Capraia, by Land and Sea
This piece was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.
Legend says that when the goddess Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. Many visitors would declare Capraia to be the most stunning of these islands, with its dramatic cliffs, pristine waters, and wild, uninhabited interior.
While the island is a popular summertime destination for Italians, it still has much to offer during all but perhaps the coldest winter months. I traveled to Capraia in mid-June, when the crowds had not yet peaked, but the weather was still warm enough to enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea.
I arrived by ferry, a three-hour journey from Livorno, accompanied partway by a pod of dolphins riding the bow wave. As we disembarked, an orange bus was waiting to shuttle many passengers to lodgings across the bay in Capraia’s only village, perched on a hilly promontory dominated by the imposing Forte San Giorgio. Others, including myself, were staying at Albergo Da Beppone, a modestly priced hotel located just footsteps from the quay.
Aside from these two areas, porto (port) and paese (village), the rest of the seven-square-mile island is uninhabited, a nature reserve split down the middle by a crest of mountains, the highest peak rising 1,460 feet above sea level. With a landscape swathed in Mediterranean macchia shrubs, Capraia’s backcountry offers a true escape from civilization. Its hiking trails traverse the island, leading to ancient watchtowers, panoramic vistas, and rocky coves at the water’s edge.
On my first day on Capraia, I embarked on a hike to the island’s only lake, a pool formed in the crater of an extinct volcano and referred to alternately as il laghetto (small lake) and lo stagnone (large pond). Beginning in the village’s Piazza Milano, to the left of the yellow Chiesa di San Nicola, the stone path initially ascended on a gentle incline but soon became steeper, narrower, and increasingly more strenuous. The low brush on either side rose every now and then, creating a tunnel-like canopy of branches overhead. Underfoot, the rocks were pointy and sharp, not having weathered enough traffic to smooth down their surfaces. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a lizard sunning itself on one of these stones, slithering into the shade to disappear upon my approach.
Coming to a crossroads, I turned onto a dirt path that wound up and down hills, climbing higher into the island’s desolate hinterland. Having encountered only a couple of other hikers along the way, the feeling here was of complete isolation—silent except for the sweet chirping of birds and faint rustle of hidden reptiles.
Eventually, the path flattened out, coarse macchia giving way to soft grass and wildflowers. At last, I reached the laghetto, which was camouflaged by a swampy carpet of rushes. This, as I later learned, was merely one of its many veils: in spring, the shallow lake may become blanketed with white aquatic buttercups, while other times, its limpid water reflects the ever-changing blues of the sky.
Already over two hours into my hike, I contemplated turning back, but the hill ahead promised views of a sapphire horizon. I climbed to the next vantage point, where a tiny triangle of sea appeared through the craggy ravine. In the distance, I could clearly see the outline of Corsica—Capraia, in fact, lies closer to this French island than to Italy’s mainland.
If I had had the stamina to continue north a little further, I would have found even more breathtaking views from the jagged summit of Monte Le Penne. To the south, the trail climbed another peak, Monte Arpagna—home to the Semaforo, a rusty iron structure that was once used as a lookout point by the Italian Navy—before coming to an end at the watchtower Torre dello Zenobito on Capraia’s southernmost promontory.
On my return hike from the lake, as the distant village came into view, I espied Forte San Giorgio directly ahead atop its massive fortification walls. Like three of the island’s four towers, the castle was built in the 16th century by the Genovese to defend against Saracen pirate raids.
A relic of somewhat more recent history was nestled in the hills northwest of the port: the Colonia Penale Agricola, closed since 1986. Reachable via a trail starting behind the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, the former penal colony’s cells and other abandoned buildings stood in a haunting state of disrepair.
Having now explored Capraia by land, the following day I set out on a giro dell’isola to survey the island by sea. An absolute requisite for all visitors, this boat excursion lasted around two hours, circumnavigating the island for a spectacular view of its coastline.
