Ebb and Flow on Italy’s Isola del Giglio

Being on the island of Giglio, you find yourself thinking about rocks, maybe more than you have ever thought about rocks in the whole of your existence.

A hotel floating on a hull made of rocks, oh-so Giglio.

Minivan size monoliths prop the gravity-taunting, sea-lurking balconies of the famous Saraceno Hotel. Ancient stone pathways, dating from the days as an important trading base in the Tyrrhenian Sea for the Romans, create a crisscrossing hiker’s dream network of trails through and to forests of pine, crescents of beach, and picturesque villages. Defunct granite quarries, which for centuries provided the palate for sculptors from Rome to Florence, still boldly display their economically and artistically resourceful scars.

And, then there’s the most talked about rock of late. You might say a…um, rock star. (Sorry, had to.) This one is of the infamous variety.

With enough time, you could criss-cross the island’s every glorious foot.

Changing Seas

In 2012, the cruise ship Costa Concordia, carrying over 4,000 holiday-makers, struck an underwater rock of the reef known as Le Scole, not far from Giglio’s port. Necessity and curiosity soon drew thousands of recovery workers and gawking tourists to the island transforming the social fabric and feel of the tiny, floating paradise in the process.

The Concordia wreckage has become part of Porto’s visual landscape. As you can see the work continues, still today.

Giglio’s position less than ten miles off the coast of Tuscany, has long made it a vacation hotspot for Italians while international tourists routed to the coast’s larger, more famous havens such as Elba and Corsica. In fact, the first time we visited, six years before the Concordia disaster, we felt a “foreigners not welcome” vibe – subtle, never hostile, yet clearly evident.

Waters so calm, you almost forget the danger.

And who could place blame? With warm, crystal waters sheltering pristine diving and snorkeling spots, beige sand stretches playing peekaboo around the cliffs, and villages where the family names have remained the same generation after generation, if ever there was a place to get “territorial” about, this tiny space (just five miles long and seventeen around) might be it.

The Goat Island

Believed to have been inhabited since the Stone Age, “Giglio’ means “lily” in Italian, but most historians agree the island’s name can most likely be attributed to a Latin version of the Greek word for “goat.” When you see Giglio’s rough and tumble landscape of scruffy pines, elevated vineyards, dramatic cliffs and coves, “Goat Island” seems as fitting a description today as it must have been when early shepherds scurried over the trails, pausing at each vista to gaze upon the azure waters below and breath in the ever-present cleansing wind.

A full moon rises over Giglio.
Afternoon walk to the harbor.

The island consists of only three villages, each proudly individualistic. Like harbour towns through history, Porto is where all the salty dogs collect, out at sea by day and by evening strolling along the outdoor strip of living room resting between the water and long curve of colorful homes, well-weathered by time and climate. Between the harbour’s two piers, the patios of elbow touching restaurants and narrow, pop-blarring bars spill over with regulars with a mighty appetite equally for the day’s freshest sea bounty and freshest gossip and tall tales.

View of Castello from one of the many hiking paths.

Perched on top of the island, the fortified city of Castello, with its imposing walls and quiet character has a more closed feel but locals are quick to say that a quirky current runs just under the skin. Campanese is the island’s main beach resort, with end-to-end loungers and umbrellas providing the canvas for bronze bods proudly on display.

Island Pillars 

When it comes to really understanding the beauty of a place like Giglio, you have to look up from its buxom natural assets, and stare into its eyes. There you’ll find its soul, the people. The Gigliesi are rock solid much like the granite under their feet. Tough and humble, proud yet generous. Laughter comes easy, and a wicked wit runs deep.

Pini showcasing the first boat he made, at eight years old. The pieces still move.
A tradition of craftsmanship lives on.

One of those pillars, for sure, is Argentino Pini. For over seventy years, he’s been a fixture in the harbour town. Donning a captain’s hat and hefty gold loop dangling from one ear, he exudes equal parts captain and pirate simultaneously.

