Elba Island: beautiful nature and Napoleon’s prison.

Elba Island

Apart from Napoleon Bonaparte, who was eager to get away from Elba as soon as possible, anyone who has come here once feels wonderful. Lovers of Tuscany enjoy the wonderfully mild climate and lush Mediterranean vegetation, fans of scuba diving will find here an almost untouched underwater world, and well-equipped piers and harbors attract yachtsmen.

Elba is the largest island of the Tuscan archipelago, it lies 10 km south-west of the mainland port of Piombino in the Ligurian Sea. In the past it was known for its rich iron ore reserves, a treasure already used by the Etruscans. After Portoferraio’s blast furnaces were literally razed to the ground by bombing during the Second World War, the metallurgical industry ceased to exist. Today, tuna fishing, fruit farming and viticulture have also lost their importance. For a good three decades, the islanders have been living off tourism.

The history of Elba is the story of its many rulers. In the 11th century the island belonged to Pisa, from 1284. – Then Lucca, and in 1736 it belonged to Spain. In 1814 Napoleon was deprived of his throne and stayed on the island from May 3, 1814 to February 26, 1815. The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) gave the island to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and in 1860 Elba became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

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How to get there

Most travelers choose to take the ferry from Piombino to Portoferraio. Toremar and Moby Lines car ferries have to wait about an hour, with voyages from 6:00 to 10:30 pm. There is also a connection from Piombino to Cavo and Porto Azzuro; in addition, a hydrofoil boat goes to Portoferraio and Cavo. During the summer season it is necessary to book tickets in advance.

A trip around the island of Elba

Through the charming bay of Procchio with one of the most beautiful beaches on the island you can go westwards to the small port town of Marciana Marina (2000 inhabitants), where by the port there is a remarkable Saracen Tower of the XII century.

After 4 km of winding and steep road in the interior of the island the route leads to the center of wine making in Elba, located among the chestnut woods. The small village of Marciana Alta (374 m., 2300 inhabitants) will charm you with its intricate streets and the ruins of the ancient fortress of Pisa, built in 1450 by the Appiani family. Go deeper into history in the Archaeological Museum in Via del Pretorio where the Etruscan and Roman archaeological finds are on display. Then the road leads to the pilgrimage church of the Madonna del Monte (XVI c.), situated at an altitude of 672 m.

The highest part of the island is Monte Capanne (1018 m), to which there is a cableway from Marciana. The ascent by foot from Poggio takes three hours. But from the top there is a magnificent view of the entire archipelago.

Through the mountain villages of Poggio, Sant’Illario, San Piero in Campo (worth seeing the Romanesque church with frescoes of the XIV-XV) the route leads to the popular seaside resort of Marina di Campo (4,100 inhabitants). The two kilometers long sandy beach attracts surfers, divers, and just lovers of sun and nightlife. You can admire the beautiful underwater world without diving: there is an aquarium not far from the place (M 2).

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More beaches await holidaymakers on the bays of Lacona and Stella. From here it is worth a trip to the lovely mountain village of Capoliveri (167 m; 2,700 inhabitants), once famous for its iron ore and mineral deposits. Today it has romantic streets, bars and stores that invite you to visit.

A few kilometers northeast, in a picturesque long bay is the fishing town of Porto Azzuro, fortified by the Spaniards in the XVII century, famous for its azure harbor and five-pointed star-shaped fort Longone, built in about 1603. Today it is a prison.

The next stop is the former iron ore unloading port of Rio Marina (3,000 inhabitants). The rusty color of the facades of the houses on the main street, fringed with sycamore trees, testifies to the high content of iron oxide in the nearby mines. Fans of minerals will find it interesting to visit the town hall, which tells of the deposits and mines.

Before returning to Portoferraio, you should look around: you can see the fortress on the rock from afar. It is Volterraio, which is like an eagle’s nest perched on the cone of the mountain. The solitary fortress was built by the Pisans in about 1284 and the external fortifications appeared in the XVII century. A winding road leads to the top, then you have to walk about 30 m on foot (better wear sturdy shoes) – the walk gives a fantastic view of the surroundings.

