"Able was I ere I saw Elba" goes the Napoleonic palindrome, inspired by the little big Corsican's sojourn on Elba in 1814. Who, thanks to Napoleon, hasn't heard of the island, the largest of seven in an archipelago off the coast of Tuscany? And who, thanks to Alexandre Dumas, hasn't heard of a second, Montecristo - though the count of his creation never actually set foot there? The rest of the islands, which combine to form the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano - the largest protected marine area in Europe - include Gorgona, a prison, Pianosa, a former penal colony, Capraia and Giannutri. Then comes Isola del Giglio which, though it has an area of just eight square miles, is the second largest island in the group and, with 1600 residents, is the second most populated.
To get to Giglio, I take the ferry from Porto Santo Stefano, about an hour and a half north of Rome by train or car. The crossing, about 15km as the gull flies, takes less than an hour. Out at sea, I enjoy a spectacular view of the western slopes of Monte Argentario. Due south, I also see Giannutri, which boasts the ruins of a Roman villa, complete with marbles, mosaics and columns. The tiny island is said to be haunted by the ghost of the grief-stricken wife of Gualtiero Adami, one of Garibaldi's captains, who lived on the island for 40 years. Who said this was the corner of Tuscany with the least history?
From a distance, Giglio soars up from the sea like a floating mountain of granite, a mirror image of Monte Argentario behind me. The ferry docks at the unimaginatively named Porto, a pretty harbour village with boutiques, and terraced trattorias such as La Vecchia Pergola. Waiting to collect me is my old mate Francesco Carfagna. A winegrower, restaurateur, cook, stonemason and poet all rolled into one, Francesco used to come to Giglio for the summer holidays with his parents and has been in love with the place ever since. He consummated the affair six years ago when he gave up his job as a maths teacher in Florence, bought the largest vineyard on the island and came here to live. It's the vineyard, in the rugged Capel Rosso area, round the southern tip of Giglio from the secluded Pardini's Hermitage, that we're heading to today. We hop into Francesco's trusty Fiat 600. Seatbelts are compulsory by national law, but there are none in his car. Francesco simply shrugs his shoulders at me. This is Giglio, a place out of time, where rules can be a matter of opinion.
After a damp and dull start to the morning, the sun is beginning to show. Not that the weather is ever a problem on Giglio. Francesco's all-year footwear of open Franciscan sandals and no socks testifies to the fact. His rackety old Fiat 600 rattles upwards and northwards, in and out of the sunshine, in and out of the shade, past the beaches of Arenella and the stylish Hotel L'Arenella, through the fortified hilltop village of Castello, down through the garigue - rock rose, broom, wild fennel, thyme, myrtle, lavender, wild rosemary - past Francesco's home, a converted 18th-century windmill, above the seaside resort of Campese, and the family-friendly Hotel Campese, under Poggio della Pagana, the highest point on the island, then seawards. As we drive, Francesco treats me to a potted history of the island.
"Giglio was an important naval and trading base for the Romans," he explains. "In the Middle Ages, it changed hands from one Tuscan feudal family to another. In 1264, it was annexed by the Republic of Pisa and was later taken over by the Medicis of Florence. Eventually, after the Napoleonic period, it was assigned to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany."
"What did people do here?" I ask.
"Back in the 19th century, winegrowing and mineral mining flourished," he explains, "and the granite mining that had begun with the Romans was resumed. Then people began to move away and, when the pyrite mines closed in 1962, tourism became the major industry. The place attracts a lot of singers, actors, politicians, and fashion designers in the summer. Some have villas here." He certainly knows his Giglio does Francesco.
We eventually leave the Strada Panoramica, the coast road, and slip and slide down a rocky trail. Terraced vineyards plunge dramatically into the waves below and the descent appears hazardous. But Francesco does the six-kilometre journey from his house to what he calls his 'office' every day and knows it every inch of the way. As does his Fiat, as agile as the wild goats that once thrived on the island and gave it its name (from the Greek word aegilion, meaning 'goat', not giglio, the Italian word for 'lily').
We emerge into a clearing. Nothing but vines, sea and sky. It's as if we've entered a geographical and temporal limbo. Then I spot the island of Montecristo, now a nature reserve, silhouetted against the horizon (Francesco says that sometimes, on a clear day, you can see as far as Corsica). A whitewashed cottage awaits us in the glaring light. It's a capanno, one of the shelters where peasants used to keep their tools, eat their meals and sleep. Giglio is dotted with capanni and palmenti, wine-presses, many of them hidden away amid the thick vegetation. During World War II, whole families of evacuees lived in the capanni and since then - like the characteristic trulli of Puglia or the dammusi of Pantelleria - some of the larger ones have been converted into holiday homes.
