When my husband and I went to the Tuscan island of Elba a couple of years ago for a wedding (see my earlier post about Napoleon’s former Empire), we took the ferry over from the town of Piombino, a small town on the Tyrrhenian Sea of the Mediterranean.
This area has been inhabited ever since it served as an Etruscan port. This port remained important as a main shipping route for the Republic of Pisa in the Middle Ages, and the site of battles between the population of Pisa and rival Genoa.
Since we had a bit of time to explore before our ferry, we had a walk around the medieval town.
In reality, I was curious to see the town after having recently read a novel by an emerging Italian novelist, Silvia Avallone. Entitled Acciaio (Steel, but translated into English as Swimming to Elba) it depicts the Piombino of the 1980s as a dead-end steel town. Steel mills in this town date back to around 1860, since the nearby island of Elba was a rich source of iron and the nearest point on the mainland seemed an ideal point for industrialization.
The novel takes place in the 1980s and mainly follows the lives of two girls growing up in town and the lives of their families, all dependent on the steel mills for employment. I saw the English title of the book long after I had read the novel, but perhaps it expresses the theme of the novel best.
The island of Elba is clearly visible from the port city, and the girls watch the flood of tourists who travel to that more sophisticated destination via ferry. Yet there is no belief that they will ever make that short trip themselves, for their destiny is firmly rooted in Piombino, and they can’t see a future for themselves beyond that invisible border.
Needless to say, it was a rather depressing portrait of the Tuscan town, so it was nice to see there was an actual historic town of interest, including some remnants of medieval architecture. This includes the Rivellino, the 15th century main gate, the 14th century cathedral, and the ancient port with its views to Elba in the distance.
Unfortunately, located in beautiful Tuscany, it’s unlikely Piombino would serve as a base for your travels since there are far more impressive locales to enjoy. Still, if you’re passing through, it’s worth a wander to see what remains as its important past as a prominent port city.
I was very pleased to see there is much more than steel in Piombino.