Pianosa: An island in Tuscany’s archipelago is now a role model for sustainable travel

I’m affected by Pianosite, an illness only cured by living as much as possible on the island.”

Located off the coast of Tuscany in Italy, Pianosa is a small and picturesque island with an illustrious history. However, with the recent past as the location of a maximum security prison, it has been off-limits. One Planet Journey is proud to give you a detailed view of a fascinating part of the Tuscan Archipelago. Old Stone Age settlements, Roman banishment colony, Christian catacombs, penal site – the island has it all in spades. Now it’s more famous for its remarkable natural beauty, pristine beaches, and thriving wildlife. Its remote and secluded location, limited human impact, and commitment to sustainable travel make Pianosa a haven for nature enthusiasts and a unique destination for those seeking an authentic and untouched Italian island experience in Tuscany. Don’t say we don’t give you novel travel ideas!

We spoke to Mauro Mazzei Braschi, co-founder of the non-profit organisation Associazione per la Difesa dell’Isola di Pianosa (Association for the defense of the Pianosa Island). The passionate group works hard to convey over 10 000 years of Pianosa’s history to the island’s visitors. The members of the Association also share their memories as Pianosini (inhabitants of Pianosa), who were born and raised on the island, now a famous National Park, where only ca. 20 people are living, of which only one with an official residence.

Keeping Pianosa alive

The non-profit organisation was founded in 1995 by Mauro (2nd from the right in the photo below) and other co-founders. Mauro was born on the island and lived there for over 20 years. He explained to One Planet Journey what motivated the establishment of the organisation:

The Association was founded because after the maximum-security prison closed, the island became uninhabited for several years, and no one had a clue of what Pianosa had to offer. Due to security reasons, no visitors could come when the prison was active.”

With over 600 members, the organisation runs a photo gallery with old photos and videos of the island, where visitor donations help the Association to undertake renovations of buildings and other works of historical interest on the Island. The members of the Association are also happy to recount funny anecdotes from when they lived in this natural paradise.

Members from the Pianosa Association
Members of the Association: (from the left) Pier Francesco Pacini,
Valter Tanghetti, Maria Paola Grassi, Mauro Mazzei Braschi and Pietro Campanella

Pianosa’s History

First inhabited during the Upper Paleolithic, the island received the name Planasia (plain) in Roman times when they built villas, ports and thermal baths. The island hosts two levels of catacombs, dating back to early Christian times during the third century A.D. With 700 burials discovered and spread across 110 metres of tunnels, Pianosas’ catacombs are the largest north of Rome and one of the island’s most visited and appreciated attractions. Due to its unique condition, with an area of just 10 square kilometres and 29 metres as the highest point, Pianosa became a Penal Colony in 1856. In 1977, it transformed into a maximum-security prison, hosting storied mafia bosses. In 1998, Pianosa’s penitentiary closed, with only a few guards remaining on the island for surveillance. Today, Pianosa hosts a cooperative of volunteers and detainees in a semi-freedom status who runs a hotel and a restaurant while handling other duties around the island.

Underground tunnels with over 700 burials

3rd century A.D. catacombs

How to enjoy the island – what to see and do in Pianosa

Mauro suggests the best period to visit the island is either April/May or September/October due to the flowering of several fragrant and colourful plants, the mild climate and the limited amount of visitors.

Mauro recommends staying overnight in Pianosa and experiencing what he defines as the best part of the island: “the darkness of the night, which gives you the opportunity to spot stars and planets you won’t be able to see anywhere else”. During special events, Pianosa organises night tours with astronomers.

Tourists can only walk around the small old village, which covers 10% of the island. The rest is a protected area, visited through guided excursions like trekking, bus tours, snorkelling, mountain biking, and kayak tours, all escorted by National Park guides.

For enthusiasts, in collaboration with experts from the University of Siena, Pianosa offers geological tours focusing on how the island was born and how it evolved.

Mauro’s favourite place on the island? The tiny old harbour in the village.

“It’s a gem. I loved it because when the ferry arrived in the harbour, we were first sad to see family and friends leaving the island but curious and excited to see who came next. Mauro describes himself as “affected by Pianosite, an illness only cured by living as much as possible on the island. I spend New Year’s Eve here, Easter… any holiday is a great excuse for me to return to my beloved motherland Pianosa,” Mauro says to One Planet Journey.

Beautiful bay on Pianosa island

Cala del Bruciato – one of the many bays to explore on Pianosa.

Sustainable Travel in Tuscany

As with every National Park, strict rules apply to preserve the archaeological and environmental heritage of the island, with fishing and anchoring prohibited in the immediate surroundings. The only way to get to the Pianosa is via a public ferry, which stops at the famous Elba island, only an hour away. During the trip, you’ll likely be able to spot dolphins welcoming you to the island.

Mauro also describes other rules applied in Pianosa to protect its integrity. First of all, only 250 visitors are allowed to visit each day. One Planet Journey believes capping visitor numbers and providing a more enjoyable atmosphere for visitors is the way to go for many destinations under pressure from over-tourism. Pianosa is a pioneer in sustainable travel in Tuscany from which others can learn.

Have you visited Pianosa? What was your experience, and how do you feel about restricted visitor numbers in general? Let us know in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from travel tips, interviews and inspirational examples of sustainable travel.

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