We left the harbor heading south, the morning sun casting a warm glow along Capraia’s eastern coast, where rolling green and brown slopes tumbled down toward rugged sea cliffs. Directly below Forte San Giorgio, at the stone watchtower Torretta del Bagno, a group of sunbathers had already gathered on the flat rocks. Nearby, we passed some swimmers in Cala dello Zurletto, a cove marked by a tower-like outcropping of rock. (Each of these spots is accessible down a steep, narrow path from the village.)
As we cruised along, our captain pointed out numerous local and migratory marine birds, including ospreys, European shags, and several species of seagulls. Colonies of those gulls had made their nests on the small islets off the coast, as well as along the sheer cliffs pockmarked by erosion.
Along the southeastern coast, the landscape hinted at an impending change of hue—evidence of the volcanic eruptions that gave birth to Capraia nine million years ago. Here, the cliff face revealed striations of dark gray and rust red, with patches of green shrubbery and golden wildflowers dotting the stone ridges like Impressionist brush strokes.
Then, just after the Torre dello Zenobito came into view, we turned the corner into Capraia’s most magnificent natural landmark, the Cala Rossa. Cliffs of white granite and fire red rock joined along a starkly defined diagonal, plunging dramatically into the clear, turquoise waters below. Amid divers, kayakers, and a handful of other boats in the cove, we lingered awhile in awed silence.
Heading north along Capraia’s west coast, we passed several caves, including the dark, dank Grotta della Foca. After rounding the island’s northernmost point by the tiny islets called Le Formiche, we reached the ephemeral Cala della Mortola. Capraia’s only sandy beach, La Mortola typically emerges in June or July, cloaked in sand or pebbles, depending on the whim of the tide, only to vanish by summer’s end. No trails lead to this beach, though many people still come by boat. Ours anchored offshore, so that we could slip into the clear, buoyant water for a swim.
During the excursion, we spotted several Capraia Diving boats, whose recreational scuba diving trips cater to all levels of experience. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, Europe’s largest marine sanctuary, the sea around Capraia is protected by environmental laws, which serve to preserve its rich, abundant marine life. Divers will encounter a variety of fish, including barracudas, scorpionfish, and John Dory. The reefs offshore provide shelter for moray eels and spiny spider crabs, and are home to plenty of colorful corals, sponges, and sea urchins.
As I toured the island’s perimeter, it became clear that land access to the sea is fairly limited. Some coves require a long trek down to sea level; others, like La Mortola, can be reached only by rented boat or barca taxi (both available in the port). Only one beach is easily accessible from the village: La Grotta. Located across from the harbor below the resort La Mandola, this rocky bathing area sits atop a wooden platform and is fully equipped with umbrellas, lounge chairs, and snack bar, its shallows protected by a short breakwater.
Of course, a day by the sea must conclude with a meal of freshly caught seafood, and there is no better place than Ristorante Al Vecchio Scorfano. Overlooking the harbor, this restaurant has been run by the same family for three generations. On my first evening, I ordered their signature dish, zuppa di pesce (fish soup). In a style unique to Capraia, it was served in two dishes: a bowl of savory tomato broth with toasted garlic bread and a platter containing mussels, clams, calamari, octopus, langoustines, and an assortment of fish that naturally included scorfano (scorpionfish). Other house specialties were bocconi di rana pescatrice (monkfish rolled in speck), risotto al nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink risotto), spaghetti con scampi e limone (spaghetti with langoustines and lemon), and garganelli al ragù di polpo rosso (pasta with octopus ragù).
My final day arrived with that sense of poignancy that often accompanies the end of a journey, the realization that no amount of time is ever adequate. From the wild inland terrain to the sea’s crystal depths, there was still plenty more to be discovered. As my ferry pulled out of port, on its way back to the mainland, I gazed longingly at Capraia’s retreating silhouette—and kept my eyes peeled for those dolphins.