No Picnic on Capraia

Ex agricultural penal colony on Capraia

I’ve been on a small land mass kick recently. Pandemic permitting, of course. So what’s with those islands, anyway? Is it because you’re stuck there once you arrive and so just have to make the most of everything? Gawk at blythe birds while walking against powerful breezes and tripping over volcanic rocks? Is it because they are all kind of weird, in their own way?

Well, here’s another one for you. Capraia, off the west coast of Italy, once home to pirates, monks, and convicts. And goats, of course. In fact, we could easily dub Capraia ‘Goat Island’ (capra means goat in Italian). A humble name for a backwater that Alexandre Dumas, the famous French writer, snubbed when choosing the location for his book about a haunted man hunting for treasure in the Tuscan archipelago, between Italy and France. Of course, the Count of Montecristo sounds much more beguiling than the Count of Goatland.

The monastery is an ivy-encrusted ruin, the corsairs’ run is over, and the prison was closed decades ago. There are no springs, and no beaches. No beaches in the Mediterranean?? Come on. So why would anyone waste their time on a place that takes two and a half hours to reach from the mainland? Well, the sea is protected around most of the island, part of a marine preserve. The water is clean. Birds also abound. And there are some pretty determined bird stalkers, as well as walkers and boaters, where the sea is open.

And that’s how my birdwatching husband and I found ourselves climbing up a lumpy track on Capraia on a brilliant spring day in 2019. It was migration season, in those halcyon days when humans could flit about like birds.

Loaded down with binoculars and cameras, we had decent footwear, but were definitely not as nimble as the wild shaggy creatures that used to wander around this stoic land mass eight kilometers long and four across.

Modern-day domesticated goats thrive here

In the Inferno, Dante, ever imaginative, calls on Capraia and the neighboring island of Gorgona to move and hedge in the river Arno. He wanted them to drown all the citizens of Pisa. What had the inhabitants done to deserve such a fantastical death,? Killed by roving islands? Well, the true part of the story is that a nobleman, Count Ugolino, and his sons got locked up in a tower in the middle of the Tuscan city, and starved to death. It is a reminder that Italy was not always just a holiday destination, and times were tough in the Middle Ages.

Upper reaches of abandoned colony. Notice the monumental arched entrance on road below the wall

Now Dante knew his geography, he did. Capraia and tiny Gorgona are pretty much just across the water from Pisa. And strangely enough, both have hosted agricultural penal colonies (Gorgona still has one). So although they don’t go floating around at any poet’s bidding, the two stony islands are actually used to dealing with crime and punishment.    

By Afnecors – Image:Tuscan archipelago blank map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4025811
Spotted Flycatcher (muscicapa striata) sitting on the branch of a lentisco (pistacia lentiscus) shrub

 We were there for Liberation Day, April 25th, a holiday to remember the Italian Resistance’s victory over what was left of the Nazi-Fascists in northern Italy in 1945, at the end of WWII. Some people would appear to like to forget what happened during Mussolini’s dictatorship (often simply referred to as the ventennio, literally, two decades, the years from 1922 to 1943-5) and his diabolical alliance with Hitler.  But everyone, no matter what sort of nostalgia affects them, takes advantage of a day off, or even better, a long weekend. We celebrated by going to investigate yet another far-flung corner of this patchwork peninsula.

First we drove to Livorno or Leghorn, on the Tyrrhenian coast. There we managed to find a restaurant at ten o’clock at night that still had some of the local spicy fish soup, cacciucco, sitting in the pot. Then we stumbled into bed and got up early to catch the morning ferry.  

We passed Elba as we drank coffee on the deck and stared at the sky and the sea.

 

View from the southwestern tip of Capraia of her bigger sisters: Elba on the left, and Corsica on the right

Although the biggest island in the archipelago is pretty and forested, the conqueror who changed the face of Europe was restless in his tiny princedom. Napolean couldn’t end his days governing a bunch of Tuscan hicks from his smallish mansion. No. Waterloo just had to become more than a little town in Belgium. Not only was Elba too confining for the Corsican, it was also just too close to home.

