Anthony Peregrine, The Daily Telegraph, October 07, 2014
Napoleon left Elba on February 26, 1815. Talk about incorrigible. Had it been me, I’d have been there yet. Granted, the little fellow had been exiled to the island off the Tuscan coast. As exiles go, though, his was tolerable. The allies, victorious finally in 1814, had despatched their former enemy to Elba not as a prisoner but as ruler of the place. He had arrived there the previous May – accompanied by a few hundred men – with pomp, circumstance and a Te Deum in the cathedral.
Subsequently he’d had the use of not one but two mansions. His mum and his favourite sister Pauline came to join him. Though his wife kept away, his Polish mistress visited. He apparently also found comfort in the company of a local girl, Sbarra. According to a contemporary chronicler, he “spent many happy hours eating cherries with her”.
Meanwhile, the island itself was – is – something of a stunner. “Beautiful, charming, elegant and frighteningly powerful,” was how Napoleon’s mum, Letizia, put it. And it furnished him with projects a gogo. His 300 days there were a whirlwind of local economic reforming. The chap who had subdued most of Europe seemed happy running municipal affairs for the 12,000 population. “I want to live from now on like a justice of the peace,” he said.
Except that he didn’t, really. Given the island’s allure, you and I would have hung up a “Dunwarmongerin’ ” sign and settled back. Which is why Napoleon was an emperor and we are not. He had scores to settle, countries to re-conquer, a continent to recover. So he left Elba 200 years ago next February. Nor did he sneak away. On the night before, he held a farewell ball. On the day itself, he briefed French civil and military authorities who were to stay on the island. Then he had to push through crowds come to the port to bid him arrivederci. It was a triumphal exit. He would return to mainland France to show Europe what for.
A fat lot of good it did him. Everything ended in tears at Waterloo and then with proper exile a world away on St Helena. Such are the perils of towering ambition. “If only he’d stayed on Elba…” said a bloke in a bar in Portoferraio, Elba’s main town. Quite. If only. He would maybe have lived longer – and certainly have been happier. This holds true for all of us today. It remains easy to be happy on Elba.
Here are six reasons:
1. Because no one you know has ever been there, and hardly any can place it on a map.
Oneupmanship, then: bohemian Britons – rich ones with yachts – were early arrivals in the Fifties. But when, in succeeding decades, tourism really took off, mainland Italians and a few savvy Germans led the charge. Now Elba needs us – as, for obvious reasons, Italian trade is falling off.
Though unknown, Elba is, as mentioned, a brilliant island. It’s bigger than you thought, if you ever thought about Elba – which I didn’t, much. I just assumed it was a rock with a house on top for Napoleon. In truth, it’s 17 miles by 11, more than half the size of the Isle of Wight, though a lot more challenging. An hour off the mainland, it’s a sort of distillation of the best of Tuscany or, if you prefer, a concentrated Corsica but without the inconvenience of Corsicans and their brittle sense of exclusivity. You will be able to tell people this yourself when you get home, because they’ll still know nothing about the place.
2. Because it’s instructive to follow Napoleon around
Elba hadn’t measured what a pull Napoleon might be until the bicentenary of his arrival in May this year. They’ve made up since, with full-costumed historical re-enactments, Bonaparte logos on everything, ferries through ashtrays, and a cereal-flavoured Napoleon beer.
Attention focuses, though, on the emperor’s houses, first the Palazzina dei Mulini. It’s a lemon-yellow item perched above Portoferraio between the town’s two forts, and up a thump of a lot of steps. In 1814, the residence needed adapting, so Bonaparte had the builders in for most of his island stay. They left him with a classical-looking in-town mansion, equipped with a decent Grand Salon reception room. Other rooms, though furnished plushly Empire-style, are small. As Francine Russo wrote: “The house resonates with Napoleon’s diminished fortunes.” Imagine the Queen in a detached house on an executive estate and you get the idea.
Napoleon’s favourite bit was the formal garden. You can see why. High above the sea, it affords startling views. The emperor apparently often slept out there. One might imagine him standing by the balustrade at nightfall, looking to the horizon and crying revenge.
Four miles inland, Napoleon’s second home, the San Martino villa, is misleading. The grand neo-classical frontage, and gallery behind, were added long after the Emperor’s time by a rich Russian prince who admired Napoleon. The gallery is enlivened by a nude statue of Bonaparte’s sister Pauline, a lady described as “a charming, unfaithful, classical beauty”. Her insistence on parties, theatres and balls cheered up Elba no end. The real Napoleonic villa is notable mainly for an arresting Egyptian Room – trompe-l’œil columns, hieroglyphics, the works – where, in ignorance, you’d place Indiana Jones before Napoleon. There’s also a nest of shack-sheltered contemporary commerce by the entrance where, among ices, postcards and Bonaparte tea towels, one may find a kitchen apron featuring Mussolini. I bought one for my wife, but she’s not worn it yet.
