Porto Ercole, an ancient hamlet on the sea surrounded by fortresses
Porto Ercole is a beautiful seaside town that is part of the municipality of Monte Argentario in the province of Grosseto. The city is located on the eastern side of the Argentario, right in front of Ansedonia. Porto Ercole is one of the most fascinating seaside villages in the whole of the Tuscan Maremma and is a fantastic place to spend a holiday between sea, history and nature.
The history of Porto Ercole
Thanks to the archaeological findings we know that here was an Etruscan village and then a Roman one. Because of its strategic relevance, for many centuries Porto Ercole was contended by many rulers, both local than international. During the Middle Ages Pope Leone III gave the hamlet to the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane of Rome, thanks to a false document attributed to Charlemagne; later it became a possession of the Aldobrandeschi and then of Orsini, at that time was created the first part of the Fortress of Porto Ercole. In 15th century the harbour was bought by the Repubblica di Siena, that built the walls and some coastal towers; this was a period of strong development, which continued even during the subsequent Spanish domination.
A century later, Porto Ercole was involved in an international war in which France and Siena fought against Spain and Florence. After a famous battle, represented in a Vasari’s fresco “La presa di Porto Ercole“, the harbour became part of the spanish State of the Presidi. The spanish expanded the frotress of Porto Ercole and built three new fort: Forte Santa Caterina, Forte Filippo and Forte Stella.
An incident worth mentioning is the one regarding the great Caravaggio that, apparently, would have died in Porto Ercole on 18 July 1610. The most common argument in fact says that Caravaggio arrived in critical condition at this port of Argentario where he died despite the hospitalization in Santa Maria Ausiliatrice.
After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Porto Ercole became part of the Granducato di Toscana, until the Italy’s unification.
What to see and what to do in Porto Ercole
Porto Ercole has two distinct ports: Porto Vecchio which overlooks the old city and the Porto di Cala Galera. The lower part of the city, the one that developed along the bay, is also the most modern; here there are shops, restaurants, shipyards and even some diving centers. Those who want can also rent a boat or a rubber dinghy and go explore the Argentario coasts. The historic village of Porto Ercole is instead located in the southern area of the bay, at the foot of the Spanish Fortress.
The classic walk through the narrow streets of the center will take you to some of the most beautiful monuments and viewpoints of Porto Ercole. The city is full of fortresses that date back to the period of Spanish rule. Among these, in addition to the aforementioned Rocca Spagnola, there are the Forte Filippo and the Forte Santa Caterina which rise on the relief that divides the two bays of Porto Ercole, and the Forte Stella which is located just outside the city.
Lungomare Andrea Doria
As in any self-respecting seaside town, one of the first things to do is the promenade along the seafront (the italian “lungomare”). Lungomare Andrea Doria develops around the Porto Vecchio. Here you will find several fish restaurants, pizzerias and bars to eat while admiring the boats moored in the harbor. Along the harbor there are also shops, some travel agencies and rental centers for boats and rafts. Arrived at the end of Lungomare Andrea Doria, you will find the Bastione di Santa Barbara from which the homonymous Molo di Santa Barbara starts, the last stretch of the promenade along the port.
The lower part of the town, along the bay, is the mordern part; here there are shops, restaurants, shipyards and also some diving centers. You can rent a boat or a dinghy to explore the coasts of the Argentario.
The historic centre of Porto Ercole is in the southern side of the bay, near the Rocca Spagnola. You can get into the hamlet crossing a gothic city gate located under a bell tower from where we can reach the main monuments as the chiesa di Sant’Erasmo and the palazzo dei governanti in piazza Santa Barbara, a beautiful terrace overlooking the bay.
Continuing the walk through the streets of the historic center, you will quickly reach the Rocca Spagnola. Born at the time of the Aldobrandeschi, the castle has been expanded several times to become a real citadel with palaces, streets and gardens. The current layout dates back to the 16th century when the fortress was equipped with ramparts and embankments. The defensive structures are really impressive, just think that in some points the Spanish Fortress is equipped with more curtain walls and moats. In the north-eastern corner of the fortress is the Porto Ercole lighthouse which was built in the nineteenth century.
Today it is possible to visit the fortress by asking for the appropriate permission from the Municipality. For all information on timetables and contacts to organize the visit, I suggest you visit the website of the municipality of Monte Argentario.
Taking the Panoramic Road southwards you quickly reach the other fort on the southern side: Forte Stella. It is a beautiful and solid structure with the shape of a six-pointed star, built starting from the second half of the 16th century with a sighting function. Fort Stella is an imposing complex consisting of two different structures: a square-based fort with corner bastions that acts as a base, and the real fort that is located in the center of the first in a raised position. From the walkway on the top of the fort you can enjoy a spectacular 360 ° view of the Argentario and the sea.
