The islands are situated a short distance off the coast of Tuscany between the Ligurian Sea and the Tyrrhenian Sea and there are several ports on the mainland that provide ferry trips for holiday makers. Elba and Montecristo are the best known of the islands internationally, but Elba, Giglio and Capraia have long been favourite tourist destinations for Italians. They are exceptionally beautiful and legend has it that they were a gift from the gods, formed as Venus dropped her necklace into the sea.
Visitors seeing the islands for the first time might well believe it!
Elba is the largest of the islands in the Tuscan Archipelago, and the third largest island in Italy, covering a total area of 224 square kilometres.
Located just 10 miles from the mainland, its mild climate, rugged and varied coastline, more than 70 beaches, crystal clear water and delicious food and wine, make it an extremely popular holiday destination. Those venturing inland are rewarded with fabulous walking trails, gently rolling hills and unspoilt countryside, a great variety of nature and wildlife as well as the splendid sight of Mount Capanne, towering to over 1,000 metres.
For many people the island of Elba will always be associated with Napoleon, if for no other reason than the famous English language palinrome: "Able was I ere I saw Elba."
Following the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, arriving at Portoferraio on May 3, 1814. In all, he spent about 10 months on the island, accompanied by a small guard of 600 men, and monitored by the patrols of the British Navy. He returned to France in February 1815 for the fateful 'Hundred Days', which ended with the battle of Waterloo.
Napoleon's garden - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
Visitors to Elba can visit the house in Portoferraio where Napoleon lived, now an interesting and evocative museum.
Giglio is the second largest of the Tuscan Islands, after Elba, with a total area of 22 square kilometres.
Giglio - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
It is 50 kilometres south of Elba and separated from the Argentario Promontory by a 16 kilometre stretch of water. The island offers the visitor a wonderful combination of sandy beaches, cliffs and coves, mountainous scenery and serene hiking paths through the unspoilt countryside with glorious views over the surrounding sea to the other islands, the Argentario Promontory and the Maremma beyond. It is also famous for the production of the amber-coloured Ansonaco wine.
There are three main areas worth a visit: Campese, on the west side of the island, features gloriously sandy beaches, crystal clear water and a delightful tower, the Torre Medicea, built in the 18th century by Cosimo I de' Medici.
Torre Medicea, Campese - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
The tower was originally separated from the bay and used to guard it against the frequent pirate attacks but now it is attached by a small causeway. The best beaches on Giglio are considered to be at Campese, centred around Faraglione Bay, but there are other popular beaches at Cannelle, Caldane and Arenella, each with their own charm.
Castello - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
The town of Castello is perched on a rocky hilltop at over 400 metres. It is in a stunning position in the centre of the island with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and the sea. Castello is only a short bus trip from Campese or from Giglio Port. Once within the medieval castle walls visitors will discover a labyrinth of enchanting alleys containing many attractive shops, bars and restaurants.
Giglio Port - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
The only port on the island of Giglio is 'Giglio Port', located on the east side of the island. It is here that the ferry arrives from Porto Santo Stefano, on the Argentario Promontory. You can still find traces of its origins as a thriving Roman port. Today it is a bustling, attractive place with many bars, restaurants and hotels close by. From here visitors can hire boats, take boat trips and find facilities for scuba diving, snorkling and fishing.
The island of Capraia lies between Gorgona in the north and Elba in the south. It has an area of 19 square kilometres, making it the third largest of the Tuscan Islands, after Elba and Giglio.
Capraia - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
Its coastline is dramatic with high, rugged cliffs broken up with isolated beaches and caves. Inland, the terrain is wild and unspoilt with many nature trails threading their way through the rich and varied countryside. Part of the island is mountainous, rising to 466 metres at its highest point.
Capraia has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Saracen pirates and the English admiral, Horatio Nelson over its colourful history but is probably better known for its anchovy fishery! The island is sparsely populated with the inhabitants centred on the port and nearby village. The rest of the island is rugged, unspoilt and full of wildlife. The sea surrounding Capraia is very popular with snorklers and scuba divers due to the clear waters and abundance of marine life. Although small, with limited accommodation, the island is a popular holiday destination so visitors wishing to visit in the summer months will need to book early!
The island of Pianosa is very flat (hence its name) reaching less than 30 metres at its highest point, it is mainly less than 20 metres above sea level.
Pianosa - Photo: Matteo Vinattieri
Like Gorgona, Pianosa was used as a penal colony for many years, most recently to house convicted mafiosi considered to be exceptionally dangerous. Inevitably, when the prison closed, this became something of a tourist attraction and up to 250 visitors a day are now allowed to visit the island under strict supervision.
Like many of the Tuscan Islands, Pianosa is a wildlife sanctuary and visitors are restricted. Pleasure boats and fishing vessels are not allowed to navigate within one mile of the coast without special permission.
Pianosa gained its place in history when the Roman emperor Augustus banished his gandson, Agrippa Postumus, to a villa on the island where he was later executed. The ruins of the villa are still visible today. It is also the semi-fictional setting of Joseph Heller's 'Catch 22', although his description of the island bears little resemblance to the actual place.
The island of Montecristo is the only island in the Archipelago that is inaccessible to tourists. It is kept as a nature reserve and only researchers are allowed to land there.
Montecristo - Photo: Allumeur
Alexander Dumas immortalised the island in his book 'The Count of Montecristo', written in 1844. Apparantly Dumas visited the island by boat in 1842, fell in love with it, and used it as the setting for his novel. Needless to say, the island described in the book bears little resemblance to reality. However, he does refer to the legendary treasure trove of the pirate, Dragnut, apparantly hidden on the island. Over the years various people have attempted to find it, so far without success!
Gorgona is the smallest and most northern of the islands in the Tuscan Archipelago. It has an area of 2.2 square kilometres and rises to 255 metres at its highest point.
Gorgona - Photo: Giovanni Spinozzi
Although the island is currently in use as a prison, it is possible to visit it on a tour organised by 'The Cooperative Agency, Natural Park of Gorgona', which leaves from the port of Livorno every Tuesday during the summer months. However, each visitor has to be vetted by the 'Istituti di Prevenzione e Pena del Ministero di Grazia e Giustizia' at least fifteen days prior to the trip. With a total population of only 300, the island is a natural paradise for wildlife. Its beautiful, rugged coastline, surrounded by uncontaminated water and indented with spectacular coves, is also forbidden to private boats except in an emergency.
Shaped like a half-moon, Giannutri is slightly larger that the Island of Gorgano, and is the southernmost island in the Tuscan Archipelago. It is located 15 kilometres from Giglio and approximately 15 nautical miles from the mainland.
Giannutri - Photo: delbene
Most of the island's coastline is rocky, broken up with spectacular grottos and coves, the most well known of which is Cala Grottoni. There are only two beaches: Cala Maestra, where the ferries from Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole arrive, and Cala dello Spalmatoio, popular with the local boats. The island is best known for its Roman ruins. Currently closed for restoration, the ruins of the villa Agrippa, once belonging to the family of the Emperor Nero, can still be seen. There are also ruins of a Roman temple and the original Roman port, close to Cala Maestra. For scuba divers, the area around the island offers the wrecks of Roman ships to explore in the crystal clear waters.