Elba: more paradise than prison

By | Category: Travel destinations

Elba – the island of Napoleon’s exile – is more of a paradise than a prison, writes Judith Baker

In the summer the British head for Tuscany in their thousands, lured by the classic Italian combination of sun, scenery, fine food and wine. However the Italians themselves head for sleepy Elba, ‘Tuscany’s island’ with its 150 spotless beaches, romantic villages and mountains made for hiking and cycling. A National Park of outstanding beauty, tiny Elba is perhaps best known for being the place of Napoleon’s exile. Now it is gearing itself for the crowds who are expected here in 2014, when the 200th anniversary of this event will be celebrated.


Deciding to find out for myself what the Little Emperor had to put up with, I have made my way to Elba via Pisa airport where I  pick up a chubby retro Fiat Cinquecento hire car. Elba’s capital, Portoferraio, is a ferry ride away. The bustling port town is home to Napoleon’s former city residence which today is a museum in the throes of renovation for the 2014 celebrations. Napoleon had his own theatre here too, the pictureseque pink fronted Teatro Vigilante, a gift to his sister and  the only theatre on the island.

Although 19th century cartoonists portrayed Boney perched on an Elban cliff looking sulkily out to sea, it seems he actually had quite a comfortable  time of it here.  He was given the title Emperor of Elba and allowed to rule its 110,000 people as well as live in some rather smart mansions. I found his country villa at San Martino still standing grand and secluded behind wrought iron gates, set in fragrant pine filled grounds and, these days at least, overlooking an exclusive hotel.

Restaurant in Elba


Napoleon  is rumoured to have left  the heat of the capital to enjoy trysts with a Polish mistress at the picturesque chapel of Madonna Del Monte, close to the town of Marciano. He also favoured the healing waters to be found in this part of the island. I locate the so called Fonte Napoleone pure spring at the foot of Monte del Capanne near the pretty medieval town of Poggio, one of my favourite places on Elba. Poggio is pedestrian and so, abandoning  the CinqueCento, I walk the winding cobbled streets with houses painted the colours of pink and yellow gelati. Stopping for a fresh seafood salad and a cold glass of Tuscan wine for lunch, I conclude there are worse places to be in exile.

View over Marina di Campo

Poggio and Marciano are a short drive from my Elban base, the 20 room Hotel Ilio. The new boutique hotel is in Capo Sant’Andrea, a seaside hamlet and one of the most fashionable retreats in Elba, located on the north-west coast of the island. Hotel Ilio was founded by Guiseppe Testa in 1959 and is still family run, now being owned by his son Maurizio. Though the main building is 150 years old, the hotel is modern and sophisticated, and Maurizio, a tourism specialist who lectures in the off-season, is an enthusiastic host. Meals are served on the open terrace overlooking Capo Sant’Andrea, with the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below. Chef Giancarlo Pollidini cooks dinner to a standard that has been widely praised by Italian food critics. Red mullet and ginger pasta, followed by grilled wild Tuscan steak and a side dish of tomato gratin, and finally a plum frangipane tart are washed down with Tuscan  wines come from the Ilio’s own cellar.

Isola d'Elba

Down at the harbour, a group of weekend divers from Florence are  gesticulating around  Il Careno  Dive Centre whose dive master Andreas  is oranising a short boat journey to the steep drop offs and wrecks close to the shore.  Some of the clearest Mediterranean waters are be to found around Elba, so it’s a top destination for snorkellers and SCUBA divers, and smart weekenders from the Tuscan mainland make this a favourite spot.

One of the many walks in Elba

Away from Sant’Andrea, the tiny Fiat battles valiantly up and down the challenging twists and turns of Elba’s mountainous terrain, taking me from dizzy heights where I pass energetic hikers and cyclists, to the St Tropez-like elegance of Porto Azzuro with its yachts and ritzy restaurants. Elba is an affordable alternative to Sardinia or Corsica, with many of the same attractions (great beaches, climate  and food), as well as history, but  Tuscany’s island has  a slightly old fashioned, slower  way of life., ideal for those who enjoy the simpler pleasures in life.  All of which is probably why Napoleon couldn’t wait to escape.

Need to know:
Hotel Ilio (www.hotelilio.com) is open from April through October, rates start from Euros 110 (approx £90) for two people sharing a double room on a half-board basis

easyJet flies to Pisa from London Gatwick. Prices one ways start from £21.99
For more information on Elba, visit www.visitelba.com






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