Giglio, Tuscany: Make me an island in the Italian sun
The Italian Insider
Published 24/08/2015 | 02:30
My last adventure in island-hopping was back when I was young, and involved the Greek islands, so I was delighted when an opportunity came up to visit the Tuscan Archipelago.
I love Italy. I think the food is great, the people are great and the scenery is great, but nothing had prepared me for the beauty of the islands off the coast of Tuscany. We based ourselves in Giglio, a small island, measuring seven kilometres by three. A ferry, which takes an hour, brings you from the port of Santo Stefano to Porto, one of the three villages on the island. The vista on arrival is typical of the area. Houses with the Tuscan hues of postcard-blues, greens and pale terracotta. The port itself is a hub of activity. Shops, restaurants on stilts in the water, ice cream parlours and a general feeling of bonhomie abound. To combine a week in Tuscany and a week on Giglio would be ideal.
Our hotel was in the seaside village of Campese, itself simply called Hotel Campese. It's literally on the beach and exudes a sense of gentle days of yore. Stefano is at the helm, having taken over from his parents, but his Dad still keeps a gentle eye on things and likes to sit near reception and welcome people.
Giglio Castello, the third village was where we sampled our first taste of island food at Ristorante 'Da Santi'. And fine fare it was. A selection of beautifully presented treats comprising fish wrapped in ravioli with a cream and butter sauce, tuna and tomato, squid bruschetta, manta ray in lemon and butter, calamari and potato to name but a few.
There are around 20 restaurants on the island. There were many vineyards in previous times, but bit by bit they all died out and three fairly new ones have started production in the last 15 years. 'Senti oh' is one of these very fine wines. Giovanni, who also works in the Mayor's office, is the owner and joined us for dinner. He proudly showed us around his vineyard the following day. Before dinner on subsequent nights, I would sit outside the hotel on the beach and order 'Giovanni's wine'.
Everybody knows Giovanni. It's that kind of place.
Bruschetta is very popular in Giglio
The following day we took a trip to Montecristo, about an hour and a half from Giglio by boat. The island is a nature reserve and allows only one thousand visitors per year. It's not easy to get a permit and the waiting list is long but it's well worth it. The trip is for six hours and includes a visit to the nineteenth century Roman Villa, the museum and the botanical garden. The king used to regularly visit with women and the lame excuse of 'hunting' trips. Because it's a natural reserve, it is not permitted to swim, camp or fish here. The main character in The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas, was inspired by the stories of hidden pirate treasures on the island. Some of the more energetic of our group took the uphill hike to the St Mamiliano monastery. I, on the other hand, lounged on the boat enjoying the spectacular views and listening to the bleating of the protected mountain goats that inhabit the island. Laziness personified. I knew I would become a snivelling wreck and destroy it for everyone. A wonderfully interesting woman with a serene bronzed face and a long grey pony tail has lived there, as caretaker, with her husband for the last four years. No wonder she's serene looking
After a light dinner of various sea food and delicious canapés at Hotel Campese, it was time for some local talent in the form of Alessio, a local singer/songwriter. He treated us to many Italian folksongs, and Stefano's two little girls joined in with their party piece.
And the next day we were off island-hopping again, and this time to Giannutri, about an hour away by boat. Parts of the island are free to roam. In order to enter other parts, you have to be accompanied by a guide. The island is lush and verdant, mainly because of the abundance of limestone, which soaks up the rainwater, and the huge numbers of seagulls which fertilise the island. We took a tour of the Roman Villa, which was opened to the public, after some restoration work, on June 25. During the reign of Nero, it became one of the imperial territories. The excavation work was initiated by a woman called Bice Vaccarino in the time of Mussolini.
Capers grow wild out of the rocks and when I saw a man filling a plastic container, nothing would do me but to have some. They are now in my kitchen. Not quite sure what to do with them.
