Giglio: Beyond the tragedy in Tuscany

News reports of the wreck of Costa Concordia revealed a tale of fatal misadventure – and, as a side effect, showed the quiet loveliness of the island of Giglio, says Simon Calder.

Room 37 of the Hotel Saraceno has everything you seek from a family-run Tuscan hotel – plus something that everyone wishes was not there. After a warm welcome, you climb a marble staircase to a spacious, simply furnished room. Throw open the shutters on the balcony and the view fills with terracotta roofs, a stone tower and a muscular arm of stone to protect the harbour. The rocks beneath tumble down to a cobalt-blue sea, while distant hills rise steeply from the shore.

This sight could be the front cover of an upmarket holiday brochure, except for one impairment. Right in the middle of the field of vision lies the wreck of Costa Concordia, slumped to starboard and half submerged, her cabins still full of the possessions of those who boarded the cruise ship in Civitavecchia on the evening of 13 January.

The early news bulletins on the morning of 14 January did not lead on the shipwreck. First reports suggested an orderly evacuation of all 4,252 passengers and crew from this massive ship after it struck a rock off a small Tuscan island. By first light, though, it was clear that everyone on board – with the possible exception of early escapees such as the captain, Francesco Schettino – had endured a harrowing ordeal as the ship capsized, and that not all had survived. Thirty bodies have been recovered, and two people are missing presumed drowned.

Within hours, the cameras were in place, and for a week or more images from Giglio dominated the news. By the time the last satellite truck had been driven aboard the ferry back to the mainland, my list of reasons to visit a new destination had increased by one. Alongside motives such as "looks interesting on the map" and "recommendation by someone whose opinion I value" I had added "looks intriguing in the background of all those awful news reports".

Were you to rely upon guidebooks to choose a destination, you would be most unlikely to track down Giglio. You will search the index of the average Italian travel guide in vain for any mention of the island. Even a regional guide such as Footprint's Tuscany mentions it only as a destination for ferries – with no description. Yet were you not to go, both you and the islanders would be the poorer.

Getting there, as is so often the case in Italy, is a treat in itself. From Pisa, one of the two gateways to Giglio, the SS1 highway snakes south and east along the coast, doing its best to hold the line of ancient Rome's Via Aurelia. Every gap along the serrated shoreline holds a pretty port or cheerful hotel, while the hills to the east are punctuated by villages huddling around church steeples.

The terrain subsides into a strange half-land/half-sea, semi-saline world that has become the preserve of kite-surfers. One of the instructors, Claudio, told me: "Many more people are coming to Giglio because of Concordia." Better hurry, I thought, to Porto Santo Stefano, the lively departure point for the island. But it turns out there is no need to fret about space aboard Isola del Giglio, one of the ferries that shuttles to and fro. A good few coachloads of disaster-chasers could have fitted aboard my departure. Fortunately there were none.

Soon after casting off from Porto Santo Stefano, the ferry rounds a headland to reveal a shallow dome rising from the Mediterranean haze. The island looks smooth from here, apart from a certain spikiness at the northern end. Giglio promises walks that will take you over the hills and far away from the cares of 21st-century life.

A few miles out, the image resolves itself into the view you might expect: a dark-green blanket draped casually over a slab of granite nibbled by the Med. You may start to romanticise about a table by the harbour, a plate of freshest fish and a glass of something Toscana – all of which will shortly come true. But what catches the eye is a long, white scar running along the middle of the shoreline.

Costa Concordia was devoted, according to her owner, to "providing dream holidays with the utmost in terms of fun and relaxation". By the early hours of 14 January she had become a watery grave and a maritime hazard, lying where she keeled over, close to the harbour mouth.

The captain of the same ferry that helped to bring survivors back to the mainland must now manoeuvre carefully past the wreck. However, once you step ashore on to the cobbled quayside, you sense a dream holiday, with the utmost in terms of fun and relaxation, is about to begin. On dry land.

