Enjoy an exile of your own on Elba

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By Norrie Hunter
 
Most famous as the place where the French banished their emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to a short term period of exile, Elba is an island off the west coast of Italy that few British tourists visit.  Many would be hard pressed to tell you exactly where it is! The island is, however, an international vacation hot spot for Italians for over five decades.

By Norrie Hunter
 
Most famous as the place where the French banished their emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to a short term period of exile, Elba is an island off the west coast of Italy that few British tourists visit.  Many would be hard pressed to tell you exactly where it is! The island is, however, an international vacation hot spot for Italians for over five decades.

A little paradise, Elba is a mere 55 minute ferry ride away from the Tuscany mainland and is part of an archipelago that includes Sardinia and Corsica.  It has no fewer than 49 beaches, a host of classy hotels, numerous budget B&Bs and attractions to suit most visitors.

To reach Elba takes no great effort.  It’s only a 20 minute flight from Pisa – itself under three hours flying time from Prestwick.  Much more exciting is a train down the scenic coast to catch the ferry from the port of Piombino.  Two main ferry operators – the colourful Moby line and the more traditional but less expensive, Toremar company make the crossing to Portoferraio of Elba’s eastern seaaboard.  There’s also a passenger-only 35 minute hydrofoil service.

The main coastal town and island capital, Portoferraio is the gateway to

Elba’s rugged and dramatic coast, mountain roads with hairpin bends can take the breath away.  Thousands of inlets and coves are best explore by sail or motor boat.  This relatively small island (224 sq. km. in area) offers diving, wind surfing, hang gliding, cycling and walking .

Elba’s highest peak, Monte Capanne (1018 m.) with its own cable car, attracts countless hill walkers, mainly from Germany, Switzerland and Holland, to its slopes each year.  In the spring and early summer the mountain is awash with colour from the masses of Mediterranean flowers, shrubs and trees.

Napoleon may have been incarcerated for only 10 months on Elba but his legacy is evident today.  Elbanis, (islanders) are indebted to the emperor.  The island was fought over by the Germans, Austrians, English and French Elba’s “full ownership and sovereignty” was assigned to the French Emperor.  He left behind important traces of his rule – building roads, reorganising the iron mining economy and increasing the production and export of wine.

Napoleon was never actually ‘in jail’ during his stay here but lived in his own winter and summer residences and left to enjoy what must have appeared a paradise compared to parts of his native France in the early 19th Century.  His homes are now museums and a must on the tourist trail.

Known as the pearl of the Tuscan Archipelago, Elba is dotted with small fortress towns such as Marciana Marina, Lacona, Porto Azzurro and Marina Di Campo.

There are 8,000 tourist beds in a range of hotels, over 2,500 beds in smaller B&B and residential hotels and 10,000 camping places throughout its natural landscape.  We stopped at the pleasant and idyllic Hotel Paradiso, a hillside hotel consisting of several cottages all with terraces overlooking the Med.

A ‘wellness’ centre was established on Elba in the 1950s by Genoa-born Paolo de Farrari and now guests can have mind and body experiences at the exclusive Integree Centre.

Traditional Elban cuisine is based primarily on simple dishes and the imagination and knowledge of local chefs dominate.

Among the most popular and sought after dishes are “Lo Stoccafisso alla Riese” (stock fish), a traditional Elban dish and “Gurguglione” a popular vegetable stew. 

Our meal at the privately owned Osteria Del Chirlo Grigio in the southern coastal town of Marina Di Campo, saw the arrival of Puchini mushrooms on a bed of olive oil-dressed tagiatelle followed by a massive T-bone steak for three.  The finale was an Elban Picorino cheese made from sheep’s milk coated in chestnut flavour local honey, washed down with the dregs of our Tuscan red.

Despite a radical reduction in vineyards over these last 50years, Elban grapes still produce an array of fine wines, including Cecilia (from Marina di Campo) Arrighi and Sepereta, both from Port Azzurro with Moscato and Aleatico, two sweet dessert wines.
 
Legend has it that on his adventurous travels in search of the Golden Fleece, Jason stopped off at Porto Argon, the present-day Capo Bianco.  For the Etruscans who occupied the island for over 500 years, Elba was an inexhaustible source of wealth, rich in iron deposits, which in the VIII century BC they exported throughout the Mediterranean for great profit.

Today, Elba produces many of its own speciality products including soaps and perfumes called Acqua dell Elba.  It is said that while swimming in a little bay, Bonaparte’s wife Paolina was enchanted by the aroma of the Mediterranean shrubs around her.  She told her husband: …“here we could create better perfumes than those we receive from Paris.”

As the emperor couldn’t say ‘no’ to his beloved, he began constructing a laboratory but when production was about to begin, a bird flew away with the formula for the perfume – Paolina’s Acqua dell Elba!  Now however, three young Elbans have built their own laboratory and, using all local ingredients, have created a range of perfumes and eau de toilettes that sell worldwide.

Three local beers are brewed on Elba – Napoleon, Le Coti Nere and Birra dell’Elba – and a single spirit called Smania.

Elba is best visited in spring and early summer (May – June) and autumn (September) when most other Europeans are back at work!  The island is becoming increasingly aware of the UK tourist market… “we have never really promoted the charms of our island to the British but that is about to change,” says Fabrizzio Massa, editor of the local Elba Pocket Guide, “many people don’t even know where Elba is and it’s time we put it firmly on the tourism map.”

FACTFILE
Flights to Pisa: Ryanair:  www.ryanair .com
Ferry: www.moby.it

Hotel Paradiso
Tel. +39-0565.939034
Email: paradiso@elbaturistica.it

Information about the Island of Elba
www.infoelba.com/informazioni.it

Aqua Dell Elba: www.aquadellelba.it