Elba is the onetime home-in-exile to Napolean, and a Mediterranean haven largely ignored by English-speaking tourists.
Why Leave The Mainland?
Because, just offshore from Tuscany's rolling fields of vines and sunflowers, hill-top villages and fine cities, the region encompasses seven islands that few travelers know about. The Tuscan Archipelago, lying in a broad arch off Tuscany's west coast, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, is Europe's largest protected marine park. The archipelago stretches from Gorgona in the north (almost on the same latitude as Florence) via Capraia, Elba, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri, close to Rome's port, Civitavecchia.
Most of the islands are accessible to tourists, with the exceptions of Montecristo, which is open only to marine research scientists, and Gorgona, the Mediterranean Alcatraz, home only to a large prison. Those visiting of their own volition, however, can expect idyllic beaches and a wide variety of activities both on and offshore, providing a welcome new dimension to a typical Tuscan art-and-architecture tour.
By far the largest and best known is Elba, at which Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in May 1814.
A Napoleonic Holiday?
No. After the disastrous War of the Sixth Coalition, the Corsican general was banished to the Tuscan isle, and kept under surveillance by British naval patrols. Napoleon did not simply relax and enjoy it. With the support of his loyal 500-strong guard, he became the emperor of the island. He implemented fundamental reforms to Elba's economy and infrastructure, reviving Elba's ancient iron mines and Medici fortresses, building roads, and modernizing the agricultural and legal systems on the island. Rumor and intrigue brought him back to France nine months later, followed by the Hundred Days campaign through France and his eventual defeat at Waterloo.
The name of Napoleon resounds in island lore, and his two houses are well worth visiting. Both houses open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except Sunday when they close at 1 p.m., admission--5 euro for both properties. The first, the Villa dei Mulini is located in Portoferraio. Here, the baroque meets head on with enough Napoleon memorabilia to set up your own car-boot sale. It contains the original flag designed by Napoleon for the island, which features three golden bees on a diagonal red stripe.
The Bonaparte summer house, the Villa di San Martino, is no less grandiose, though the Napoleonic Museum within is lackluster. It is located in the rolling hills, 5 km south-west of Portoferraio, accessible by bus.
Will I Find Some Elba Room?
Yes. While the island of Napoleon's temporary abode is small compared with Italy's main islands--Sicily and Sardinia--it is, in fact, Italy's third-largest offshore asset. It has been popular as a holiday destination for a couple of millennia; the ancient Romans were partial to the odd fortnight here.
Elba stretches a maximum of 30 km from coast to coast, and has a permanent population of 30,000, spread throughout the island in picturesque coastal and mountain villages and a handful of larger towns. For the best chance of a peaceful island retreat, travel to the archipelago in the late summer, autumn or early spring; in high summer, Elba becomes a magnet for Italian families and fashionable Florentines trying, but failing, to get away from it all.
Portoferraio is where you get off the ferry from the mainland. Beyond the modern port, a charming Tuscan town rises up to the high cliffs cradled by the imposing Medici fortifications. Capoliveri, just beyond Portoferraio, has charm writ large in its cluster of tightly packed streets, and boasts three decent sand and shingle beaches below.
I Crave Peace and Quiet
Try some of the other Tuscan islands. Being smaller and requiring a little more effort to reach, they have a more tranquil atmosphere than bustling Elba, although there are fewer hotels and rooms for rent, so advance booking is advisable, even in the shoulder months.
You could try Giglio, the second-largest island in the archipelago, which is growing in popularity with Italian holidaymakers. Accordingly, its beaches are becoming increasingly built up, but there is some way to go before the island could be considered spoiled. Most of the rugged coastline is raised from the water, and there is only one real sandy beach, at Campese, which is 2 km long and marked by a somewhat phallic rock and overlooked by an intrusive Medici tower.
To escape, make for tiny Giannutri. Just 500 m wide and 5 km long, it provides a real adventure. Lined with grottoes and two beaches, there are no hotels and just one restaurant. However, you might persuade the owner of La Taverna del Granduca (011 (+39) 338 468 4020), who is the island's unelected authority, whether you can stay. If not, this little island jewel makes for a great day out from Porto Santo Stefano on Monte Argentario.
Of course, you could escape the crowds on land by taking to the sea.