Act One of the Giglio drama is Giglio Porto, built deliciously from stone of honey and cream. Cafés, ships' chandlers and shops dispensing trinkets crowd around a classically fine Italian harbour, while stilts support a feast of restaurants above the water. To either side, rocky coves protect pocket-size beaches. The only thing wrong with this picture of loveliness: the arc lights that place Concordia centre stage, where little boats fuss around her. While fatal car crashes are tidied away within hours, cruise-ship wrecks are less easily dealt with.

Before I set off to explore the rest of the island, I asked the lady at the tourist office if the tragedy had brought more tourists. She shook her head, then added: "It's not because of the ship," nodding in the direction of the wreck. "It's because things are so difficult in Italy."

The island has a pair of public buses, elderly orange vehicles that wheeze and grumble on the 1,300ft, three-mile climb to the centre of the island, then they shudder down to the coast on the other side – and the resort of Campese. On the far side of the island, the beach is mostly for those (very) odd Italians who want to be alone – although in July that is only a relative term. This is the location for anyone seeking la dolce vita circa 1970, frozen in glorious isolation. But Campese also presents, from the sea, a less attractive side to Giglio. You start to understand how a captain on the crest of a wave of braggadoccio could decide to sail the pretty way to the east of the island rather than taking the safe route to the west. Squeezing between the mainland and Giglio reveals a port etched in lights at sea level and silhouettes the towering heart of Giglio against any lingering wisps of twilight.

Isolation has protected Giglio's crowning attraction: a monumental Tuscan hill town that would, were it across on the mainland, no doubt be overrun by tourists like me and, possibly, you. To see what San Gimignano might look like without a million coachloads surging through its ancient alleys, come to Giglio Castello. Wander through the narrow passages of a village cocooned in a stone curtain and apparently hewn from raw rock. The Etruscans were first to settle here three millennia ago, followed by the Romans and, in the 9th century, Cistercian monks.

The 15th-century church of San Pietro has an interior the colour of mascarpone, an assortment of minor treasures from Pope Innocent XIII and a campanile that jangles gently every hour to keep the town from nodding off in the July sunshine. When electricity arrived after the Second World War, the authorities installed grey metal cases outside every home – and each has been used as a canvas on which to paint an aspect of island life.

Clamber to the castle built by the city of Pisa 900 years ago, and responsible for that jagged silhouette. From here, the wreck is concealed, and all looks well with this part of the world.

An ancient track, now "Sentiero Nr 1", preceded the road by several centuries. Paved with granite, it threads through forests of gnarled old oak and modern pine down to Giglio Porto. Six months on, the island's 1,500 residents have become accustomed to the hulk that lies at an angle of 60 degrees to the horizon, her well-appointed 13 bars and five spas now irrelevant.

Salvage experts work around the clock to remove the carcass of Costa Concordia. On the quayside, walkie-talkies crackle urgently with messages, in English, about boats and tasks and machinery. I sense the Gigliesi are not on the same frequency. Once the testimony to tragic misadventure has gone, and normal life resumes, perhaps early next year, the isola should soon lose her scar and retrieve her beautiful perfection.

The wounds of the victims' families and friends, and of the passengers and crew who suffered on that awful January night, will not heal so easily.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Gateways are Pisa and Rome Fiumicino, both served from UK airports by airlines including British Airways and easyJet. Linked to both cities by train is Ortebello station (two hours from Pisa Centrale and 90 minutes from Rome Termini). From Ortebello station regular buses (€1) run to Porto Santo Stefano, from where ferries from Maregiglio (00 39 0564 809 309; maregiglio.it) and Toremar (00 39 0564 809 349; toremar.it) run every couple of hours to Giglio. Fare structures are complex, but reckon on about €13 per person each way. (Cars are much more expensive.)

Staying there

A double room at the Hotel Saraceno (00 39 0564 809 006; saracenohotel.it), such as Room 37, costs €120, including breakfast.

More information

The best website is isoladelgiglio.it. For specific questions call Giglio's tourist office (00 39 0564 809 400) and hope someone answers.

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