The sun sets below you from the terrace of the Ristorante Da Maria, shimmering on the waters of Campese bay, silhouetting the Faraglione, jagged stacks that owe their name to their resemblance to the fangs of a lion. You dine in style within the ancient walls of Giglio Castello, served by piratical waiters, cooked for by family members who are passionate about food. The combinations of flavours here reflect the proximity of the sea barely more than a kilometre away as the Merlin stoops and the wild heights of this rocky Tuscan island almost 500 m above the sea: cuttlefish and funghi porcini, squid and basil, rabbit and wine vinegar, pine nuts, capers.
Castello is the Tuscan heart of this rocky island, 8.7 km long and 4.5 km wide at its broadest, though it is an exceptional, atypical place. Giglio has been inhabited for millennia, but never overpopulated. Even today its regular population is only about 1,600. Objects from the Stone Age have been discovered on the island, and in 1950 a cache of relics from the Bronze Age was also found. The Etruscans certainly knew the place and, from about the time of Christ, Romans frequented it, and a fish pool that belonged to a patrician villa near the port can still be seen. There are also many wrecks, some of them Roman, in the clear waters around the coast, which attract divers from all over the world.
In the Middle Ages pirates scoured coastal parts of the Mediterranean, and repeated raids on Giglio drove the people from the shore up to Castello. This was strongly fortified by the Medici family from Florence after the infamous Barbarossa completely depopulated the island in the 1540s, deporting about 700 people to slavery in Constantinople. The intricate, honeycombed and honey-coloured citadel remains now much as it has been for centuries, with only minor adjustments, such as the conversion of donkey stables into holiday apartments. Here you can still buy the remarkable local wine (Ansonaco, made from tiny, sun-filled grapes, which only thrive here and on Monte Argentario on the mainland only 14 km away) in deep, cool cellars. You can still pay your respects to the forearm of St Mamilius of Montecristo, which is kept in the parish church. You can still acknowledge the memory of Rossini (who passed some time here) by joining in the jam sessions on the stepped central street in the evenings. Meanwhile, as your exquisite meal in Da Maria draws towards a dolce and amaro conclusion the clouds begin to drift through from one window to another, almost as if they lived there.
In the mornings, if youre up early, youll catch the sea at its limpid best. Bright turquoise above the granite sand, a true aquamarine above the weeded reefs. Plunging deep inside the waters youll share your space with wrasse and barbel, mullet, bream and schools of tiny fry. Occasionally youll glimpse crafty and dangerous weaver fish burying themselves in the sand, and subtly disguised cuttlefish or a brassily obvious conger eel. Sea urchins (now a protected species) abound, as do tiny hermit crabs and other rock-scrabbling, green-shelled crustaceans.
Its not a place of extensive beaches, and theres not a sand dune or golf-link in sight. Its against the law (and more or less accepted practice) to use a motorboat within 200 m of the shore except of course in the port where regular ferries dock and manoeuvre to and from Porto S. Stefano on the mainland. Jet-skis just dont appear, though ritzy great motor yachts may, gliding self-consciously into quiet coves to anchor in the still of dusk, and then slipping guiltily away as the sun begins to warm the hungry gulls on the rocks.
Giglio, whose name derives from the Greek for goats (igilion) and not from the Latin for lily, is pan-like, not regal. Even today it is largely impenetrable, dense macchia (a heady mixture of broom, arbutus, lentisk, sistus, tree heather and myrtle) and steep, angular folds rather than graceful and grassy slopes. On my first visit, some 20 years ago, I lost my way from the heights of Castello down disused mule tracks to Campese, and eventually arrived scratched and scared after epiphanies of extinction on the wild mountainside. The principal ways are clearer today, but you could easily find the space to get lost in some area where cultivation has given way to wilderness (usually the brambles are worse where land has previously been cleared). This year it was good to meet a donkey being skillfully ridden up the track from Porto to Castello, a sign that some traditions are still alive.
After the last Turkish raid in 1799, sailors from Naples and the south began to colonise the coast, and Porto began to take its modern shape and importance. Campese, the third nucleus on the island, only grew to anything like its current proportions in very recent times. In the mid-20th century the pyrite mining at Cala delle Allume (which closed down in 1962) employed young men from Castello who would walk down the mountain before dawn, work naked in the deep, hot and stuffy galleries before climbing back up again in the evening. Most of those men, by the way, the first to earn cash wages for anything on the island, have since died of respiratory diseases not unrelated to their working conditions.
Giglio is a paradise, despite the existence of some serpents (there are actually no vipers). The population might increase by a factor of ten or more every brief summer but, by and large, those who seek the beauty and tranquillity of such an isle help to preserve what they come to. The creation of the Parco Nazionale dellArcipelago Toscano (national park of the Tuscan archipelago) in 1991 has limited the possibilities of development in the southern part of the island. There is even one hotel (Pardinis Hermitage) that prides itself on its inaccessibility it can only be reached by boat or by a very difficult footpath and which not only caters wholly for its guests but also has a ceramic workshop, all you need for watercolour painting, musical instruments and a well-stocked library.
In the bars and restaurants you will see pictures of history and pictures of seasons. Snow on the hillsides and rooftops, waterspouts (twin ones) just off Campese, freighters loading pyrite, fishermen landing swordfish. It is a highly colourful and varied environment, with a wealth of natural and human resources. If you havent been, you should. But if you do go, leave it as you found it.