VISITORS to Italy tend to love Tuscany, and they also love Italy's islands. What could be better than a Tuscan island? Few Americans, it seems, even realize that such a thing exists. In fact there is an entire Tuscan archipelago, the jewel of which is Elba. The island is an hour's ferry ride from the smoggy industrial town of Piombino, which is just two to three hours by car or train from either Florence or Rome. I visited Elba last June, joining Mary and John, friends from the States, on a bicycling vacation. They made the arrangements for the car, the hotel, and the bicycles; I studied up on the sights and the history, which, of course, prominently features Napoleon.
Napoleon (I now know) told the island's French governor that he had picked Elba as his retreat when he was forced to abdicate the throne as Emperor of France, in 1814. Really he had no choice, but still he got a good deal: he became the island's ruler. And far from being a grim prison island, Elba, seventeen miles long and eleven miles wide, is a natural paradise of towering mountains, lush forests, sheer cliffs, and sweeping bays and beaches. It has been inhabited, coveted, plundered, and fought over since Paleolithic times, and is thickly layered with history -- Etruscan and Roman ruins, ancient and medieval hill villages, walled Renaissance towns. Everywhere on harbors, hills, and promontories the island bristles with fortresses, ramparts, and towers.
Blame the mines. Very early on the island's folk discovered rich deposits of iron ore on Elba's eastern slopes and forged the stuff into crude implements. Soon outsiders, too, discovered the iron -- and some of the 150 or so other valuable minerals on this little plot of earth. Wielding swords, they came after it in ships. According to myth, Elba's glittering mountains attracted Jason and his Argonauts, who landed on the island in their search for the Golden Fleece. In real history, Greeks had moved in by the tenth century B.C. and were smelting the ore. Etruscans and then other Greeks shouldered them aside. The Romans took over next, mining the island and building luxurious villas overlooking the sea. From the twelfth century until the nineteenth a host of city-states and nations -- Pisa, Genoa, Tuscany, Spain, France -- traded the island back and forth, divvied it up, lost it, and reclaimed it. Under the peace treaty of Amiens it passed to France in 1802, reverting to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany after Napoleon's stewardship and becoming part of Italy after unification, in 1861.
As you approach Elba by ferry, you can see the red-rock mountains and barren gray moonscape of its iron-stripped eastern end. Round a bend, though, and luxuriantly green mountains and lovely harbors come into view. Elba looks like three separate islands, and is in fact made up of three distinct geological zones, east to west. The ferry lands at Rio Marina, on the east coast, near the iron mountains.
WE were staying at the Hotel Airone, an all-the-trimmings spa on the north coast, just outside Portoferraio, which with about 12,000 residents is the island's only town of any size. I had little interest in the hotel's acres of amenities (tennis courts, swimming pools, and so forth), but after our first day of cycling I did consider treating myself to a "massaggio totale." Alas, the masseuse was all booked, even so early in the season. I toyed with the idea of having a mud bath, but one look at the lake of brown muck on the manicured grounds dissuaded me. Also, the spa's brochure translated the substance -- with, I think, unintended candor -- as "slime."
I would have preferred an older grand hotel in the walled city to this spanking new resort on the outskirts. But as it turns out, there aren't any. Blame the mines. There was little need for tourist hotels while the metal refineries belched their persistent cloud of pollution over the island -- an era that continued through World War II. It was thirty years before Elba's reputation as a dirty industrial site began to fade. In the seventies a few Italians, Florentines mostly, began to notice its beauty and took housekeeping cottages there for summer escapes. The government, recognizing a new variety of gold mine, in 1996 declared about half of the island a nature preserve -- and new resorts, from the splendid to the utilitarian, began springing up in towns all along the coast (you'll find many of them listed at www.venere.it/elba/elba.html).
There are some wealthy folks' villas near the beaches, and some very expensive-looking yachts in the harbors, but Elba remains a relaxed, unpretentious island, where Italians of all classes, and many Germans, vacation. Menus, newspapers, brochures -- everything on Elba is in either Italian or German, although you might get a few halting words of English from hotel staff members. So unless you have at least a smattering of Italian or German (I had some of the former and less of the latter), you'd best do your research beforehand. As it happens, a simple map and a list of sights will get you everywhere you want to go.
I was eager to visit Napoleon's house, the Palazzina dei Mulini, in Portoferraio. The city starts atop a promontory and runs down to the sea, draping itself around its bay like two long embracing arms. Embracing and defending: this rocky outpost has been a stronghold for centuries. Cosimo I de' Medici left the imprint that is most evident today. In the 1540s he commissioned three linked fortresses to protect the walled city against marauding pirates. The notorious Barbarossa -- or Khair ed-Din, as he was called by his fellow Turks -- had been a recent threat. Cosimo set his impregnable citadel on the ruins of fortifications built by the Romans, who had laid their stones over the remnants of an Etruscan outpost.