Inside the capanno, we wash down some crusty bread and fiery chilli-loaded salami from Francesco's family's village in Molise, in the south of Italy, with a bottle of heady, pungent Ansonaco del Giglio, the white wine made from the native grape of the same name. Francesco now produces about 4000 bottles of the stuff every year but, just a decade ago, Ansonaco was apparently very hard to come by. Worse than that, it was on the verge of extinction. "Until 30 or 40 years ago, this island was one vast vineyard, but making wine on these cliffs is back-breaking work, and there weren't many peasants left prepared to do it," Francesco explains. "Luckily, a hard-core few held on and I added my contribution."
But by losing its wines and vineyards, Giglio was also losing its landscape. Francesco set out to make sure that didn't happen. He bought a six-hectare plot from an old peasant, Giovan Battista Titta, nicknamed 'Trapoletta'. "When we met in front of the notary public to draw up the deeds," Francesco remembers, "Trapoletta said he hoped I'd make better wine than he'd ever managed to and wished me good luck." Fortunately, Francesco's fascination for stone-masonry stood him in good stead. "I had to rebuild all the dry stone walls that support the terraces from scratch," he says. "The vines had been left untended for years." Luckily the amber-yellow Ansonaco grape is a tough variety; resistant to Giglio's dry climate, the salt air and the asperity of the terrain. "It's been a labour of love as opposed to a profitable business venture," explains Francesco. "Now I want competition, in the sense that I'd like more people to follow my example."
If the typical Giglio landscape of underbrush, boulders and donkey tracks is bad news for wine-growers, it's good news for holidaymakers. Hikers can walk for hours along the old trails without seeing a living soul - or a modern building. Naturalists won't be disappointed either - Giglio is home to hundreds of indigenous plants and flowers, and rare animals and birds such as the Tyrrhenian painted frog, the peregrine falcon and the Corsican seagull - and scuba divers will have the time of their lives swimming off the island's many rocky coves. Not that the place is without its sybaritic appeal. Beach-to-bar-to-bed, sun worshippers will find plenty of scope to indulge their favourite pleasure. As will gourmands.
And so to lunch in Castello. As we go, Francesco fills me in on the village's history.
"In the old days," he says, "the island was subject to pirate raids. The fortress Castello takes its name from what was the only secure refuge in the event of attack. It was begun by the Pisans and completed by the Medici following a raid in 1544, during which the bloodthirsty Algerian pirate Khair ad-Din, 'Redbeard', carried off 700 of the island's 1200 inhabitants as slaves."
"The village was repopulated with peasants and shepherds from Siena, on the mainland, who were offered grain and freshwater wells and land to make them stay."
"When was the last raid?"
"In 1799, when Turkish pirates attacked. According to the legend, they were repulsed by a holy relic. The arm of San Mamiliano, a 6th-century bishop of Palermo who had fled to Montecristo via Elba. It's still kept in Castello's small Baroque church."
We park outside Castello and stroll through its labyrinth of alleys and archways. In the midst of this maze are the restaurants Barbarossa and Arcobalena. Francesco has been running the lovely Arcobalena since 1988 with his larger-than-life, half-Russian wife, Gabriella. Gabriella's Muscovite mother and Mantuan father met at the Italian consulate in Odessa during the war: Gabriella met Francesco on Giglio while she was holidaying with a friend.
There's a lot of talk these days about 'food miles' (the distance produce has to travel before it reaches the table) but, at Arcobalena, it would be more accurate to speak in terms of food yards. The fish comes fresh from the dockside at Porto, the fruit and vegetables from Francesco's kitchen garden and the wine from his vineyard. The cook today is Mattia, Francesco's son by his first marriage. The lunch starts with an antipasto that couldn't be more local: palamita preserved in oil with bay leaves, pepper and chilli in oil. Palamita is a member of the tuna and mackerel family. Typical of the islands, it has been adopted by the Slow Food wine and food association as one of its presidia, small-scale projects designed to save and protect rare foodstuffs. The art of preserving fish was probably introduced to the area by the Spanish, who were smoking and dousing fish in escabece, a vinegar and onion marinade, as early as the 16th century.
Next on the menu, is a restorative celery soup, followed by ravioloni stuffed with wild greens and ricotta. The main course is dentex - a so-called 'poor fish' but tender and toothsome nonetheless - stewed in fresh tomato with pine kernels. For pudding, we have Gabriella's panna cotta.
Later, as I sail homewards on the ferry, I savour the memories of the day. I also ponder on what the French historian Fernand Braudel once said about islands: namely that they're the leading players in history. Disarmingly innocent and unspoiled, Giglio maybe doesn't deserve to top the cast, but I reckon it plays its supporting role superbly.
Sitting on the ferry beside me is Francesco. In Porto Santo Stefano, he has to say hello to his 15-year-old daughter, Irene - on her way home from boarding school in Rome - then he has to dash off to Orbetello to man a stall promoting Giglio produce at a food and wine fair. He's looking pale and blue about the gills - odd that an island dweller should suffer from seasickness.