John Hooper

Rome: One of the world’s most fabled yet least accessible spots is to be opened to the public for the first time in decades.

Some 3,000 visitors a year are to be allowed on to Montecristo, the island that lies off Tuscany and at the heart of Alexandre Dumas’ chronicle of injustice and revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo.

The book revolves around a treasure supposedly hidden on the island by an Italian cardinal. After escaping from a jail in which he has been unjustly imprisoned, the book’s hero Edmond Dantes finds a chest divided into three compartments in a cave within a cave.

Visitors will discover the island does hide treasure, but of a different sort. Montecristo has never had a stable human population, so its animal and plant life have been left to flourish undisturbed. Numerous species that died out in other parts of the Mediterranean survive there. And there is a snake, the Montecristo viper, that is unique to the island. The surrounding waters are among the last refuges of the Mediterranean monk seal, one of the most endangered creatures.

Montecristo forms part of the national park of the Tuscan archipelago.

Until now the only visitors have been the owners of private boats with special permission from the park authorities.

Of the 3,000 people let in every year, only a third will get full access to Montecristo’s grass and granite expanses. The remaining 2,000 visitors will have to content themselves with a visit to Montecristo’s tiny natural history museum. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008