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.