Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Haunted Island of Tuscany

The 'suicide tower' on Isola Capraia, Italy.

Last autumn I visited the Tuscan isles, an archipelago of strangely ignored outcrops, lost in the wild blue Tyrrhenian sea. The piece I wrote about Capraia, the onetime prison isle of the chain, Italy's Alcatraz, was spiked by the Guardian newspaper on account of its being 'too quirky', 'offputting' and (not least) 'crap'.

Well that's as maybe. You can't win a coconut every time. But the fact is, Capraia was slightly weird. I don't really believe in ghosts, but when I heard that Capraia was meant to be spooked - it didn't surprise me. There was just something about this place, about its tragic history - the slaving, the prisoners, the isolation, the sun-crushed bleakness - it somehow all made sense to me: to hear that it was, by reputation, 'haunted'.

Anyway, fuck it. Here's the piece I originally wrote, crap as it may be. I've since done a nice publishable one, banging on about the seafood on Elba.

Europe’s Desert Islands

At some time in their lives, just about everyone has fancied a stay on a deserted isle: with nothing but a brace of palms, a shack of fronds, and a sweet little rumshop just down the pristine beach. And no karaoke, anywhere.

To find such Robinson Crusoe-y nirvana, you might think you have to go to the south seas, or the far Caribbean. Yet amongst the tens of thousands of much nearer islands, around Europe’s shores, there are many hundreds that fit the bill: practically deserted, virtually abandoned hideaways, places with just enough infrastructure to keep you fed, sheltered, and entertained.

A good example is Capraia. West of Corsica, and east of Italy, Capraia is one of the islands that make up the Tuscan archipelago; seven rocky islands that litter the blue Tyrrhenian sea like trinkets from a schoolgirl’s broken charm-bracelet.

The island is named for the goats that are said to run wild here: specifically called moufflons, they are large, irritable creatures, with tightly-curved horns that look like Princess Leia’s hair-do in the first Star Wars film. My visit to Capraia coincides with the moufflon rutting season - and I am therefore hoping to see the billygoats slamming into each other amongst the strawberry trees. But all I can hear is the twitter of warblers and the kee-kaw of wheeling buzzards. The cliffs and pinegroves of Capraia are famous for their birdlife.

The reason for Capraia’s human desertion - its high-season population is about 200, but it can dip as low as twenty in winter - is party due to history, and partly due to Italian government policy. Being something of an outlier in the Tuscan island chain, the isle was long prey to dreadful pirate raids. Between 700 and 1600AD, this part of the Mediterranean was cruised by Saracen cut-throats, who prized the comely Italian womenfolk for the slave markets of the East.

The pirates were often successful. At least twice in that millennium of carnage, little Capraia was swept clean, its populace hauled off to Algiers or Constantinople in chains. Only when the pirates were definitively vanquished in the 17th century did peace - of a sort - return to these translucent waters.

By then much damage had been done to the island’s buildings. But there is one exquisitely ancient church, San Stefano, still standing in the voided heart of the island. To get there I have to take a rubbled mule track, past empty shepherd’s huts and the occasional desultory vineyard. On the way I see an Audouin's gull, amongst the world's rarest, soaring in the September sun.

San Stefano was built in the 2nd century, making it one of the earliest Christian sites anywhere. Then it was abandoned, along with the town it served, during the Saracenic incursions. Now its only congregation is bats, ravens and an irreligious gecko, sleeping in the nave. However, locals claim that a modern order of monks is hoping to refurbish the church, so impressed are they by San Stefano’s spiritual loneliness. Standing here, surrounded by the rapturous silence of the Capraian wilderness, I can see what the monks are getting at.

If the centre (and the west, north and south) of the volcanic island is deserted, there is busy life in one place. These days the entire population of Capraia has decamped to the eastern littoral, where there are two small villages linked by the island’s only proper road (all of one kilometre long). There is a regular bus service between the two settlements, so you can happily forego any worries about car or scooter hire.

Up this road, guarded by two historic Genoese towers, and graced by some agreeable churches, is Paese. This is the ‘capital’ of Capraia, though in truth it’s just a tiny - and adorable - Mediterranean hill village. Paese also has Capraia’s only top class hotel, with the best swimming pool on the island: something of a boon given the lack of local beaches.

Even if you don’t stay in Paese, an evening stroll here, beneath the ilex trees, is a delight. Grannies like to snooze in the dusty piazza; small boys play street soccer by the minimart. There are also some good pasta joints, and one musty tobacconist with inscrutable opening hours.

Best of all are the huddled, yellow-and-ochre houses. Some of these venerable dwellings bear the defensive scars of the Saracen days: tiny windows, thick walls, and a supposed network of escape tunnels, burrowed into the soft volcanic stone. It must have been a terrifying moment when the crescent-flagged corsairs were spotted on the blue horizon: the sea is visible from everywhere in the village.

Walk along the brow of the lofty hill on which Paese sits and you come to the second reason why Capraia is so empty. A huge and redundant prison. From the mid nineteenth century Capraia was home to some of Italy’s most notorious convicts, sent here to sun their lives away in Italy’s Alcatraz. For decades, therefore, the only visitors to the island were the convicts’ relatives; the only long-term human inhabitants the jailbirds, their guards, and the native fishermen. The prison finally closed in 1986, allowing normal life and trade to recommence.

During their tenure the prisoners helped to rebuild Capraia after its centuries of depradation. They established pretty stone terraces so they could cultivate the hillsides, they laid the great mule track that bisects the island, in time they even constructed their own cinema, churches and barber-shop.

But they were still prisoners. And their derelict slammer still has a sinister air. When I walk around the crumbling and twilit buildings I start to get edgy. The rusty bars on the windows are just a little too resonant, the curious al fresco chapel (with battered Madonna) somewhat gloomy in the fading light.

It’s just when I’m remembering the rumours of Capraia being seriously haunted, that I hear a rattle to my left, something slapping against a wall. For a moment, I freeze. Is it a long-dead Mafioso? The ghost of the Livorno Strangler? Actually it turns out to be pigeons, cooped in a disused cell by an enterprising local. But I’m still walking down the hill rather fast.

My last evening is spent in Capraia’s other village, the very unghostly entrepot of Porto. If tranquil Capraia has anything you could call a buzz, this is where you’ll find it, in the pubs, pensions and pizzerias of the harbourfront.

In typically Capraian style, the social mix here is truly surreal. Italian navy officers hobnob with Aussie diving instructors (with its crystalline waters, Capraia is a favourite dive destination); in other bars you’ll find ecotourists, passing yachties, village biddies with 'second sight', and some of the prisoners who settled here when the jail was closed. Its a curious sensation to sit in a trattoria, eating delicious spaghetti alla vongole, wondering if you are sharing a table with a rear admiral, a German birdwatcher, a clairvoyant, or a retired wife murderer.

Porto is also a good place to consider your next move. Capraia is harshly lovely, and intensely atmospheric, but you wouldn’t to say here more than a few days. Unless you really like that Alcatraz feeling. So why not wander down to the ferry office and contemplate a passage to one of the other Tuscan isles. The green and sybaritic beauty of Napoleon’s Elba is just an hour away, and makes a great base for further archipelagan excursions: to the craggy beauties of Pianosa, or the unsullied beaches of Montecristo, or even the forlorn and echoing castles of Giglio and Giannutri.

Avanti, Signor Crusoe.

1 comment:

florence and tuscany shore excursions said...

Great review of the places you have visited. Thank you for sharing. Will consider your suggestion for my further trips to Italy.