From Iron Age to Our Age

The Mediterranean island of Elba has been gratifying visitors since prehistory.

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

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.

Nestled between two of Cosimo's fortresses, the Stella fort and the Falcone fort, high above the town and harbor, is Napoleon's mansion. On display there are telling personal items: tiny satin slippers that belonged to Napoleon's sister, Pauline; an engraved announcement of the birth of the Emperor's son; and tender family portraits pointing up Napoleon's warm and fuzzy side as a doting father and a loving husband. "I am in a hermitage 600 feet above sea level with a view of the entire Mediterranean, surrounded by a forest of chestnut trees," he wrote to his second wife, Marie Louise, in August of 1814. "I very much desire to see you and my son."

The Emperor had for company his court, his mother, and Pauline, but Marie Louise had ensconced herself and the three-year-old Napoleon II at the luxurious Viennese court of her father, Francis I, Emperor of Austria, and showed little interest in so much as visiting her husband in his mini-kingdom. "Mini" is the operative idea here, and though the gallery, reception rooms, and library are decorated in the grand Empire style, all gilt and velvet draperies, the house resonates with Napoleon's diminished fortunes. Nonetheless, Napoleon held court here and drew many visitors from abroad, especially English ones. He also had a country house, the Villa di San Martino, which can be visited, but it is generally described as "modest," and apparently not even Napoleon went there much. He was too busy riding everywhere on horseback -- supervising road building, modernizing agriculture, encouraging fishing, and, above all, sharpening his tiny army and navy into readiness for his escape.

In the formal gardens behind the house it seemed to me that I could imagine the exiled conqueror's brooding thoughts as he gazed over the balustrade where I now stood, toward the lighthouse of the Stella fort, the sparkling bay, and, across it, the green mountains of the Tuscan coast. Napoleon spent only ten months here before making his triumphal -- if brief -- return to France and power. No one thinks that St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, to which he was finally banished, is half as nice as Elba.

THOUGH there are a number of little museums on Elba (for instance, an archaeological museum in Marciana Alta and a mining museum in Rio Marina), it's the villages themselves that are the most redolent of history. Besides, they're charming. Most days we would set out for one on our bicycles. Since the island is so small, bikes are a great way to see it; the drawback is that all those picturesque hill towns are ... on top of hills. Unless you're a more stalwart rider than I am, you'll want a car, too. (You can rent one on the island or bring one over from the mainland on the ferry.)

One day Mary, John, and I bicycled into the mountains toward Mount Capanne, whose granite peak, at 3,300 feet, is the highest point of the island. Eventually we reached Poggio, a village of colorful stucco houses with flowers cascading over high garden walls. These rose along twisty passageways of stone steps -- some mosaics of pebbles, others patterns of gray slabs. As I made my way to the age-darkened Chiesa di San Defendente, a small but impressive-looking early-sixteenth-century church, I saw very few people about. The church bells, striking eleven, echoed off the walls. Poggio is the site of the Fonte di Napoleone, an ancient spring whose waters are served in seemingly every restaurant on the island. We filled our bottles with the delicious water pouring from a pipe jutting out of the mountain onto the road.

A little farther up the same road is Marciana Alta, a wine-growing center and one of Elba's oldest settlements. We ate at one of a row of outdoor cafés, on a tree-shaded terrace overlooking the sea. We picked a café that served unusual panini and insalati: my salad was a tasty bowl of fresh-cooked peas wound through with strips of pancetta and mozzarella. After lunch the three of us wandered through a peach-colored stone archway labeled "Porta Medioevale di Lorena" into a crumbling-walled town of many stairways, and up to the ruins of a hulking twelfth-century Pisan fortress. The highest town commanding a view of the water, Marciana served the Pisans as a kind of early-warning system against pirate raiders.

Another day we went swimming just down the mountain at Marciana Marina, a bustling town that contains one of the island's fifty or so beaches. Pick your favorite: they come with fine golden sand, rough and rocky, buffered by jetties, walled off by sheer cliffs, and in quite a few other permutations. Last year an Italian group called the Environment League named Marciana Marina the best beach in Italy, because of its pristine waters. We weren't crazy about walking on its small round stones, despite the canvas runner draped over them by the beach-chair-and-umbrella man. But swimming in that clear water was heaven. Splashing and lounging against the rocks in the water, we rested our heads on pillows of spongy marine life of kinds we'd never before seen -- green mossy stuff and tiny, sliver-thin mushroom-shaped plants waving in the current.

