This small island, just 28km long and 19km wide, is famous as the place where Napoleon spent one year in exile and you’re reminded of that at every turn. As well as the roads he built, there’s a Napoleon fountain, a Napoleon seat, a Napoleon staircase and even a Napoleon lager. Not a bad achievement for someone who only stayed 9 months.
The only way of getting here is taking an hour’s ferry ride from the port of Piombino, in the south of Tuscany, to the attractive capital of Portoferraio. It was founded by Cosimo de’ Medici in 1548 who built the impressive fortress which towers above the harbour. He was only here for the money, specifically the rich seams of iron ore, which have been exploited since Etruscan times and are the oldest mines in the world.
In the height of summer, the island gets crowded with Italian beach lovers but after that, when the sea is still warm, the island is perfect for exploring both on foot and by bike. It’s like a mini of Tuscany with perfectly preserved medieval villages nestling in rolling hills above the sea, with the added bonus of sandy beaches. I set out from the hill town of Capoliveri and set out to explore the east of the island on my e-bike
The open caste Vallone mine dominates the landscape and there’s a museum offering guided tours inside the underground galleries. Mining ended in the early 1980s and the disused railway tracks make convenient bike trails, skirting the cliffs by the sea. Nuggets of iron pyrites, “Fool’s Gold”, glint in the sunlight as I pass rusting equipment sitting at the foot of the huge stepped hillside where the ore was dug.
In the centre of the island is the craggy peak of Monte Capanne, at 1019m the highest point and accessible by chairlift. The journey up from Pozzatello is a unique experience, definitely not for the faint-hearted. The exposed baskets take two people standing, as they climb slowly above the forest up to the top. It’s windy and cold but I’m rewarded with views over the entire island and Corsica looms in the distance.
I hike down, on a path paved with giant stone slabs, skirting the village of Poggio, before reaching the Madonna del Monte Church and its hermitage. Napoleon used it for a secret liaison with his Polish mistress Maria Walewska in the summer of 1814, before the locals found out and he had to send her away. It’s a great spot to enjoy a packed lunch, sheltering from the wind.
Further on, the track ends in the village of Marciana, dominated by the twelfth-century Fortezza Pisano and once home to the island’s mint and foundry. The steep streets are too narrow for cars and a network of stone stairs lead through arches and cramped alleys, balconies attractively decorated with flowers and climbing plants. There’s time for a glass of chestnut beer at the Bar la Porta, just outside the main gate.
The west is altogether wilder, steep cliffs descending to a vigorous sea, broken up by tiny coves with stony beaches. A scenic road hugs the hillside, covered with heavily scented maquis, Mediterranean bracken, eventually leading to Fetovaia where the island’s best beaches start. There’s a glorious 1.4 km stretch of sand at Marina di Campo lined with hotels and campsites, heaving in the summer. Today there are just a few brave surfers.
Before I take the ferry, there’s time to explore Portoferraio, its harbour dominated by the two forts of Forte Falcone and the pink Forte Stella. From the central square of Piazza Cavour, I climb up the wide Scalinata Medici, 140 misshapen stone steps leading up to the forts and the Villa Dei Mulini, the home of Napoleon. Apparently he chose the site so he could keep an eye on the ships coming into the bay.
Inside is his grand ballroom, study, and dressing room with the Elban flag on one wall. The bedroom still has the original furniture and the library contains his collection of over two thousand books. He made his escape when his British minder was visiting his mistress in Florence but was defeated at Waterloo and sent to Elba in the South Atlantic. He’d have been far better off living out his days here.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT VISTING ELBA
Visit Elba has information about the island.
Villaggio Innamorata, near Capoliveri, has rooms overlooking the sea and beach.
BA has regular flights from London Heathrow to Florence and Pisa, from where there are bus transfers in the summer.