Wed, Jul 14, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Italy guards isolated Montecristo

To protect fragile ecosystems andhistoric ruins, only 1,000 people per yearare permitted on the island

AFP , Montecristo, Italy

An Italian forest guard watches the coast from a hill of the famous Montecristo island, off Tuscany.

PHOTO: AFP

If French novelist Alexandre Dumas were to return and sail by Montecristo, he would not be disappointed: this tiny island off Tuscany is as jealously guarded as is the treasure in the book it is said to have inspired, his celebrated Count of Monte Cristo.

A paradise-isle for families of goats, rabbits, rats and reptiles, as well as the insects that buzz about between tufts of wild rosemary and erica bushes, the remote and rocky islet is Italy's most highly protected nature reserve.

Since being turned into a nature park in 1971, the island located some 70km from the coast has been off-limits even to sailors, who are banned from approaching its shores.

There is no waiving the restrictions. Despite the legendary amiability of the Italian people, the two gamekeepers who watch the shores from a dinghy will not let themselves be wheedled or coaxed into breaking the law. Anyone found dipping a toe from their boat into waters close to the island can expect an immediate 200-euro fine.

The only legal bathers are seagulls and occasional seals. One yachtsman found swimming last year in waters less than the regulation 1km away from the shore was sentenced to a whopping fine of 4,000 euros.

Even the couple in charge of maintenance, Goffredo and Carmen, who along with their handicapped daughter are the only residents on the island, are not allowed to swim in the limpid seas lapping the shore.

"There is a reason behind the ban on swimming. It's not just a whim," inspector Francesco Di Dio said. "There are eco-systems on this island that would suffer from a single soap bubble or a single drop of suntan oil."

Thus, Ailanthus Altissima, a tree from China brought to the island in the 19th century by onetime owner, Lord George Watson Taylor, burgeoned like a common weed and had to be pulled up to stop it threatening indigenous Mediterranean plants. So for the past 30 years, only 1,000 people are given permits each year to visit.

Some wait up to five years before setting foot on the island, with priority given to school children, academics and nature-lovers, and a strict eye kept on all visitors.

The setting for the adventures of hero Edmond Dantes could well be as much the pure fruit of the writer's imagination as was the fabulous treasure discovered in the island's dungeons. Some specialists claim the Count of Monte Cristo owes his name to another Montecristo, an island in the Caribbean near Santo Domingo, home of his mixed-blood father.

But Dumas did indeed visit the nearby isles of Elba and Corsica in the early 1840s, shortly before the serialized publication of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Historians believe however that the mysterious beauty of the island -- which glows like gold on the horizon due to the bright yellow heather growing there -- probably inspired some of the descriptions in the book. It also earned the island the name of "Ocrasia" during the period of antiquity.

As for the treasure, the legend appears to have been spawned from the fact that a group of hermit monks lived on the island for 1,000 years from the year 450 on and may have stockpiled wealth from donations made to them through the centuries.

There is still a cave where they prayed and the ruins of a monastery perched atop a steep path.

As for the treasure? "Come spend a fortnight with us alone and you'll understand," said Di Dio, waving an arm at the rocky island outcrop and the clear turquoise waters that stretch out to the horizon.

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