Portoferraio – the capital of Elba

Portoferraio (Portoferraio, Latin for port of iron; 11,500 inhabitants) is the capital of the island of Elba and the entire Tuscan archipelago, lying on a spit in a natural harbor. During the summer months, the cafes and restaurants of the old town in Via Garibaldi, Piazza della Repubblica Piazza Cavour and at the pier of Darsena port are buzzing with activity.

In 1548 Cosimo I de’ Medici had the fortresses of Forte Stella and Forte Falcone built by Bellucci and Camerini, today examples of Renaissance military architecture. You enter the old town through the Porte a Mare, then the road goes up to Piazza della Repubblica. In the nearby Via Napoleone there is the small church of the Chiesa della Misericordia in which along with the image of the Madonna attributed to Tino da Camaino (XIII-XIV centuries) one can see the posthumous bronze mask of Napoleon. In the building of the former Franciscan monastery of the sixteenth century opposite the church there is now the Pinacoteca Foresiana. It is the only picture gallery on Elba, where there are many pictures with views of the city and landscapes of the island. From here the road leads to Piazza Napoleone, the highest part of the old town, there stands the Villa dei Mulini, originally a courthouse and prison. In 1814 the building was rebuilt into the city residence of Napoleon. It is worth a visit if only for the beautiful view; (and the only one of the few original exhibits is the emperor’s luxurious four-poster bed).

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About 6 km south-west of Portoferraio, on the hillside of the wooded Monte Cap Martino, stands the elegant summer residence of Napoleon (Villa Napoleone). On the second floor, eight rooms are open to the public, among them the Egyptian Room, whose wall paintings celebrate Napoleon’s victories in the former possessions of the pharaohs. Below is the neoclassical palace built in 1852 by Prince Anatol Demidov of Russia, a relative of the numerous Bonaparte family.

Tuscan Archipelago

The Tuscan Archipelago (Arcipelago Toscano) consists of seven main islands and many smaller islets between the coast and the island of Corsica. To protect the flora and fauna, in 1990 part of the archipelago was declared a national park, and in 1998 the park was greatly expanded.

The beautiful islands were for many years the site of prisons. But the Capraia and Pianosa detention centers have long been closed, and the bays are now filled with divers and scuba divers. The only “prison island” remains Gorgon, for which a special permit is required. The same applies to the strictly protected protected area – the island of Montecristo.

The precipitous rocky island of Giglio and above all its three villages of Porto, Castello and Campese are highly prized by Italian holidaymakers. There are several flights a day from Porto S. Stefano. The berth is the port of Giglio Porto. Castello, the main settlement and administrative center of the island, is situated on a hill; the houses are hewn in the fortification wall. The fishing village of Campese and its pleasant cove, bounded by the Torre de Campese (Torre de Campese, 1705), are picturesque. Campese is the longest and most crowded beach on the island in summer. On the southern coast of Giglio, there is still unspoiled nature. On the east coast, on the narrow coastal strip, old port buildings pile up. The mighty Torre del Porto was built in 1596.

Weekend on Elba Island

Elba Island is witness to many historic events: in all the Mediterranean there is no civilization that left no visible trace here. Nature, art and thousands of years of culture form a microcosm spread over 224 km2, creating a unique atmosphere and a stunning cultural landscape, the result of meetings between different peoples.

For the Etruscans, the island of Elba was an inexhaustible source of wealth: as early as the 8th century BC, they mined there and exported iron throughout the Mediterranean basin. After the decline of the Etruscan state, it was the turn of the ancient Romans who exploited the deposits of granite. It is also known that they discovered medicinal mud in the thermae of San Giovanni and appreciated the beauty of local nature and excellent wines; Pliny the Elder even called Elba “the island of good wine”.