In fact, Corsica loomed up ahead. Our barren destination came first, though, 25 kilometres from the French coast. No, not barren! Not in April. Even downright green in some places. But shadeless, practically treeless. Except for a few planted umbrella pines. The live oaks, the ilex, that idled here back in prehistoric days are gone. Capraia didn’t have much else to offer demanding, relentless folks such as the Romans. No fresh water to feed luxury palaces, no metals to make a profit. The only tangible asset was wood, yes. And so the ilex all got cut down and carted off. 

    

Port, and town of Capraia, connected by the one paved road on the island

We walked off the boat. The tiny port is below the town with its impressive fortress-luxury rental property on top. These two places are where people actually live and work and rent rooms. Apart from a few farms, that just about does it for human habitation on Goat Island. The rest is for the birds. Hopefully, the elusive Corsican finch, for one. Napoleon may have turned his back on his birthplace, but it has other claims to fame. This finch is a must, apparently.

Now I had chosen a ‘farm-stay’ on a promontory above the port. I had chosen isolation even in spring, when it’s too cold to swim and there is no crowd to speak of. I also didn’t realize that getting to and from our accommodation meant walking up and down, every morning and every night, through the abandoned penal colony with its striking and also stricken umbrella pine trees lining the road. Night on a pebbly road with no lights except our phone flashlights. Strangely enough, we were the only guests at our bed and breakfast which vaunted sustainable practices such as no use of plastic, organic jams for breakfast, no air conditioning and other good things like that.  It became clear to me pretty soon that not everyone was into strenous exercise, especially after dinner.

Pockmarked volcanic rock viewed from the sea

But we were. After taking a a thrilling boat tour of the islands cliffs to see birds, and gasp at bizarre geological formations caused by volcanic eruptions, we just had to do some real hiking. I studied the brochure in our room.  It said it would take nine hours to circumnavigate the island on foot. Ridiculous. We’d do it in less. So my husband bought cheese and salami and bread in the town, and made huge sandwiches the night before. Then at breakfast we told our host about our plan.

Cala Rossa (part of an ancient volcano)

‘Oh, that’s a long walk. A good nine hours, I’d say,’ said the sturdy man gravely. Surprised, but not dissuaded, we wolfed down as many pieces of dried toast and jam as we could manage without choking. He then asked us how much water we had.

‘Well, not much, just this bicycle bottle here that we filled in the bathroom.’

‘No!’ Our host’s sense of humanity was suddenly activated. No longer eco entrepreneur, he ducked into the kitchen and came back with a liter and half of ice- cold fizzy mineral water encased in plastic. ‘Take it, please! There are no fountains and no houses on your itinerary, do you understand? Only wilderness!’

It sounded wonderful. But we did accept the bottle, despite its being another piece of reckless, planet-damaging waste.    

Backpacks filled with birdbooks, nourishment, and liquid, we set out.  

First of all, a word about the penal colony. Now I’d never been in favor of them, starting from when I had to read Kafka in high school. Of course, his tale of a diabolical machine that scratched the names of prisoners’ crimes onto their bare backs was bound to freak out any 17-year-old. And connect bizarre execution methods with islands and detention centers. Well, there is something to that. But this was an agricultural penal colony, self-sustaining, and more like a modern-day Norwegian prison than Devil’s Island.    

I mentioned pirates earlier. Well, the first ones got ousted by the Romans. Then came the monks. But the return of other pirates, especially Dragut, a famous corsair from the Barbary Coast, made life very difficult. In the end the Genoese took over, built a fort, and held onto the island for centuries before Italy unified in 1861. What then to do with little Capraia? In 1873 the government built a special open-air penal colony for prisoners about to end their sentences, and make the prisoners herd domesticated goats, produce cheese and honey. The prisoners’ families settled in the town, and modified the local dialect, which was very close to what is spoken in Corsica. The colony closed in 1986. But the buildings and trees remain, and the place has a gloomy allure to it. Reminds me of another German-speaking writer, W.G. Sebald. How can one not be fascinated by decay and oblivion?

Well, we passed the upper part of what was left of the complex, including the sheep pen, and then started on our jumbled trail. It is what you call ‘unimproved’. The type you can twist your ankle on, that sort of thing. So we placed our feet carefully between the jagged rocks as we climbed and climbed under a shining blue sky.

