For the misanthropes among us, Asinara Island sounds like a dream destination: a remote island just off the coast of Sardinia, crystal clear water, and, according to a quick Google search of the Italian census, a population of one solitary person.
If you’re an animal-loving misanthrope, Asinara Island ticks a few more boxes. The best boxes, really, because along with having – what I imagine to be – one crochety ol’ gent living in a cave in the hills and shaking his hand-crafted walking stick at anyone daring to amble past, the island is home to around 100 miniature albino donkeys.
You read that correctly. One hundred. Miniature. Donkeys. Punctuating the landscape like tufts of cotton wool, munching on grass, their white hair seemingly glowing in the hot Mediterranean sun; at one with the far-less-exciting-but-still-incredibly-cute grey Sardinian donkeys and a few regal horses (who are brown, if you’re keeping track of the island’s equine colours) also inhabiting the land.
Donkey Island – as we will now to refer to it – has a long and pretty crazy history. Colonised by shepherds in the late 700s (who, funnily enough, did NOT bring the rare white donkeys with them – it’s said the asses were actually imported from Egypt), the island was a pretty ordinary farming community for about a thousand years. Enter King Umberto di Savoia, who ordered the residents off the island in 1885 to make way for a brand new penal colony and quarantine station. Talk about buzz kill.
Fast forward a few years and it became a World War I prison camp, imprisoning over 24,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war; in 1935, Ethiopian POWs were detained on the island after the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. In the 1970s, Donkey Island became one of the highest security prisons in the country, detaining high profile Mafiosi and members of the notoriously violent Red Brigade. For over 100 years, the only inhabitants of Italy’s Alcatraz were prisoners, wardens and a herd of albino donkeys.
Based on its bleak history, it comes as no surprise that Asinara Island also goes by the name Isola del Diavolo, which translates to Devil’s Island. When the prison closed in 1997, everything on the island remained as is; almost all the prison buildings are still there (albeit crumbling and decidedly less ‘high security’), however there is a strict ban on building, and the island is now a national park. The donkeys roam free without running the risk of being using in a hostage situation by a recently escaped Mafia don.
Thanks to its national park status, nature/donkey-lovers are now flocking to Asinara. Authorised tours can be organised from Sardinia and a day trip to the island is pretty special; with walking trails crisscrossing the park, it’s best to explore on foot or by bike, where you can mosey up alongside a donkey for a picture – they’re quite aloof creatures, but some of them are curious enough to approach for a little scratch on the nose.
Want to visit Sardinia for yourself? We’ve got a private 50ft yacht with your name on it.
Feature image c/o Roberto Cossu, Flickr