A Tuscan Island Getaway on Elba: Napoleonic Villas, Salty Fishing Harbors, and Terrifying Gondolas

Pebbly beaches, boat-speckled harbors, and seafood feasts…in Tuscany?

Our just-announced Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour includes an island getaway on Elba. This is great news… not only because it’s a dynamite stop on a dynamite tour. But also because, selfishly, it gave me an excuse to finally visit Elba. I hopped a ferry earlier this summer to research a brand-new chapter on Elba for the upcoming 18th edition of our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook. And I loved it.

Most people come to Tuscany for great art, rolling farmland, picturesque hill towns, and hearty meat dishes. But Elba — an easy one-hour ferry ride from the mainland — is the perfect Tuscan counterpoint…a delightful seaside break. Elba is synonymous with Napoleon, who was exiled here for 10 months after he attempted — and failed — to conquer all of Europe. But there’s much more to this island than its brief Napoleonic interlude.

Elba’s main town, Portoferraio, fans out from its charming, colorful, historic harbor, which bobs with a mix of luxury yachts and humble fishing boats. I’m lucky to score a room at Porto Sole B&B, overlooking this salty scene. My big windows are perfectly positioned at the corner of the harbor. As if conducting a Monet-type light experiment, I become obsessed with snapping photos from my balcony at different times of day, tracking the slow-motion flux of light and clouds and water texture.

Walking along the breezy harborfront promenade in the late afternoon, I pause to watch fishermen mending nets and preparing their rough vessels for the next day’s trip.

Portoferraio is shaped like an amphitheater, with the harbor as the stage. Setting out to explore, I hike steeply up stone staircases to the mighty, Medici-built fortresses that ring the harbor on three sides.

Catching my breath at the top of countless uneven steps, my eyes are drawn to a stately building nearby: a fine little Baroque-era theater built just for Napoleon during his short stay there. The proud attendant encourages me to step into the serene interior, which has an air of historical class and sophistication that feels a world apart from the gritty harbor below.

I follow my phone’s GPS on a quest to find Napoleon’s onetime residence, the Palazzina dei Mulini, just a few minutes’ walk away. I wind up walking right past it three times, assuming it can’t possibly be the boxy, drab building shown on the map. Finally, I sleuth my way around the left side of that house and find the ticket office, where the ticket-seller seems as listless and unenthused as the villa’s interior.

The recently defeated would-be Emperor of Europe arrived on Elba in May of 1814. As if to extend the flimsiest of lifelines to his sense of dignity, the European powers who negotiated his abdication decreed that he would be the ruler of this tiny Mediterranean island. Napoleon got off on a very good foot indeed when he greeted his new subjects by saying, “I will be a good father to you; you try to be good children to me.”

Walking through the rooms of Napoleon’s residence — which were feebly redecorated to give the little tyrant a fleeting taste of his once-opulent lifestyle — it’s  impossible not to feel the poignancy of a man who believed he was on the verge of ruling the world, suddenly humbled, defeated, and relegated to being the two-bit ruler of a no-name island. (I fight back deep Schadenfreude as I imagine Donald Trump leaving the White House, bankrupting his real estate empire, and moving into a Motel 6.) In one room, a petulant bust of Napoleon sneers at me, as if to say, “Watch the carpet!”

Stepping out onto the villa’s back terrace, I walk through the overgrown garden and peer over a stone wall to see waves crashing at the base of the cliffs far below me — with mainland Italy hovering faintly on the horizon, like a mirage. Again my imagination takes flight, picturing a humbled Napoleon doing furious laps in this little garden…seething, strategizing, and fantasizing about his sure-to-be-triumphant return at a place called Waterloo.

Hiking back down into town, I think about how bizarre it must have been for those loosey-goosey islanders to suddenly find themselves subjects of the most Type-A individual in European history. Napoleon arrived on Elba with an entourage of military leaders and diplomats, thousands of books, and 70 horses. And in his 10 short months ruling Elba, he pushed through infrastructure improvements, implemented education and legal reform, and exploited Elba’s lucrative mines to grow his personal wealth. Like having a houseguest who takes it upon himself to rearrange your cupboards and alphabetize your bookshelves, the people of Elba were probably relieved when he escaped the island for one last military campaign.

Back at sea level, I pull up a tipsy chair at a rustic table for dinner at the harborfront Osteria Libertaria  — gazing out at the very boats that, hours before, delivered the fish to my plate. Feeling adventurous (and needing a break from my steady Tuscan diet of hearty pastas and heavy meat), I order the carpaccio di ricciola marinata (yellowtail carpaccio drizzled with olive oil) and the linguine con acciughe e finocchietto (pasta with anchovies and wild fennel). Feeling the wispy anchovy bones getting stuck in my teeth, I’m satisfied — just this once — getting a break from pappardelle alla bolognese.

