Sunday, April 14, 2024

Montecristo, Tuscany’s forbidden island – Wanted in Rome

Embark on a journey to explore the Mystical and Historical depths of Montecristo.

Since ancient times, the island of Montecristo in the Tuscan archipelago has held an almost mystical significance—even the Romans called it “Mons Jovis,” or Mount Jupiter, after their highest god. (The Greeks knew it first as “Artemisia.”). 

In recent years the allure of Montecristo was significantly increased by Alexandre Dumas’ captivating 19th-century novel, The Count of Monte Christo, which chronicles a man’s relentless pursuit of justice and the legendary treasure concealed on the island, catapulting the mystique of Montecristo into the spotlight.

Today, Montecristo is a nature reserve, left untouched by permanent residents and accessible only to a limited number of visitors each year through reservation. For the lucky few who get to see it, it is a veritable paradise. But the landscape alone does not reveal the island’s storied history.

Montecristo’s history

Even as far back as the Neolithic Age, in the 6th and 5th millennium BC, Montecristo may have played host to some kind of human life, at least based on information from the Musei dell’Arcipelago. Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery and rock artifacts at Cala Maestra, the island’s harbor.

But the Etruscan and Roman history is harder to date. Remnants of 3rd century BC cargo ships were discovered in the waters near Montecristo, as were glass and marble flooring fragments, which scholars believe might have belonged to a maritime villa similar to structures found on other islands in the Tuscan archipelago.

More concrete history turns up in the 5th century AD, when legend has it that Saint Mamiliano, the bishop of Palermo, fled the Vandals and ended up on Montecristo, allegedly killing a dragon (likely legend) and building a monastery and a chapel within a cave (and housing his infamous treasure).

The monastery itself may even have been built on the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter, per literary sources. The cave was clearly considered holy for centuries—archaeologists have found votive offerings from sailors and pilgrims likely coming to glean something from Mamiliano’s experiences (or perhaps find the treasure).

But the monastery was not destined to survive to this day. The island was a prime spot for pirates, and by 1553, the monks had abandoned their monastery, despite its legendary start. That may be why Visit Tuscany, the region’s official tourism website, calls Montecristo “the wildest and most solitary island” in Tuscany, even if it was once inhabited to a degree.

Like so much of Italy, it did eventually come into reuse, in part thanks to its remoteness. In 1878, a unified Italy established a prison on the island. But all beautiful things in Italy must be used for beauty, and so Vittorio Emanuele III made Montecristo a luxurious hunting lodge until 1971—when it became a nature reserve.

How to get there

The good news for us is that all hope is not lost. It is possible to visit Montecristo—just prepare for a years-long waiting list. 2024 slots for non-archipelago residents are already sold out.

Here’s how it works: you can reserve a spot on the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano’s site, but be warned that spots fill up fast. Only 75 people are allowed to visit per day, and these can only occur between March 1st and April 15th and May 15th and October 31st.

Excursions depart from Piombino Marittima to Porto Azzurro on Elba and then go to Montecristo. Visits cost 130 euro per person and include maritime transport as well as access to the area and a guide.

In the end, Montecristo remains Tuscany’s forbidden island—not just a destination, but a symbol of the timeless beauty and mystery that still exists in the world’s hidden corners. For those lucky enough to visit, it offers an unforgettable experience, a chance to walk in the footsteps of saints and soldiers, pirates and princes, all within the embrace of the Mediterranean’s untouched splendor.

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