It’s like Capri but without the crowds
Porto Santo Stefano, on the Monte Argentario peninsula in southern Tuscany, has been bashed about and is the better for it. The Americans did the most damage. They wanted to prevent the Germans supplying Monte Cassino and other defences during the Second World War, so they dumped a shedload of explosives on the strategic port – largely missing the Germans, apparently, but clearing the town for considerable rebuilding in the Fifties and beyond.
“I came here as a girl,” said Florence, one of a mixed crew of old friends and older family who had gathered on the peninsula for the week. “And there was none of that up there…” She waved vaguely at the pink and orange buildings clinging to the cliffs above. The higher ones are villas, but others, down the hill a bit, house the people of the port, which is still crammed with ferries, fishing boats and, reassuringly, fish – landed fresh from the Tyrrhenian Sea and on sale at two huge stalls down by the harbour.
The mountain of Argentario, on which Porto Santo Stefano sits, is an enchanted semi-island tied to the mainland by two ropes of sand. These twin causeways are called the “Tomboli” and enclose a huge lozenge of muddy swamp, the “Stagno” of Orbetello, once renowned for its eels. The town of Orbetello sits on a small, tonguelike peninsula sticking out into the brackish lagoon. This peculiar geography meant we were now slightly beyond the coast, roughly halfway between Rome and Pisa, on a big lump of rock covered with prickly undergrowth and mostly designated as national
On the Monte Argentario peninsula, Griff Rhys Jones explores a corner of coastal Tuscany that time – and tourism – forgot
park. Monte Argentario is so named because the family who owned it lent money to the Roman Republic ( argentarii means moneylenders) to finance the Punic Wars. Today’s equivalent – bankers and hedge fund mangers – still appear to own most of the place, nesting in terracotta-coloured villas wedged into the slopes among the umbrella pines and enjoying sunset views across to the Tuscan archipelago and Corsica beyond.
Out there, the first big lump you see is Giglio. That island’s most recent adornment, the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship, has only recently been carted off. Last time I was here, it was the single focus of everybody’s binoculars.
June is a good time to be on this coastal knoll: most of the holiday homes are shuttered up and uninhabited; the heat is warming rather than scorching; there are places to park (if you are patient); and cafés will willingly squeeze you a fresh orange juice while you wait.
We settled into our villa on Lividonia point. It’s a former farmhouse on the far side of the hill, built from big, gnarly lumps of tufa, or lava stone. The house had the satisfying smell of a properly arranged bolt-hole from the Sixties – and not one that had been much rearranged since.
Elegant and not too upholstered, it had antique furniture in the living rooms. In our bedroom, heavy white curtains hung from thin iron curtain rails. The bed was hard but high. There was a desk, a small stove near the entrance to the bathroom, and a
Porto Santo Stefano in southern Tuscany, above; and Griff Rhys Jones, below