Beyond Portoferraio, Elba is a joy to explore by car. While quite small (just 18 miles long by about 11 miles wide), Elba has a dramatic landscape. Towering, stony mountains reach up to puffy clouds, and driving what looks like “a short distance” on the map takes much longer than expected — thanks to serpentine roads that twist up and over the many hills and mountains, and along the undulating coastline.

Following those curving roads, I make my way to the charming seafront town of Marciana Marina, which feels mellow and welcoming, with a tidy cobbled square and a beachfront promenade. (Visiting in May, I’m warned that July and August are anything but “mellow” — in fact, I’m repeatedly told it’s best to stay away during those peak-of-peak months. But May, early June, late September, and October are divine.)

Italian beaches don’t often appeal to me. They tend to be crowded, rocky, and greedy (charging a high price for chair and umbrella rentals). For Americans accustomed to Hawaiian or Caribbean beaches, Italian ones are pretty disheartening. As if too put too fine a point on the shortcomings of Italian beaches, the one in Portoferraio is called Le Ghiaie — literally, “The Gravel.” But Marcina Marina’s pebbly, crystal-clear shoreline makes me wish I had time for a dip.

From the seafront, I follow a winding road up, up, up the mountain to the village of Marciana, where I’ve heard that a gondola can take me up to the summit of Monte Capanne. Leaving my car, I follow a gurgling mountain stream up to the ticket desk. My jaw drops when I look up to see that the “gondola” consists of flimsy yellow metal cages, open to the air, suspended from above.

Gulping hard, I step inside my cage. The gate slams weakly shut behind me, and I begin my ascent. For 20 excruciating minutes, I feel like a terrified parakeet going for the ride of my life as I trundle sloooowly up the side of the mountain. The terrain 30 feet below me gradually transforms from alpine forest to naked, serrated rocks. I grasp the bars of the cage so hard my hands start to hurt, and each little bump or jostle tests my faith in Italian engineering. At one point, gripped by abject terror, I think I even record an “in case something goes wrong, tell my wife I love her” voice memo on my iPhone.

Exiting the gondola at the top — after kissing the ground for several minutes — I hike steeply up a rocky, uneven path to the highest point on the entire island, 3,300 feet above sea level. From here, jagged mountain spines — like the backs of giant dinosaurs — spin off in every direction. At my feet are the hill town of Marciana and its port of Marciana Marina, in the distance is Portoferraio, and Corsica looms to the west. On my way down to the gondola, I tiptoe (c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y) to the edge of a deserted helipad, where I contemplate, as if for the first time, the meaning of “vertigo.”

On my way back toward Portoferraio, I stop at Napoleon’s other Elba residence — his country home, Villa San Martino. This one is, if anything, even more depressing than his in-town digs. The shabby interior (halfheartedly dressed up with C-minus frescoes) seems designed to make it clear that he was being punished. And the elaborate but empty Neoclassical-style hall that was built next door — with colonnades, ornate ceilings, and geometric designs on the floors — feels somber, stately, almost tomb-like.

Later that day, I go for an evening stroll in the seafront town of Porto Azzurro (a short drive from Portoferraio). Classy without feeling objectionably ritzy, this pleasant village — scenically set under jagged cliffs, its harbor sheltering sailboats and fancy yachts — feels like a poor man’s Portofino. On Porto Azzurro’s elegant main square, I lick gelato on a bench under a genteel trellis. Low in the sky, the sun shines on the piazza like a spotlight — illuminating a vivid tableau of island Tuscany. Kids are playing soccer, their grandparents are gossiping on the benches, and cops are taking a break from walking their beat to chat with neighbors.

Sitting there on that square, feeling a world away from Michelangelo’s David or the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the turrets of San Gimignano, I am very happy I decided to take a chance on island Tuscany. If — and I’m not saying this is likely to happen, but if — all of the Botticellis and Brunellos and giant rare slabs of Chianina beef start getting a bit old… well, then, Elba is the perfect seaside counterpoint to your Tuscan vacation.

Italophiles, stay tuned! More Tuscan tips are coming in the next few days.

The Elba chapter I was researching will be included in the upcoming 18th edition of our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook — available in fall of 2019.

Elba is also a stop on our brand-new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour. This is a fantastic itinerary that highlights both Tuscany’s big, famous stops and some off-the-beaten-path gems…including a seaside break in Elba.

3 Replies to “A Tuscan Island Getaway on Elba: Napoleonic Villas, Salty Fishing Harbors, and Terrifying Gondolas”

  1. Cameron, I enjoyed your comments about Elba and got a good laugh about your comment regarding “Schadenfreude”. I share your vision.

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