It rarely happens to a reporter that a major story breaks in her own neighborhood. And well, it's not really a neighborhood, but the Tuscan archipelago, where a cruise ship crashed last month. It's an area I know very well.
I spend summers there, and just last August I was boating a few yards from Le Scole, a rocky reef near Giglio island that is the scene of the disaster.
For the past three weeks, the half-submerged Costa Concordia has dominated the landscape of Giglio and looms ominously over the island's future as a haven for nature lovers and scuba divers.
She's not the first ship to make her grave in these waters. Archaeologists have led excavations of at least one ancient Roman ship and of an Etruscan vessel dating from 600 B.C.
But islanders say this shipwreck is anything but a tourist attraction — they fear it will keep Giglio's traditional visitors away.
The grounded carcass of the Costa Concordia looks like something out of a disaster movie, an alien that came from out of nowhere and plopped down alongside the wooden dinghies moored in the small fishing port. The 1,000-foot-long ship is clearly visible from the mainland eight nautical miles away.
A huge hunk of granite from that reef is now embedded in the hull of the marooned Costa Concordia, lying on its side on a rocky ledge just outside the port.
Hitting The Reef
On Jan. 13, the captain of the mega-cruise ship, Francesco Schettino, committed an apparent act of maritime bravado.
In an effort to entertain passengers with a close-up view of the island, he rammed the vessel with 4,200 people onboard straight into the Le Scole reef, leaving a gash some 50 yards long on the side of the ship.
It surely ranks as one of the dumbest maritime accidents ever, followed by a chaotic evacuation. Seventeen people were killed, another 16 are still missing and presumed dead.
Bad weather has thus far prevented salvage workers from pumping out the half-million gallons of fuel onboard. But the ship has already started polluting the shallow shoreline with leaks of some of the other toxic substances onboard — detergents, paints, solvents, chlorinated swimming pool water and more than 1,300 gallons of olive oil.
Giglio's residents, and everyone in the surrounding area, are furious. I share their anger and fear. With its continuing presence in those crystal-clear waters, the Costa Concordia could trigger an environmental disaster in the Mediterranean's most protected natural area. For me, this hits very close to home.
The Tuscan archipelago is said to be Europe's biggest marine sanctuary, safeguarding 140,000 acres of sea and 4,400 acres of land.
Besides the island of Giglio, the archipelago consists of another six islands: Elba (of Napoleonic fame), Montecristo (which perhaps inspired Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo), Giannutri, Pianosa, Capraia and Gorgona and the Argentario promontory — an almost-island, attached to the mainland by three strips of land.
A Wildlife Sanctuary
Thanks to the absence of any major industries and big commercial ports for hundreds of miles, the transparent waters are rich and varied in flora and fauna.
Along with a native sea grass that grows up to a yard high, these waters are home to mollusks, sea bass, tuna and many other fish species. I've never seen them, but I'm told it's a habitat for whales, dolphins and a refuge for some of the Mediterranean's last surviving monk seals.
The coral reefs are as spectacular as any in the Caribbean. And the sunsets are breathtaking.
The coastline is covered in with native shrubs — lentisk, juniper, rosemary, lavender and wild olive mingle with tall cypress trees. The scents are inebriating.
In spring, wildflowers cover the slopes. The Uccellina wildlife park is home to boars — I once saw one wandering among the swimmers on the sandy beach.
Riding my bike on the Feniglia wildlife reserve, I've often seen deer. It's on the nearby beach that legend has it the painter Caravaggio drowned in 1610.
The lagoon of Orbetello is a rare example of a swamp ecosystem that has survived urbanization. It's home to a World Wildlife Fund sanctuary for migrating birds where I've often watched long-legged herons feeding on tiny shrimp in the marshy waters — their nourishment providing them their pink color.
A Grand History
The region is rich in history. There are vestiges of Roman homes, and the islands were once a refuge for Christian hermits. Over the centuries, the inhabitants of the archipelago have had to defend themselves from invasion — from Saracens to pirates.
Castello village, overlooking the island from on high, is surrounded by medieval walls. Visitors can view a plaque commemorating a 1799 victory against 2,000 Tunisian pirates.
But some invaders left their mark — my favorite cove on the Argentario is called Cala Moresca, or Moorish cove.
The shoreline of the Argentario is dotted with look-out towers, remnants of Spanish military domination in the 16th century.
The most recent invaders were the Nazis who held Porto Santo Stefano in World War II — the ruins of a torpedo factory are still visible.
I first discovered this southernmost part of Tuscany with my parents when I was a teenager. My father was a Florentine, but he'd never been there before.
The inland area, the Maremma, had long been a no-man's land. Its marshes were a feeding ground for TB and dire poverty, and for centuries it was associated with brigands and lawlessness.
Perhaps it was this long isolation that has allowed the archipelago to maintain its identity and natural treasures for so long.
It wasn't until the 1960s that adventurous backpackers began exploring the region.
And still today, it's a holiday place Italians like to keep to themselves.
But the Costa Concordia shipwreck threatens to destroy this hidden paradise — already Giglio has been invaded on weekends by hundreds of day-trippers — people who had never heard of the island before the accident. They come to gawk in what a Giglio taxi driver described to me as "disaster tourism."