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Race for the riches of Montecristo

Italy's financial crisis could see a luxury yacht club built in the Mediterranean's last pristine wilderness. Peter Popham reports

It is a mere speck of rocks and ruins in the Mediterranean, the refuge of seals and dolphins, egrets and peregrine falcons, where the rabbits and wild goats browse at will and the broom and thyme send up their strong scents under the hot sun.

But when the Italian government announced it was cutting its national parks budget by half, the future of the Isle of Montecristo was suddenly thrown into question.

Forty-five kilometres south of Elba, less than 11 sq km in area and practically uninhabited for centuries, Montecristo is the last pristine wilderness in the Mediterranean. It is also one of those rare places where, to date, the impact of modern man has been entirely positive: for the past 40 years it has been a nature reserve, closed to the outside world, its sanctity patrolled by the handful of forest guards who take turns to guard it.

That situation has barely changed since it was announced two years ago that up to 1,000 members of the public would be allowed to visit the island every year. As it takes a year or more to obtain a permit, many applicants simply lost interest.

The forest guards, meanwhile, continue to guard their charge jealously: when a journalist from La Stampa visited recently, five young French tourists in a rubber dinghy had just been caught trying to land on the island; their vessel was confiscated and they were deported back to Elba.

But the announcement of a drastic budget cut has brought a sudden end to Montecristo's decades of serenity. Mario Tozzi, director of the National Park of the Tuscany Archipelago, to which the island belongs, has given his grudging consent to the idea of charging visitors to the island €50 (£41) per trip, to offset the costs of looking after it. But according to Enrico Cervetti, deputy head of the park's keepers, "the costs of managing the island are crazy".

It is an open question whether the Berlusconi government, in its hunger for savings, will be satisfied with the meagre annual income that a few hundred nature-lovers would bring.

Because there is another possible future for the island – one closely aligned to the sort of up-market coastal development Mr Berlusconi's brother Paolo has been pushing for years in Sardinia. During the 1960s a company called Oglasa (an archaic name for the island) launched a bid to build an "elite" yacht harbour and resort in Montecristo.

The scheme was thwarted when the island was taken under state protection in 1971, but with state coffers now empty and the national park agency, according to Tozzi, faced with the choice "of either closing half the parks, roughly speaking, or sacking half the staff," it may only be a matter of time before Montecristo is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Montecristo is world famous thanks to Alexandre Dumas père, who was so enchanted by the island during a visit in 1842 that he placed it at the centre of his novel, The Count of Montecristo. In the book his hero, Edmond Dantès, learns during the 14 years he is unjustly imprisoned that pirates have stashed priceless treasure on the island. On his release he finds the treasure, buys the island from the Grand Duke of Tuscany and assumes the title of its count, under which disguise he visits elaborate revenge on the enemies responsible for his incarceration.

Although the island as Dumas describes it does not have much in common with the reality, its function in the novel is not fanciful: if you had been a marauding Mediterranean pirate at any time in the past millennium, Montecristo would have struck you as a very plausible place to hide your loot. Never has it been what you would call crowded.

The first record of Montecristo being inhabited was by a fifth-century holy man, known to history as Saint Mamiliano, who was fleeing Palermo to escape the Vandals attacking southern Italy. His followers built a hermitage there, later occupied by Benedictine monks, whose residency lasted until they were driven out by Arabian pirates in the 17th century.

Dumas' account was of course purely fictional, but in 1852, only six years after the novel's publication, a true "Count" of Montecristo emerged – from England. George Watson Taylor, a wealthy English art collector and botanist, was "ordered to the Mediterranean for the benefit of his health", according to George Cavendish-Bentinck, the Conservative MP for Taunton – "Little Ben" to his contemporaries – who in 1862 told the House of Commons at length about Mr Taylor's woes.