During the Middle Ages, the deposits of iron and granite on Elba went to the Maritime Republic of Pisa. Most of the columns that adorn Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa’s main square, were made by skilled craftsmen from the town of San Piero. There are many testimonies of this period of the island’s history: the elegant Romanesque churches, the tower at San Giovanni in Campo built on a huge granite boulder, the mighty fortress at Fortezza di Marciana and the castle at Volterraio, which ensured control of the approaches through the mountains and by sea.

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In 1548 the island came under the control of the Medici dukes of Tuscany: Cosimo I built here the fortress city Portoferraio, a true jewel of military urbanism. The city was also called Cosmopoli after the founding duke. The sea, the land and the architectural structures were so organized here into a harmonious whole; the city was said to be “the cradle of civilization and culture, a model of balance and rationality”.

The Spaniards soon seized Porto Azzurro and built the mighty fort of San Giacomo. In the 18th century, the Austrians, Germans, British and French fought over the island of Elba, until it finally came under the “full ownership and control” of Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor of the island ruled his domain for ten months, during which time he managed to build several roads, reform the mining system, and increase wine production and exports.

Napoleon on the Elbe

Napoleon lived in exile on Elba Island from May 4, 1814 to February 26, 1815. Today one can visit two residences of the legendary emperor: the Villa dei Mulini in Portoferraio and the Villa San Martino near Procchio.

Napoleon’s city residence is called the Villa dei Mulini because of the memory of the place: there used to be windmills on the site. It now houses relics, pieces of furniture and furnishings from the early 19th century and part of the Emperor’s very curious library. Napoleon chose this villa also because of its dominant position over the town: from the terrace one can not only enjoy the magnificent panorama, but also observe what is happening in the port and see what ships come in and out of it.

Napoleon bought Villa San Martino in June 1814 to make it his summer residence, but due to the departure of the Emperor, it remained uninhabited. Subsequently, the manor became the property of Prince Anatoly Demidov, who commissioned the construction of an elegant neoclassical building, the Demidov Gallery. Today it is in the rooms, covered with paintings, that a collection of 19th-century engravings related to Napoleon and furniture from his time are kept. The most beautiful room is called the Egyptian Room (Sala egizia) and is dedicated to Napoleon’s victory in the Egyptian campaign.

What to see

The best beaches in Elba

Beaches with soft golden sand or white stones that brighten the water, coves and rocky shores that plunge sharply into the blue, beaches dark with iron that ignite the sea surface with a mottled glow. The beaches of Elba Island are a string of natural treasures: each one is special, united only by the breathtaking sea and the rich, motley fish beds that snorkeling enthusiasts will appreciate.

In Portoferraio it is a must to visit the beach at Biodola: fine soft sand, shallow bottom, everything you need for tourists. Nearby there are also the beaches of Capobianco, Sottobomba and Sansone with a pebble bed: not as crowded.

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Not far from Biodola, near Procchio you will find Paolina beach. It is a charming little harbor with pebbles and in the sea opposite there is a high rock that can only be reached by swimming. According to legend, Napoleon’s sister Paolina Bonaparte loved to sunbathe on this beach, in the shade of a pine grove overhanging the sea.

The beaches near Porto Azzurro, like Barbarossa, are beautiful. The Terranera pond, which is yellowish because there used to be an iron mine there, is also worth a look.

Rio Marina was also once a mining area; not surprisingly, the local beach of Topinetti is dotted with black pebbles and sand – their color is determined by various minerals, above all iron. The nearby beach of Cavo, the northernmost beach on the entire island, is also worth a visit.

In the northwestern part of the island there is a small fishing village of Marciana Marina. Here one must see Fenicia beach: the seabed is covered with coarse pebbles polished by water. Also here hides one of the most secret and spectacular bays of the entire Elbe – Crocetta, or “The Souls” (Le Anime). To get here, you have to go down a steep rocky shore, but the challenge is worth it: the sea in the bay is soft turquoise, and around it there are magnificent dark and light cliffs.

The most famous resorts are in the Marina di Campo: the beach at Cavoli with fine pebbles and nearby Fetovaia, two real gems, each in its own bay; it’s always crowded in summer. The sand is of granite origin and has a golden hue. The large sandy beach at Lacona is also noteworthy.

