Following Napoleon’s trail on Elba
Elba's Palazzino dei Mulini was Napoleon's official residence while in exile. (Mandred Hofer/LPI)
The island of Elba, the largest in the Tuscan archipelago, is a 260km drive and 15km ferry ride north of Rome. In July and August, the population density and traffic becomes so thick with vacationing Romans that one can push their car across the capital, Portoferraio, at about the same pace as driving it.
There is good reason for this popularity. The modestly proportioned 28km-long, 19km-wide-island offers copious rewarding trekking, cycling and camping opportunities in addition to abundant beaches and a substantial drool trail leading from one Slow Food-endorsed dinning establishment to another. A slightly more roomy and inexpensive shoulder season visit (April to May and September to October) is highly recommended.
Elba has been inhabited since the Iron Age. Ligurian tribes were followed by Etruscans and then Greeks. A rotating cast of residents, refugees and pirates made appearances in subsequent centuries including the Pax Romana, bands of North African raiders, the Spanish and Cosimo I de' Medici, who in the mid-16th Century founded and fortified the port town of Cosmopolis, today's Portoferraio. But none of these occupants did more in so little time as France’s all time greatest military mastermind and badboy, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Though the Emperor escaped less than a year after being “banished” to Elba (the penal equivalent of a shoulder massage), Napoleon left a lasting mark on the island and its inhabitants who, even now, almost 200 years later, still say a Mass each May for his soul at Chiesa della Misericordia.
Indeed, upon his arrival, Napoleon spun into a veritable tornado of activity, ordering a plethora of public works, like boosting agriculture, road-building, marsh draining and a thorough overhaul of the legal and education systems. He also oversaw improvements to the island's iron-ore mines, the revenue of which now kept him comfortably stocked in hair care products.
Nine months later, in a panic over rumours that nervous European leaders were scheming to have him shipped off to the remote Atlantic island of Saint Helena, Napoleon slipped aboard a departing ship and strode back into Paris for one last run at ruling Europe (the Hundred Days), ending in his defeat at Waterloo. He was summarily dumped on Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
Perched up on the bastions between Portoferraio’s duel defensive forts is Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon's primary home while serving as “emperor” of Elba. Why Napoleon ached to flee this sumptuous villa, with its enviable views, terraced garden and library, to once again live out of a travel trunk and trampoline-caliber camp bed (on display in the home) taxes the sensible mind to distraction. While touring the villa is certainly a worthwhile history lesson, the overall scarcity of genuine Napoleon artefacts may disappoint some.
Roughly 5km southwest of Portoferraio, set in low, green hills is Villa Napoleonica di San Martino, the Emperor’s summer residence. Despite being more opulent and peaceful than Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon reportedly never spent more than a few hours at a time here. An unassuming iron fence-enclosed square leads into the eight-room villa, including bedrooms, a study and the “Egyptian room”, decorated with hieroglyphs, pyramids, and a large zodiac painted on the ceiling to commemorate his campaigns in Egypt. The villa, owned, occupied and modified by several entities after Napoleon, including being used as a headquarters during German occupation in WWII, was restored before being opened as a museum.
Finally, budget travellers can glean a small thrill from staying at Albergo Ape Elbana. This historic, butter-coloured, building overlooking central Piazza della Repubblica is both Elba's oldest hotel and where guests of Napoleon are reputed to have stayed.