Taylor might have done what generations of wealthy English sun-seekers have done before and since, buying or renting a villa in Tuscany or Rome where he could be within easy reach of other expatriates. Instead he chose to move to Italy on the grand scale: buying Montecristo from the Grand Duke of Tuscany (who, "in a personal interview" with Taylor, said he was "most anxious that Englishmen should settle in his dominions"); building himself a house not far from the coast; importing vines, olives, oleanders and pine trees to give it a more domestic feel; and moving in with Mrs Watson Taylor and enough local servants to look after them.

The couple must have looked forward to enjoying their lonely idyll, but, as Little Ben told the Commons, there was trouble almost immediately. "When Mr Taylor purchased the island there was doing duty there a corporal ... named Durante, who was guilty of very gross misconduct towards Mr Taylor." The nature of the misconduct was not specified, but Taylor "made a representation on the subject to the Governor of Elba, the case was investigated, and Durante was removed."

Nothing else unpleasant was reported during the years that followed, though the couple must have felt the odd twinge of anxiety at being so entirely at the mercy of anyone who might take against them. But all the while the long, chaotic struggle for Italian unification was under way, and shortly after Italy was declared a kingdom, under the Piedmontese Victor Emmanuel, a strange incident was reported from Montecristo.

According to Little Ben, "musket shots were fired on the island on the evening of 28 April 1860". The Taylors claimed they were "only celebrating Mr Taylor's birthday", but soldiers present at the Taylor's house claimed that Mrs Taylor had told them that Victor Emmanuel was a "bullock merchant". Her husband, they reported, went on to slap the corporal of the guard in the face.

In the over-heated atmosphere of the unification struggle, the couple were subsequently charged with sedition; they fled the island and Italy rather than stand trial, and were found guilty and sentenced to jail in absentia. Then, in a final, crippling blow to them, a British ship, The Orwell, which had been seized for the war effort by Garibaldi at Genoa, put ashore on Montecristo, where Garibaldi's volunteers "plundered and gutted" Mr Taylor's house, and his "vineyards, bullocks and other property [were] swept away".

As a friend and client of the now-fallen Grand Duke of Tuscany, the English "Count" of Montecristo was clearly seen as an ally of the ancien regime, and his property ripe for plundering. As Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, put it in the Commons debate, "Mr Watson Taylor had the misfortune to live on Italian territory in times of revolution," when foreigners are well advised to observe "ordinary prudence and caution ... Mr and Mrs Watson Taylor both failed in this respect."

They had departed, never to return, but their fine house remained. It was next occupied by a Florentine family called Ginori, who built a loft for carrier pigeons to enable them to keep in touch with mainland relatives. Finally the descendants of the "bullock merchant" himself, Victor Emmanuel, were seduced by the charm of the wild, turning the Watson Taylors' house into a hunting lodge and the whole island into their private hunting ground. Today the "villa reale" (royal villa), as their old home is known, is the only habitable dwelling on the island, and the dormitory of the island's state guardians.

Montecristo's present state is close to ideal for a pristine wilderness only 63 kilometres from the Italian coast: keenly protected by the state (swimming, diving and circumnavigation within range of its coasts are forbidden), yet accessible to nature lovers with an urge to set foot in it.

But that's about to change, according to Mario Tozzi. "The government's cuts don't leave us much alternative," he says. "Either the island will have to be closed [because controls will be impossible], or [speculators will return] to build luxury hotels for VIPs and the wealthy, who cannot wait to violate its limpid water and its granite bastions."

Dumas's Montecristo

*This island was, always had been, and still is, completely deserted. It is a rock of almost conical form, which looks as though it had been thrust up by volcanic force from the depths to the surface of the ocean.

*The sun had nearly reached the meridian, and his scorching rays fell full on the rocks, which seemed themselves sensible of the heat. Thousands of grasshoppers, hidden in the bushes, chirped with a monotonous and dull note; the leaves of the myrtle and olive trees waved and rustled in the wind. At every step that Edmond took he disturbed the lizards glittering with the hues of the emerald; afar off he saw the wild goats bounding from crag to crag. In a word, the island was inhabited, yet Edmond felt himself alone, guided by the hand of God.