Gariga on the hills

After almost four hours of huffing and puffing through shrubs, and a bit of traversing of the aromatic gariga, the low-lying drought tolerant plants, the lavender, thyme, cistus and elicriso, that are ubiquitous in the Mediterranean, we reached a little pond. The only one, which disappears in the summer. There were a few people, too many for us, of course, and so we walked a bit further. Then we sat on some boulders, absolutely famished. “Ok, where’s the sandwich with the pecorino and finocchiona?” I said. My husband stared at me. ‘You always bring the food! I mean, don’t you?’ We started cursing. A short discussion ensued.

Who said I was the steward of the victuals? And what about the obvious rule that sandwich makers should also be sandwich packers? But we stopped because it was heartbreaking. Resignation and silence then, prevailed, something I’m sure the ancient monks knew all about.  

I also thought, as I looked over towards Corsica, that the brochure might be right. it looked like we had many hours to go to reach home that night.

Corsica across the channel

We kept going. Soon we were scrambling up a hill to an old radio tower, called the Semaforo, used for communication and spying by the Italian Navy till 1943. A group of hikers from the city of Modena were spread out around the metal structure, munching on all sorts of goodies. I was salivating. My husband got sidetracked in some bushes, looking for the finch, of course, and I sat down to rest on the springy thyme covering the ground. A man sat next to me, introduced himself, and told me that all his hiking companions, from the Italian Alpine Club were trying out different sorts of cheeses they’d brought with them from their region, Emilia Romagna. ‘It’s a veritable cheese sampling here!’ he exclaimed. I had to control myself. If I told him my sad story, he would feel obliged to offer me some of his lunch. His friends too. Then my husband would pop out of the shrubbery, and he would have to be fed as well. The Modenesi would be generous. They’d ply us with what they had. Emilia Romagna. Home of warm-hearted gastronomes. Where parmesan, Parma prosciutto, Bolognese meat sauce, come from, for god’s sake. I bit my tongue.

The Semaforo

We trudged on. The path continued to be unimproved. Uphill and downhill. We finished our water. Then we reached the southernmost point of the island. My husband walked out to a tower, la torre dello Zenobito (cenobite, a monk who lives in a community, as opposed to a hermit)  while I sat in the prickly, grayish gariga, one step up from desertification. The macchia (called maquis in French) includes bigger shrubs and small trees, and is greener.

I decided to draw a picture of one of these tough flowers making up the gariga. I fished around for a pencil in my husband’s backpack. And then, voilà, I found a packet of candied ginger and another one of pistacchios! I’d stumbled onto his birdwatching emergency stash! The type of stash you always forget you have! I fell on this treasure and gobbled up my half before my husband had made it back with his zoom-equipped camera swinging from his side. Now refreshed, we were able to trudge on for another three and a half hours.

Racing toward the Torre dello Cenobito on an empty stomach

We crept around the remains of the old monastery of Santo Stefano. What attractive, tough vegetation. Glossy honeysuckle, myrtle, lentisco, all plants that withstand frying-pan-like heat in the summer and wind all year round. I was impressed by the feistiness of the corbezzolo, small trees that produce a strawberry-colored fruit.  Why had it died twice on my terrace?? The guantlet had been thrown at my feet, and I would have to take up the challenge again. If something could grow here, it could grow just about anywhere, without too much coddling.

IWe crossed a lush marshy area. We heard some funny rhythmic sounds. “Bee-eaters!” said my husband excitedly. And there they were, yes, straight from Africa, making a fine spectacle.

Showy European Bee-eater (merops apiaster)

We were getting close to the end. The track was paved in places. We crossed paths with a few other birdwatchers. And then, we saw it! The inconspicuous but resilient thing that we had come for. Napoleon would have been proud of his little namesake. The Corsican, at last.

Corsican Finch (carduelis corsicana)

We dashed into a bar in town and bought some fizzy sugary junk drink that was going to keep us going until dinner. We needed to drag ourselves up through the penal colony and come back. I said goodbye to the asphodels on our way up the corrugated gravel road. How many hours out? Nine. We had been humbled by humble little Capraia. We didn’t have four legs and cloven hooves. We were just run-of-the-mill walkers and stalkers.

Asphodels

While eating our pasta later on, I asked my husband about his bird list. ‘How many lifers, apart from the Corsican?’

Useful website: http://www.isoladicapraia.it/index.html (also available in English)

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