Dinner that night in La Pergola in Porto was again divine. Carpaccio of tuna, prawns baked in batter, bruschetta di mare and mains of sea food spaghetti, with mussels and clams with a sublime dessert of chocolate and ice cream cake were enough to put a finish to the so-called diet. We were lucky enough to be there during festival time, and a spin on the open-air floor with the Joe Mac of Giglio, sporting huge pink sunglasses, was a must. The sunglasses came home with the capers.
Now for some exercise and a downhill hike for nearly two hours from the third village situated high up in the island. Giglio Castello is a gorgeous town within walls. It's the administrative capital of the island. To stand on one of walls viewing points and look out at the clear blue waters is a sight to behold. Elba, Montecristo and Corsica can be clearly seen. Its narrow cobbled streets are home to little bars, restaurants and tiny shops. All the little houses have external stairs and washing hanging high outside. An elderly woman stood in her kitchen stirring dinner. The church of S. Pietro Apostolo is baroque, and houses an ivory crucifix.
We trekked the one and a half hour journey from Castello to Cala degli Alberi. I only do downhill and found it quite easy over rocky terrain amid myrtle, wild mint and many other aromatic species. I actually felt I was like a mountain goat from Montecristo. The following day I was walking like John Wayne, but surprisingly for me I felt good about myself. Our trek was to 'Pardini's Hermitage', a rural retreat only accessible by boat or down this trekking route. It was truly worth the trek. Ghigo and Barbara, a couple who have been here for many years, run it as a 'get away from it all' guest house. It was originally the Pardini family summer house until 1956, when they converted it into a hotel. They have their own pigs, donkeys and goats and pride themselves on fresh and local produce. We sampled some of this true and hearty fare for lunch. Pappa al pomodoro - a wonderful tomato and bread soup, belly of pork, tempura fish and tempura vegetables, wine on tap and their own cheese with their own spicy jam, which they sell. That's in the kitchen with the capers and sunglasses. They have 13 rooms in total, ten in the main house, each with its own idyllic veranda high up overlooking the sea, and three bungalows. It's on a full board basis, so you never need to leave this idyll.
Every trip to Italy should include a 'cantina' experience. A traditional cellar where everyone sits around a big table and indulges in hearty food, wine, singing and story telling. We visited three in Giglio Castello. I had the nicest sweet and sour squid with raisins and aubergines, followed by pastry with chantilly cream and figs. Now my stomach was resting on my knees. Enter Ilaria, who invites us into her family cantina a few doors down, where everyone did their party piece and roared out local songs. The wine was flowing, the grappa was flowing, and I was flowing by the time I got home. It's a kind of 'all are welcome, let's have fun' kind of place. A lady with a King Charles like my Buddy invited me to come back with Buddy for a play date. A little girl climbed onto my lap to play with my necklace. Again it's the kind of place it is. I'll be back with Buddy.
The abundance of seafood is evident here. Squid cut very finely and served in many different ways such as with bruschetta is very popular. We also tasted it in a sweet and sour sauce with raisins and aubergines. Tuna is also huge, again served in many different ways. Tonnina which is fillet of tuna, preserved in salt and served with olive oil and tomatoes, is one way. Panficato, a dessert of dried figs, walnuts, almonds and raisins, all soaked in the local Ansonaco sweet wine and then baked, is a divine local indulgence.
'Vieni in cantina con noi'. 'Come into the cantina with us' is the order of the day. In Italian, cantina means cellar. The cantina in Italy is used for storing wine, salami or other meats that prefer a cool environment. In Giglio, we joined a very lively gathering in a cantina in Giglio Castello where everyone was welcome to join in with their party piece, or even without their party piece, and enjoy a glass of wine or grappa. Old and young get together to enjoy the hearty fare and flowing wine.
Flora and Fauna
A wander through the less-travelled areas of the island brings with it a feast for the senses. On our trek we were surrounded by wild mint, myrtle, rosemary and many other aromatic plants. Even the weeds were beautiful. Capers grow out of rocks. Edible mushrooms grow at the base of trees. Lemon trees, fig trees, chestnut trees thrive here. There are seven hundred different varieties of plants on the island. Lizards shoot across your path every few minutes and the sea life is vast.
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