© iStock/elisalocci
© iStock/elisalocci
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Discover Asinara, the Italian Alcatraz

4 minutes to read

L'Asinara could be called the Italian Alcatraz. The ancient Romans called it "sinuaria," which means sinuous (twisted). This is how the place's name was born, which many centuries later turned phonetically into L’Asinara. However, most people think that the name of this small island was given due to a large number of white donkeys (in Italian "asino") living there.

© iStock/ezioman
© iStock/ezioman

History has left many traces on the stones of Asinara, and scholars suppose that it is in its northern part that the oldest evidence of the human presence in Sardinia was found. The Domus de Janas were the legendary "fairy houses," carved into the rock, and present throughout Sardinia. They're found on the esplanade of Campu Perdu and date back to the fourth millennium BCE. Subsequently, in Roman times, the island was inhabited: it is still possible to see the wrecks of Roman ships carrying amphorae right in front of the port of Cala Reale.

© Imago Mundi Onlus
© Imago Mundi Onlus
Domus de Janas Campu Perdu Asinara
Domus de Janas Campu Perdu Asinara
Piano di Campu Perdu, Isola dell'Asinara, 07046 Porto Torres SS, Italia

The island of Asinara is small but mountainous, with very jagged coasts, beaten by the sea and the winds. Throughout time, Asinara has hosted famous, mythological, and real characters: from Hercules to the pirate Barbarossa. Pisans and Genoese, Aragonese, Savoia, and Sassari nobles are said to have lived here too. Until 1885, when everything changed: a quarantine health facility and a prison were established on the island, and all the inhabitants were asked to move out.

© Aldo Tronci
© Aldo Tronci

Until 1997, the year in which the prison closed, Asinara remained isolated and inhabited only by prisoners and their custodians. From the post-war period onwards, the penal colony housed the greatest exponents of Italian terrorism, mafia, and camorra. Escaping from the island was quite impossible; the only person who managed to escape was a Sardinian bandit on an inflatable boat.

© iStock/ezioman
© iStock/ezioman

Asinara National Park

These 100 years of forced solitude have given the island a desirable environmental condition. For more than a century, nothing was built here; the beaches and ponds remained untouched, the animals lived in freedom. In 1997, the establishment of the Asinara National Park and the Marine Protected Area was put in action. Many animal species run undisturbed on the island, among which, the friendly donkeys, mouflons and wild boars, goats, hares, and tortoises. One hundred fifty species of birds can also be observed. From autumn to spring, the wetlands are home to flamingos.

© iStock/elisalocci
© iStock/elisalocci
Parco Nazionale dell'Isola dell'Asinara
Parco Nazionale dell'Isola dell'Asinara
Asinara, 07046 Porto Torres, Province of Sassari, Italy

Today you can arrive by motorboat from Porto Torres or Stintino. Access points on the island coincide with the old settlements of the penal colony: Fornelli, Cala Reale, Cala d’Oliva. Fornelli was the maximum-security prison. Cala Reale is a small village with a hospital, church, and the royal palace that housed the Savoia family when they arrived on the island, and that today is the headquarters of the park. Cala d’Oliva is another village made up of low, white houses. The rest is rock, limestone, wind and Mediterranean scrub.

© iStock/Isabel Rodenas Marin
© iStock/Isabel Rodenas Marin

Places of detention

The prison consisted of a series of detachments distributed throughout the island. Fornelli was the real prison, with a flat and square structure, dating back to the nineteenth century. Tumbarinu, located in Cala Sant’Andrea, housed all the convicts for sexual crimes, who were forced to collect wood during their sentence. In Trabuccato, to the east of Cala Reale and near the old tonnara, prisoners cultivated vineyards. Finally, Cala d’Oliva, which was the main center of the island's prison system, housed the management, offices, and even a bunker cell for prisoners in maximum security.

© iStock/elisalocci
© iStock/elisalocci

The rules of the island

On the Asinara island, except for the forestry body, the staff of research centers, and the customers of some accommodation facilities, visitors cannot stay. Camping is not permitted, and the only authorized hospitality is in Cala d’Oliva.

There is only one paved road that connects Fornelli with Cala d’Oliva, on a route of about 25 kilometers. The paths are ideal for bicycles that can be rented on the island. There is the possibility of visiting the island by bus (only in summer) or by a rubber-tyred train, or an off-road vehicle with an authorized guide. It is not possible to bring your own vehicle, except for a bicycle.

© iStock/elisalocci
© iStock/elisalocci
Asinara 4X4 - Personal jeep tours across Asinara island
Asinara 4X4 - Personal jeep tours across Asinara island
07040 Stintino SS, Italy

It is possible to go horseback riding or go for walks with a Horse Riding Association that deals with the recovery of native Sardinian horses. It is possible to access the island by boat at Fornelli, Cala Reale, Cala d’Oliva, Punta Trabuccato, Cala del Bianco. Bathing is allowed everywhere, except in the total reserve areas.

It is obviously forbidden to capture and disturb the animals, feed them and bring pets to the island, even if on a leash. Smoking is prohibited throughout the island- except for some landing points.

Extra recommendations & activities

On the island, there are only 2 bars/restaurants, one in Cala Reale and the other in Cala d’Oliva. For both, a reservation is recommended because the spots offered are limited. It is advisable to pack your lunch from home and enjoy it anywhere into the wild.

Two other fairly important places to visit on the island are the sea turtle recovery center and Farmasinara, a company that produces natural cosmetics using local herbs.

Centro di Recupero Tartarughe Marine Asinara
Centro di Recupero Tartarughe Marine Asinara
Cala Reale, 07046 Porto Torres SS, Italia
Farmasinara Cosmetic Production Asinara
Farmasinara Cosmetic Production Asinara
Cala Reale, 07046 Porto Torres SS, Italia

Visiting the Asinara, the Italian Alcatraz, is an unforgettable experience. Enjoy the splendid panoramic views and observe the animals in their natural habitat- of course, always treat them with respect. Don't forget that love for nature is, first of all, respect. Take this pleasant memory of your adventure as a souvenir. Don't miss such an experience!


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The author

Mara Noveni

Mara Noveni

My name is Mara, I am Italian, born in Rome and raised in the wonderful Tuscany. Always in love with reading and writing, I completed this way of expressing myself through photography, especially street and travel photography. Thanks to my many and long travel experiences, I have enriched my mind and my inner life.

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