You may have heard of the seven jewels of the Tyrrhenian Sea that make up Elba and the Tuscan Archipelago. But you are less likely actually to have visited these islands, to have experienced their unspoilt nature, unique history and traditions, and endless hospitality.
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Why Visit Elba And The Tuscan Archipelago?
According to legend, the Tuscan Archipelago was born when the goddess Venus dropped her necklace into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Seven pearls were lost, and re-emerged as a series of sparkling islands. It is easy to see how this story arose: the islands are small and beautiful, with an untouched landscape.
They are part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, a protected marine environment with unique flora and fauna. They are also included in the Pelagos Cetacean Sanctuary, a massive area shared between France and Italy that is a haven for whales and other sea life. (The Cetacean Sanctuary has been nominated to become one of Tuscany’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.)
This abundance of nature makes Elba and the Tuscan Archipelago ideal for hiking, wildlife watching, or just finding an isolated spot to relax with a picnic. However, you will also find history and archaeological sites and, of course, plenty of places to enjoy Tuscan food and wine.
The Island Of Elba
Elba is the main island of the archipelago, best known as the place where the Emperor Napoleon was exiled in 1814, only to escape a year later. Today it is a place you are more likely to want to escape to rather than from, with vineyards, olive groves and countless beaches.
The island rises steeply from the sea, creating a tangle of hairpin bends, hiking paths, and hidden vistas. Day trippers can enjoy the views before exploring the main town of Portoferraio with its historic centre, Roman ruins and waterfront fortress.
If you have more time to spend on Elba you could visit some of the other coastal towns, take the cable car to the top of the mountain, or enjoy some water sports. Alternatively, take a ferry to the neighbouring island of Pianosa.
How To Visit Elba
Regular ferries (for both cars and pedestrians) run to Elba from the port of Piombino. In the summer it is also possible to fly from Pisa or Florence (Elba’s airport at La Pila is close to Marina di Campo).
It is easy to visit for a day, but a range of accommodation is available if you wish to stay overnight.
Other Islands Of The Tuscan Archipelago
The other islands are smaller and less frequented by tourists. However, if you make the effort to visit you will find that each has something different to offer.
Pianosa is the closest island to Elba. Until 1997 it was home to a maximum security prison and was off-limits to visitors. It is still sparsely populated and visitor numbers are limited. This means that the landscape is almost untouched, allowing animal and plantlife to flourish.
Unlike Elba, Pianosa is completely flat. It is mainly attractive to hikers and wildlife spotters, although you can also visit historic sites including the Teglia Fortress and the remains of a Roman villa. Boat services run from Marina di Campo on Elba.
The island of Montecristo was made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Montecristo. Its real history is no less intriguing: once home to a community of monks the island was abandoned for centuries until it was purchased by an eccentric nobleman who wanted to shield his wife from potential rivals. And, as in Dumas’ novel, there are rumours of an immense treasure that has never been found.
Today Montecristo, a single mountain rising from the sea, is an important nature reserve. It is the least accessible of the islands, and a permit is needed to visit.
Capraia is close to the French island of Corsica. It is a mountainous landscape with peaks, valleys and ancient paths. It has had a turbulent history, its strategic location leading to several changes of ownership, and at one time it was home to a powerful group of pirates.
Visit for wildlife, hiking and dark skies. Or to explore the historic fortifications. Ferries to the island leave from Livorno.
Giannutri might be small, but it has plenty to offer visitors. It is rich in birds and plantlife, and it is a diver’s paradise. Then there is the Villa Domizia, an ancient Roman villa with columns and mosaics. Ferries to Giannutri leave from Porto Santo Stefano.
Giglio is the second largest island of the archipelago. Ideal for those who enjoy history or countryside, it offers mountain hiking, beaches and a rich cultural heritage.
Major attractions include the medieval walled town of Giglio Castello, and Giglio Campese, with a large public square and an 18th century lookout tower, built as a defence against pirates. Ferries to Giglio run from Porto Santo Stefano.
Gorgona is the smallest and most remote of the islands. It houses a prison and is sparsely populated. It is possible to visit – by taking the ferry from Livorno – but it will take a bit of planning. Those who do visit can enjoy hiking, nature and scuba diving, as well as an ancient monastery.