Sooner or later, every visitor to the island finds their way into his tiny, cave-like workshop, aptly called Nostra Barche d’Epoca (Our Vintage Boats.) Forty five years ago, the Giglio-native began crafting elaborate model boats. Dedicating approximating 2500 hours of time and attention to each creation, he proudly says that every piece, from masts and winches to brass tacks and sails is crafted with care by his own hands – hands so large and weathered, it’s difficult to believe they possess the delicacy required for boat building.

The captain smiles at this comment, then gracefully demonstrates how each piece functions, hatches open, wheels turn, sails hoist. It’s easy to imagine setting sail on one of his magical creations.

His talent and love for boats shined early, inspired by generations of sailors and model builders before. He began practicing both art forms as a boy and at eight built the first model. A flicker of sadness and surrender shows in his eyes as he explains that he’s the last of his kind, the last handcraft builder on Giglio. He hopes the tradition doesn’t fade, but acknowledges the way the tide is flowing.

Big Waves, Enduring Legends

Who knows what will happen to Giglio’s boat building tradition, but it’s for sure that the name “Argentino Pini” will long be mentioned when conversation turns to legend during port-side discussions for many seasons to come. Last summer with the culmination of two years of work, as the righted Concordia was preparing to be towed from Giglio’s warm side to its scrapyard final destination in nearby Genoa, Pini, with cheers from his fellow Gigliesi watching from harbour, sailed his small boat into the restricted zone.

Pino proudly displays a photo taken from the harbor on the day he sailed alongside the Concordia in the restricted zone.

He carried a simple banner that read “Thank you all.” The gesture was intended as a salute to the international team of welders, divers, and mechanics who worked on the ship, helped to spare the coastline a more devastating and oily fate, and embraced the locals (some more than others..many marriages saw an end and babies saw a beginning during the workers’ time in port.)

These waters provide the palette for many longer-than-life tales to emerge.

The incident caused quite an uproar resulting in a police chase and escort back to shore. Today, the story brings a smile to everyone who recounts it. Locals say even the coast guard officers on patrol that day love reliving the moment. Hearing Pini spin the tale himself – arms flying with descriptive hand gestures, eyes sparkling and wild, and a smile so wide it could stretch across to the mainland – you know, and hope with all your might, it’s a legend that grows even more vivid with time.

Ebb and Flow

Campanelle, one of Giglio’s most beautiful – and popular – beaches.

Three times I’ve visited Giglio over the last eleven years and watched what my limited perception has processed as evolution. I’ve found myself saddened when thinking of the infusion of new visitors and irritated by the bustling streets that once delivered quite and calm. Those emotions are ridiculous and silly, of course. Change is what keeps people and places interesting and alive. And, in many ways the more Giglio evolves, the more its authentic character shines.

During each of my previous visits, while walking along the pathway where it’s known that a Roman villa once stood, I have spotted what’s sure to be ancient tesserae packed into the new sand road. Small pieces of stone sculpted in the old way with chisel and hardie and, most likely, once gracing a grand mosaic. That they have survived and remained is one of the island’s many miracles. Each time, I’ve picked up the pieces, turning them over in my hands and fighting the temptation to pocket a piece for creating a mosaic of my own.

Always I drop the pieces back to the ground, where they came from and belong, as part of Giglio’s fabric, history, and tall tales. Who knows, maybe one day, in an artisan’s well-weathered hands, they may transform and take on new life, just as the island itself had done for centuries.

More shots of the the island:

When you visit Giglio, don’t just get in the water, get on the water. Chartering a boat here is affordable and easy.
The kind of place where taxis are known by name.
In this case, the journey does rival the destination.
Getting a tour of Argentino Pini’s boat-building workshop.
The cafes and bars are the heartbeat of Giglio’s harbor.
A floating paradise ebbs and flows through time.

4 thoughts on “Ebb and Flow on Italy’s Isola del Giglio

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