The island is densely packed with settlements, and we saw a lot -- the old fishing village of Porto Azzurro, with its Spanish-built fortresses; the ruins of an imperial Roman villa, its walls facing views of the bay in three directions; the busy workaday beach town of Procchio, where we bought peaches so sweet and juicy that we had to wade into the water to wash off their stickiness. We also missed a lot -- Etruscan ruins, medieval chapels, and the mining towns of Capoliveri and Rio Marina. With its nearly unparalleled endowment of minerals, Elba attracts both scientists and amateur rock collectors. If you want to collect anything from amethysts and beryls to garnets and tourmalines, you can buy specimen cards in the shops to show you what you're looking for.

One sunny morning we donned life jackets, wedged ourselves into sea kayaks, and paddled as part of a group away from the sandy beach at Marina di Campo, a town on the south coast. We slid past deserted coves, rocky bays, and soaring cliffs, accompanied by Umberto, an Elban guide and kayak renter. We picnicked on a stony beach between sheer cliffs, floated on churning white water between giant rocks (the ultimate Jacuzzi), and glided into caves hollowed out by the sea to look up at their fanciful stalactites.

As we paddled back, Umberto kept up a steady stream of commentary. I struggled to lift my tired arms and to understand his Italian while he pointed things out: jagged shelves of rock created by volcanic action, little green succulents growing out of the cliffs. "Finocchio di mare," he explained -- whence comes a strong spice that's delicious with fish. When we reached a point where we could see no land but the Elban coast, he paused and pointed dramatically in three directions: "Sicilia. Roma. Africa." My Italian was up to this.

The sun was intense that day, as it tends to be in June. May and October are considered the ideal times to visit Elba, but even in November, and again in March and April, the temperature gets into the high sixties during the day. In the early spring Umberto (who has his own Web site: leads people on serious trekking and mountain-biking expeditions in the very wild parts of the mountains. In fact, international mountain-biking competitions are held here annually in May and October.

We ate most of our dinners in Portoferraio, where the restaurants are all casual, the cuisine is Tuscan, and the fish is fantastic. One night we ate very well at Stella Marina, the local favorite -- although travel writers, we were told, are more likely to tout the Trattoria La Barca. We tried that another night, and it, too, was terrific -- you pick your own fish off the ice, pay by the pound, and order it the way you like it: grilled, baked, or fried. My favorite dishes on Elba were the insalata di mare, a mixture of fat, tender little sea creatures and chewy tentacled things, all shiny with olive oil; pappardelle with conch in the shell; and ravioli al salmone.

When our stay was almost over, we had dinner at the Osteria Libertaria, a small restaurant at the end of the main drag, overlooking Portoferraio's harbor. The grizzled, no-nonsense owner, impressive of beard and belly, sat the three of us out front with another diner, at a long table covered with a blue-and-white-checked oilcloth. The other diner was Margaret, a retired bureaucrat from Bonn, who spoke English well but knew no Italian. Ordering was an adventure. When our phrase books were no help with the menu, I asked Margaret to translate the German on it into English. What was this "Chiocciola pesto" or "Schnecke"? "Snake," she replied, tentatively. Surely not. Well, she pantomimed, it moved on the ground and had a shell. Turtle? No, no legs. After a while we gave it up. Suddenly Margaret exclaimed triumphantly, "Escargot!"

Well, I ordered them, and they looked like little garden snails to me -- tiny shells whose smidgens of meat had to be extracted with a toothpick, a bit bland in a thin pesto sauce. But my main course, orata, a white fish, baked in paper with butter and pungent fresh thyme, was exquisite.

As we lingered over dinner, wishing we could remain on Elba longer, the sky grew dark and the lights came up around the harbor and glimmered on the water. Boats rocked gently at their moorings, and a round medieval tower sitting smack in the middle of the bay gleamed red and strange, its narrow slits trained toward generations of long-dead pirates. If they had known better, I like to think, they would have come as tourists.

Francine Russo is a theater critic for

The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; From Iron Age to Our Age - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 44-50.