The engine rumbled as the ship backed away from the dock slowly, as if trying to quietly escape. It aimed its bow away from Marina di Campo bay and toward a still invisible line on the horizon.
I was going to Pianosa Island, an isolated island just 14 km from Isola d’Elba, the largest and most popular of the Tuscan islands.
As the ship churned closer, the thin line of land grew more visible, if not much higher. Pianosa is the lowest island of the Tuscan archipelago, rising just 29 meters above sea level. In fact, it’s the extreme flatness of the island that gives it its name – piano meaning flat in Italian.
The water changed from the dark blue of the deep sea to a turquoise so transparent it could have been the Caribbean. I watched fish flitting under the surface of the water, examined large swatches of rocks and sea grass on the sea floor while the boat pulled into the dock.
The only visible beach had just a scattering of bodies tanning, snorkeling or playing in the shallow rock pools. Shockingly calm compared to the crowded beaches of Elba. Beyond the beach the coastline was made up of rock cliffs topped with different brush and shrubs, tanned brown in every direction.
Pianosa is often overlooked in favor of its bigger sisters Elba or Giglio. While boatloads of tourists from the mainland fill the beaches of the islands, Pianosa sits largely untouched. One of the seven pearls that makes up the Tuscan Archipelago, Pianosa is the one of the most private: It was inaccessible until the island’s long-time prison closed in 1998.
Originally, Pianosa Island was used as an agricultural penal colony. The criminals sent to the island were forced to work in the fields. In the ‘70s it was upgraded to a maximum-security prison and held mafiosi and other criminals until it was finally closed. The mafiosi had to work in the fields as well.
It’s a strange contrast, the sadness and depression of a prison, of a complete lack of freedom, against the paradisiacal backdrop of Pianosa.
Using islands as prisons is nothing new. Many of the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago served at one time or another as a place of exile, a “home” for people who had to or wanted to be away.
Montecristo, the island made famous by the popular book, The Count of Monte Cristo, housed a thriving community of monks until the sixteenth century. Though a voluntary exile is undoubtedly more enjoyable, the monks still lived in nearly complete seclusion for decades.
Then, of course, there’s Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile on Elba Island in 1814, though it doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. During his time on the island he served as ruler of its roughly 12,000 inhabitants, initiating reforms that greatly improved island infrastructure and society. He also built two impressive villas, Villa dei Mulini and Villa Napoleonica di San Martino, splitting his time between each. Though his banishment to the island was plush as far as expulsions go, nevertheless he had no desire to stay.
Still, the island is more of a heaven-on-earth setting than an imposing maximum-security prison setting.
In fact, Pianosa is perhaps the only prison where the prisoners actually want to return. A program started in 2000 allows a handful of convicted criminals to work on the island as baristas, cooks, cleaners or even gift shop salesmen during their sentence.
In the tiny beach diner a convict named Giuseppe sold me a bottle of water as our guide stood in front of him to cheerfully explain to us the prison-worker system. The crimes of each criminal are undisclosed and at night they stay in special rooms near the small 12-room hotel on the island, a far cry from the days of prison barracks and forced labor in the dusty fields.
Today Pianosa is under the protection of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano for its environmental value and only 250 visitors are allowed daily.
It seems that just as with any paradise, only few are allowed entrance.
The Park protects the land and waters of all seven islands, each unique for its climate, history and flora and fauna. It protects and safeguards the territory, both the nature and culture, and works to educate visitors and local populations alike to raise environmental sensitiveness. In fact, it was the first great marine park in Italy and remains the largest protected marine area in Europe.
Under the regulations of the Parco Nazionale people can only visit the island through guided environmental excursions such as snorkeling, a nature walk or a tour by bike or bus. The price ranges from 15 euro to about 30 depending on the tour and each is, by rule, one guide for 25 people. Those who wish to simply sunbathe and swim are allowed only at the Cala Giovanna beach, immediately to the right of the port.
We enjoyed a snorkeling tour in a nearby cove and a bike tour through fields of yellow Limonium, a wild yellow sea lavender that grows nearly exclusively on the island. When the brush along the cliff opened up we stopped for pictures, our guide explaining each medicinal and alimentary purpose of the plants, the history of the island as we looked out across the sea, Montecristo in that direction, Elba in the other.
Pianosa is no longer known for its suffering, but for its beauty and history. It’s perhaps the only prison you’d want to escape to and not from, yet it’s precisely because of the prison that this is true. All the years of relative isolation protected the island’s fragile ecosystem from the damaging effects of people and infrastructure.
Now, with no agricultural activity and even less people, the flora of the island has recolonized the island to its pre-prison state, back into a paradise on earth.
How to Get There
Because of the protection placed on the island, visits are only available through a travel agency.
The Toremar ferry is available on Tuesdays year round from Rio Marina in Livorno
The Aquavision ferry is available from Marina di Campo in Elba Island