da " EYE ON ITALY " - Novembre/Dicembre 1987





by Brigitte Cruickshank, photos by GUIDO PICCHETTI

Monte Argentario, situated on the Tyrrhenian coast about 150 kilometers north of Rome, is a rocky, peninsular promontory linked to th Tuscan mainland by two sandy spits and a man-made causeway. Geography favors its climate: mild winters, below average rainfall and above average hours of sunshine. It is renowned for crystal-clean waters, jutting out from Italy's shamefully polluted coasts into the Mediterranean to wash in cleansing and life-giving sea currents.

The Etruscans first settled the area. In 273 B.C. nearby Cosa (present day Ansedonia) was colonized by the Romans. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, a wealthy patrician friend of Cicero and opponent of Julius Caesar and Anthony, owned all of Monte Argentario and built a sumptuous villa on the neighboring island of Giannutri where its ruins can be seen.

In the 16th century the Spanish fought fiercely for possession of Monte Argentario and

Roman ruins on Giannutri

its hinterland; the ensuing State of the Presidi chose easily defended, lagoon-locked Orbetello as their stronghold. Recently, in the 1960's and 70's, Monte Argentario was the "in" place, a playboy's paradise. The flighty jet-set have migrated, but history and Nature's heritage still harbor here.

A magical vision rises round the turn in the road to Ansedonia: the cairn, mirror-like water of the Orbetello lagoon and the imposing mass of Monte Argentario as a dramatic backdrop to the fortress crowned hills over Porto Ercole.

Past Orbetello, skirting the lagoon and across the causeway towards Porto Santo Stefano, about two kilometers on is the junction (signposted in yellow, indicating a location of historical or panoramic interest) leading to Punta Telegrafo and the Passionist Monastery. On the slopes of the hill, the Monastery is a sort of boundary in the trees as they change abruptly to sweet chestnut woods. The summit is Punta Telegrafo, about 650 meters above sea level and used for television, radio and telecommunications transmission. The view is staggering, especially on a crisp winter day. Landward lies the lagoon, cradling Orbetello. Encircling the stili water basin, and separating it from the surging sea, are two strips of pine-wooded sand spit; whiffs of pine scent waft up to the look-out post. Beyond the rugged Mediterranean scrub of Monte Argentario rise the islands of Giglio and Giannutri. In good weather the view expands over the open sea beyond Giglio to the fabled, jagged form of the Isle of Montecristo; to the north is Elba, to the west, sometimes silhouetted against the setting sun, is Corsica.

In spring and early autumn, Punta Telegrafo abounds with wild cyclamen. In autumn artubus bushes flanking the road are loaded with brightly colored berries. Monte Argentario offers many other joys to nature lovers:  over 20 species of indigenous

Porto Ercole with the Spanish fort

wild orchids flourish here. Some can be found easily growing along the roadside; others are more of a challenge to find.

Porto Santo Stefano, the area's commercial center, has a big fleet of fishing boats, accompanied by swarms of eager gulls hovering and diving to snatch an easy prey as the fisherman drag in their nets, freeing them of small fry and algae. Porto Santo Stefano is the door to Giglio and Giannutri; both are well worth visiting.

The Strada Panoramica winds out of the town and along the coast to Cala Piccola, a tiny natural harbor which, although slighty spoilt by recent speculative development, is still an eye-dazzling  rocky  inlet.  Twisting  down  from  the  Saracen  tower

(cleverly turned into a luxury hotel) the road is closed: it belongs to a private consortium. However the best view is from above. Over the hill to the right, on the main road towards Le Cannelle and l'Isola Rossa, the plunging southern coast lays out a sumptuous vista. The eye stopper here is a triangular pinnacle of rock, Isola Rossa. Here some of the finest and architecturally most harmonious villas of the whole Argentario region are built. Good architecture blends with spot-on landscaping, bou-gainvillaea flourish in oases of trees and green lawns amidst the rocks.

Try driving along the Panoramica on the rough unpaved part which completes the round trip to Porto Ercole. This road can be  perilously  primitive  after  heavy rain,  but the view  of the

Shipwrecks are abundant along the coast

hilltop fortresses around Porto Ercole and across the wide bay  of Feniglia to the rocky headland of Ansedonia is worth the bumps. Porto Ercole is built around a natural inlet and the old town nestles in the hillside under a stern Spanish fort, La Rocca, recently restored and converted into luxury apartments but open to visitors by appointment. (One historical sidelight: the painter Caravaggio died here of sun fever in 1610). Just beyond the town another natural harbor, which was used for commerciai vessels in Etruscan and Roman times, has been closed off to forma sophisticated yacht marina, Cala Galera. The marina is active all year and in winter there are twice-monthly regattas.

The Argentario coast and islands are popular with sub-acqua enthusiasts for the clear waters, the variety of under-water topography, frequent finds of shipwrecks, and a wide range of Mediterranean flora and fauna, including prized red coral. The area is considered of such natural interest that it has been designated as a protected zone by the newly formed Italian Ministry of the Environment. There are several near-by land areas of parallel ecological interest which have already been so protected.

For wildlife watchers, Monte Argentario boasts three nature reserves of marked interest; the World Wildlife Fund considers the northern Orbetello lagoon of international importance for its indigenous marshland flora and fauna and for the migratory birds, including flamingoes, which come there. Since the formation of this park in 1972, the number of cormorants wintering in the lagoon has increased from a miserable few to a healthy colony, and many other species have prospered. With continued rational ecological planning the Argentario can escape the sword of Damocles hanging over it, put there by greedy speculation and pollution.

Flower-like polyps of soft coral
Ancient capital in Giannutri (right)

Take the Fiumicino-Civitavecchia autostrada west out of Roma to Civitavecchia, from there continue along the Aurelia or S.S.1, following the indications to Grosseto and then to Orbetello; approximate distance from Roma, 140 km.

Telephone numbers and prices can be obtained from the local tourist office: Azienda di Soggiorno e Turismo, Corso Umberto 55a, Porto Santo Stefano, tel. (0564) 814208.

Parco Naturale della Maremma, tel. (0564) 407098; "Free Range" visits ct. - June 15; in summer there are guided tours (and in English if requested); open Wed., Sat., Sun., and holidays; the Park is located near Alberese, between Orbetello and Grosseto on the S.S.1.
Oasi di Ponente, wildfowl reserve, tel. (0564) 862439; open Sept. - May, Thurs., Sun., and holidays.

Lago di Burano, tel. (0564) 898829; lagoon wildfowl reserve near Capalbio along  S.S.1, km. 131; open August -May, Sat., Sun., Thurs., and holidays.

A Porto Ercole:
La Sirena
(tei. 832513), Piazza San Sebastiano; genuine good food at very reasonable prices.
Mamma Licia (tel. 832513), on the beach; good fresh fish; packed in August.
In zona Terra Rossa:
La Ribotta (tei. 814504), unusual pasta and risotto dishes, excellent Tuscan meat; reasonable prices.
La Posada (tei. 820180), sophisticated, in a fine old restored farmhouse, varied menu with rare fish dishes; pricey.
A Porto Santo Stefano:
Argentario (tei. 812538), Via del Corso, good fish; medium prices.

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copyright Guido Picchetti - 7/6/2009