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,
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
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
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.
Despite remarkable work and intervention during his
stay, the only appreciable evidence of Napoleon’s internment on Elba are his
two homes Villa
dei Mulini and Villa
Napoleonica di San Martino.
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
The article 'Following Napoleon’s trail on Elba' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.