For all information on tickets and opening hours of the Forte Stella, I refer you to the dedicated page on the municipality website.
On the promontory that divides the two ports of Porto Ercole, we find the other fortifications wanted by the Spaniards: the imposing Forte Filippo built in the 16th century and the more modest Forte Santa Caterina. To these forts is also added the Torre del Mulinaccio, which is located a few steps from Forte Filippo.
Forte Filippo has four bastions and is deeply embedded in a moat dug directly into the rock. The fortress was built with both sighting and defense functions. For this purpose it was in fact equipped with cannons as was the nearby fortress of Santa Caterina.
The fort is privately owned and cannot be visited inside, however you can still reach it, and walk along its perimeter admiring the beautiful panorama that can be enjoyed from the top of the promontory.
Giardino orto botanico Corsini
Another place to go in Porto Ercole is the Giardino orto botanico Corsini. Founded in 1868 by Vincenzo Ricasoli, and in fact it was originally called Giardino Ricasoli, it was one of the first acclimatization gardens in Italy, the first ever in Tuscany. Today the botanical garden of Porto Ercole hosts about 1300 specimens belonging to 150 tropical and subtropical species that come from various parts of the world, in particular from the Middle East, Asia and America.
Sea and beaches of Porto Ercole
There are many ways to enjoy the sea in these parts: relaxing on the beaches, organizing boat trips, or practicing diving and sports, perhaps by renting a kayak or surfboard. Thanks to its crystal clear sea and numerous beaches, Porto Ercole is a seaside resort suitable for everyone and also perfect for a holiday with children.
Around Porto Ercole there are numerous beaches both free and paid. Most of these beaches are located in the area south of Porto Ercole and can be reached thanks to detours along the Via Panoramica, but we also find a very wide one on the other side, along the tongue of land that connects the Argentario to the mainland and another near the new port.
And it is from the latter that we start with the review of the beaches of Porto Ercole. Cala Galera beach is located between the tourist port of Cala Galera and Poggio Pertuso. It is an easily accessible sandy beach; in the immediate vicinity there is also a large free parking area. In Cala Galera there are both stretches of free beach and portions dedicated to the establishments. The seabed is particularly shallow to the point that you could also reach the nearby Feniglia beach which is located immediately after Punta Pertuso.
The Feniglia beach extends along the 7 kilometers that connect the Argentario to the mainland. For the most part it is a free beach, but here too there is no lack of equipped establishments. The sand is fine and clear and the sea is beautiful. Behind the beach there is a large pine forest which is part of the Riserva Naturale Duna Feniglia. Within the natural area there are paths that can be tackled both on foot and by bicycle.
The closest of the beaches south of Porto Ercole is Le Viste beach. To reach it you need to take a short path leaving the Via Panoramica almost immediately. The beach is partly sandy and partly pebbly. There are some bathing establishments but also a small stretch of free beach. A peculiarity is that one of the establishments, Riva del Marchese, offers a beach made not of sand or rocks but of lawn!
The Spiaggia Lunga is open to access but offers a rental service for umbrellas and sunbeds. This beach is a mix of sand and rocks. To get to Spiaggia Lunga you have to take the Via Panoramica for about 1.8 km up to the height of the detour to Forte Stella and take the path that goes towards the sea.
L’Acqua Dolce is also a free beach but with the possibility of renting an umbrella and sun bed. Most of it is sandy even if there are also pebbles that are also present in the seabed. The parking for this beach is located just before kilometer 4 of the Via Panoramica. From there you will have to follow the signs for the Hotel Pellicano and when you arrive at the hotel entrance continue on the left.
What to see near Porto Ercole
If you visit Porto Ercole, I can only advise you to go to the other centers of Monte Argentario as well. On the other side of the mountain we find Porto Santo Stefano, the capital of the municipality of Monte Argentario. Here to see is there is another Spanish fortress and also an aquarium. If you want to organize a trip to the Island of Giglio or that of Giannutri, you should know that the ferries depart from here. Another city that definitely deserves to be visited is Orbetello. Located in the center of its lagoon, Orbetello is halfway between the Argentario and the mainland. Here too there is no shortage of things to see starting from the Spanish Mill to get to the Archaeological Museum.
How to get to Porto Ercole
Porto Ercole is located about 45 km from Grosseto, 200 km from Florence and 160 km from Rome. It can be easily reached by public transport but not directly by train.
Public transport: the nearest railway station is that of Orbetello Monte Argentario. From Orbetello you will have to take a bus to get to your destination. Buses also leave regularly from Grosseto to Porto Ercole. The company that manages the service is Tiemme.
By car: Via Aurelia to Orbetello, cross the city and cross the dam following the signs for Porto Ercole.