can truly amaze. Its crystal-clear waters, history, views and all that characterizes this pearl in the Tyrrhenian Sea can truly make one fall in love who sets foot there.
Below are all the photos taken during our visits to Pianosa with descriptions of what we are showing you. Also open on the island on visiting days is the Museum with the entire history of Pianosa run by volunteers from the “Association for the Defense of Pianosa Island” You can also discover the dense network of Island catacombs and the park’s visitor center with opportunities to rent bikes, kayaks, and book carriage tours.
The sign of the Island Salt and Tobacco store that has been closed for many years now
The now renovated Post and Telegraph building and headquarters of the Association
North side of Pianosa Island with a view of Elba Island
Montecristo Island south of the island of Pianosa
Island pharmacy a few meters from the prison
The former power plant on Pianosa (today the island is connected by an underwater cable to Elba Island)
The island’s now-abandoned sports fields
One of the most modern sections of the prison
Watchtowers to control the perimeter of the island today still active but unmanned
Watchtower on the island’s land perimeter
Former sanatorium north of the island
Another view of the sanatorium north of the island of Pianosa
The Agronomist’s house today totally renovated
The lighthouse on the island of Pianosa
A well-maintained pergola within the gardens area
Gardens made from the former chicken coops of the prison house
Dwellings of the guards some still inhabited today
A typical street in the village of Pianosa
A portion of the dirt road that crosses the island
The interior of one of the detention sections photographed from the outside