Capoliveri is an area of mines in the mountains Kalamita and Ginevro. The largest sandy beach here is called Innamorata; it is on the west side of the cape, where there are also small bays Zuccale, Morcone and Pareti. At the extremity of the cape, near an abandoned pyrite deposit, there is the beach of Remaiolo, accessible only by dirt road.

Campo d’Elba

Campo d’Elba is the best place to start exploring the island. It is located in the southernmost and flattest part of the island, stretching from the Gulf of Lacona to Pomonte on the west coast of the island. The southern part of the town, Marina di Campo, was once a fishing village built along a wide sandy bay. Today it is the main center of Campo Nell’Elba, and its beach, the longest on the island, is hugely popular in the summer. On the promontory that closes Marina di Campo’s harbor from the south stands a cylindrical tower built to defend the island, most probably during the era of Pisa’s domination. There are also archaeological sites testifying to the antiquity of the first settlements on the island.

Cuisine

The cuisine of Elba Island is based on simple ingredients and recipes with influences from different cultures.

In the town of Rio, a strong Oriental influence is immediately noticeable. For example, the cake called “skiaccia briaca” consists of typical oriental ingredients: pine nuts and Izmir raisins. It also requires aleatico wine, which was added to the recipe in the 19th century and, like walnuts, is not produced on the island and is therefore not cheap. A variant of the century before last involved the use of island honey instead of the rare and extremely expensive sugar. The result was a cake without yeast or eggs that lasted so long that it was perfectly suited to the provisions of sailors. Later, other common people’s dishes, such as fish soup sburrita, vegetables gurguglione or dried cod stoccafisso, entered the pantheon of traditional island cuisine, brought here by the Spanish or Napoleonic soldiers who formed the garrison that guarded the south-east part of the island, subordinate to the Spanish viceroy.

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Another old dish is imbollita, made from figs, which grow in abundance here. Also in Elba, sportella bread with anise and cerimito bread are baked; today they are more refined than in the old days, when engaged couples exchanged these breads at Easter. Both are shaped like symbols of the sexes and are therefore a kind of wish for abundant offspring.

Because of the abundance and excellent quality of fish and seafood, dishes based on them are also part of the local repertoire. For example boiled octopus (polpo lesso), sea fish zerro in a fried or marinated form, favolli crab soup, totani squid and seppie, The most famous are the spaghetti with margherita (spaghetti con la margherita), the caciucco (fish soup), the reef fish and beet soup.

Lobsters, caught by the fishermen of Marina di Campo in the spring, are especially popular.

Thus, the cuisine of the island of Elba is quite varied. In the hills or mountains, sweets and breads form the basis of the traditional cuisine, while on the coast, fish and seafood are the mainstay.

How to get there

By Sea

To get to the island you can take a ferry from Piombino Marittima. You can reach Portoferraio, the main port of Portoferraio or Cavo and Rio Marina in only one hour. It is also possible to reach Portoferraio in just 35 minutes by hydrofoil, although only the passengers will be on board.

By car

North: From Milan, take the A1 freeway, drive till Parma Ovest and take the A15, take the A12 Genova-Livorno freeway, exit at Rosignano, take the S.S. Aurelia till Venturina-Isola d’Elba and then Piombino Marittima.

North-east : Take the A1 Bologna-Firenze-Pisa-Livorno freeway, exit at Rosignano, follow the S.S. Aurelia to Venturina-Isola d’Elba, and from here to Piombino Marittima.

From the south, take the A12 Rome-Grosseto freeway: take the S.S. Aurelia as far as Venturina-Isola d’Elba and from there as far as Piombino Marittima.

By plane

During the summer, a number of Italian and international airlines fly from the continent to the island of Elba. There are flights to the island from the airports of Pisa, Zurich, Bern, Geneva, Thal, Friedrichshafen, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Berlin and London.

The airport is located at La Pila, north of Campo, in the central part of the island.

To get to the ferry, you have to go to Piombino Marittima station.

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