3. Because there’s more to Elba’s past than Napoleon
Strategically important and full of minerals, Elba has been contested, and/or occupied, by every western Med power since the Ligurians. The Etruscans started mining and smelting the iron (great smelters, the Etruscans). Everyone else featured – Greeks, Romans, Italian city-states, Spaniards, French, English – though it was Tuscan grand duke Cosimo de’ Medici who took the place by the scruff of the neck. In the mid-16th-century, he turned main town Portoferraio into what has been described as “an authentic Renaissance city of war”. Two forts topped the town. Fortifications plunged to the sea. Attacking Turks took one look and turned away. “Impregnable,” they said. Later, Nelson was most impressed.
It has all softened since; Italian wear and tear has that effect. But it’s more imposing of aspect than is usual for a town of some 13,000. You could still hold off a marauding fleet with a cannon or two and half a dozen friends. You’d have to haul them out of the cafés first, mind.
4. Because it’s really very up and down
Enough history. To natural splendour. Elba packs mountains in tight. There are a few flat, straight roads, but mostly you’re hairpinning straight up, hairpinning back down or edging cliffs with the sea way below. Views are outstanding. Mediterranean garrigue, chestnut trees, vines and olive trees ensure an adequacy of green across the rocks. Geology and botany have conspired to amaze. Take the newish road that swings around the island’s west coast and you’ll be humming arias.
Villages built before the invention of vertigo perch high, protecting locals from Saracens, though the threat seems to have passed. Highest of the lot, Marciana is a vertical, stone tangle of passages and stairways, terraces and a home-made jam shop run by an Italian actor. Race out of your house too fast and you’ll instantly be 1,000ft down, desperately texting the family.
Over the other side, San Ilario and San Piero are aged to perfection: façades peeling, streets narrowing not quite to a point, washing hanging, old fellows gesticulating the day away on benches – all in accordance with Italian statute. Best of the lot, because sunnier and open, is Capoliveri to the south. The peninsula beyond offers more hiking and mountain biking than seems necessary. In truth, the incurably active need never stop anywhere on the island – whether romping hills, kayaking, diving or riding the cable car up Monte Capanne, where Elba tops out. (I’d do this, but only if you held a gun to my children’s heads.) Umberto Segnini at econaut.it is the man for the restless to contact.
My choice, though, would be the beaches. There are 190 of them, a world-class collection, from great sandy curves to cliff-rimmed creeks accessible only by boat, on foot and with determination. I’ll stick to those in the little seaside towns, for the best thing about stepping out into the wild is stepping back again, the ragged return to the recognisable: the bars, the cafés, and lolling Italians (no people loll better); the shops, ports and sunny sauntering of happy holidaymakers. These suit my temperament better than trekking distant slopes. The fine thing about Elba is that you can have both. Try Marina di Campo or Marciana Marina for the real feel of the Italian seaside.
5. Because some pretty cool people have been there before you
Alexandre Dumas visited in the mid-19th century; the island of Monte Cristo is just off Elba – visible but, because a nature reserve, not visitable. Paul Klee was there, sketching, and, in 1947, Dylan Thomas landed in (what was then still) the mining area of Rio Marina. “This is the most beautiful island, and Rio Marina the strangest town on it,” he wrote. “Only fishermen and miners live here… Extremely tough. Notices 'Fighting prohibited’ in all bars. Elba cognac 3d. Of course no licensing laws.” Pretty much perfect, then.
The Burtons called in on a yacht as, in the mid-Fifties, had Errol Flynn. He bumped into a couple who were then building what was to become the five-star Hotel Hermitage. “You gotta make it a holiday village,” said Flynn. “That’s what they’re doing in the USA. It’s the way forward.” So that’s what they did. The Hermitage is woven into the curve of the hillside overlooking Biodola bay beach, with more nooks, crannies, gardens, staircases, outposts, chalets, pools and tennis courts than can be counted by a lazy man a sunny day. Plus a nine-hole golf course and seaside chic for all, as long as they’re loaded. Without doubt, it’s the best of the island’s 200 or so hotels, and the only one that had Errol Flynn as consultant (0039 0565 9740, hotelhermitage.it ; half-board doubles from £225, then steeply up).
6. Because there’s a new air link, Pisa to Elba
It starts on October 27, courtesy of Silver Air, £99 return (0039 333 7890135, silverairitalia.it ). This makes the island much easier to get to. Several airlines – BA, easyJet, Ryanair, Alitalia among them – fly from all London, and many regional, airports to Pisa. So you just hop across from the airport. Alternatively, you can get there via Milan Linate with Silver Air, or via Bern with SkyWork (0871 977 6088, flyskywork.com ) in summer. Otherwise, it’s train or car to Piombino and an hour’s ferry across to Elba. Blunavy (0039 0565 225833, blunavytraghetti.com ) has returns for a car and two passengers from £84, Moby and Toremar (0049 611 14020, mobylines.com ) from £105.
Potential self-caterers might try elba-island.org (800 077 822). Travelsphere has eight-day organised tours, flights, transfers and b & b included, from £649pp in 2015 (0844 417 1824, travelsphere.co.uk ). If that’s not enough, visit elbalink.it or infoelba.com .
Win one of 40 holidays worth £800,000
Telegraph Travel Awards 2014: vote for your favourite destinations and travel companies for the chance to win one of 40 luxury breaks worth a total of £800,000.
This article was written by Anthony Peregrine from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.