Napoleon landed at the main harbour, Portoferraio, on the 4th of May 1814. Pict/R.Ridi

There is a heavenly bunch of seven rocky islands off the Tuscan coast which according to legend originated from gems fallen into the Tyrrhenian sea from Venus's necklace, forming the Tuscan Archipelago. Elba, the largest, is mainly known for its wild nature, enchanting beaches and a lively nightlife.

Elba Island Pict/R.Ridi

Yet, away from the shoreline, the island surprises for its many, multifaceted souls. A farming place always appreciated for its fertile valleys and terraced hills, it still hosts plenty of wineries producing wines from the local grapes such as aleatico and ansonica; a perfect match to the local recipes that make the most of the island’s resources: greens, humble seafood such as octopus and anchovies, figs, honey. Savour them through a handful of stops, from the rustic fishmonger and diner Da Antonietta to the adorable Elba Magna shop, selling and serving traditional rural breads and cakes, both in the medieval village of Capoliveri. Or at the Montefabrello winery’s farm restaurant, in the backcountry of Portoferraio.

Already known for its wine since the Roman Empire, Elba was inhabited since the Stone Age, when it still was part of the land mass once connecting Italy to Corsica, thanks to its rich iron ores such as hematite and pyrite; between the XIX and XX century, the harsh work in the mines became the main source of income for the inhabitants. Nowadays, the mining installations still scattered over the Eastern coast stand as a fascinating legacy, wisely turned into interesting attractions with guided tours, museums, events and alternative options such as e-bike tours, mining safari and underwater explorations.

Grand Tour

Yet, the reason why Elba has been attracting travellers since the 18th century - as a stop-over of the Grand Tour, the educational itinerary across Europe’s cultural milestones - could come unexpected to the first time visitor. Amongst the island’s main attractions, indeed, are the locations of the short yet remarkable stay of an iconic figure in Europe’s history: Napoleon Bonaparte.

The former Emperor of the French had been forced to abdicate after being defeated by the alliance of hostile European countries, yet he was allowed to keep his title and choose between Elba and the Greek island of Corfù to establish his new kingdom. He opted for the former, previously part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany established by Bonaparte himself and governed by his sister Elisa. He landed to the main harbour, Portoferraio, on the 4th of May 1814. The islanders were happy to receive their new sovereign, who had already proved his benevolence accepting Elisa’s pledge – on behalf of the Elban wine growers – to grant the island wines the same trading privileges of the French wines.

Napoleon’s stay on the island was quite short: he was already plotting to escape as he arrived, and the rendezvous with his Polish lover Maria Walewska in romantic spots such as the Madonna del Monte sanctuary, had more to do with conspiracy than love. On February 26th 1815, after barely 300 days, he left Elba to go back to Paris in his last attempt to rule France and the whole Europe.

Yet, he enjoyed Elba and made a huge effort to plan improvements whose traces are still evident: he oversaw the construction of new roads and infrastructures, developed the mining activity around the tiny hamlet of Rio (which eventually give also rise to a small mining harbour, today the lovely Rio Marina) and agricultural practices, set up a small navy and army and reformed the administrative and educational system.

French Aura

Napoleon's presence gave the island a sort of French aura, from mundane life – especially when his beloved sister Paolina joined him – to food: the delicious resiné, a sugary jam of mixed fruit and cooked must made in Rio, originated from the exploiting of local grapes for sugar extraction, another of the Emperor’s intuitions. And today the local bottled water is labelled as Fonte Napoleone, the island spring named after him.

He had two dwellings, now forming the National Museum of Napoleonic Residences: the Palazzina dei Mulini in Portoferraio and Villa San Martino in the countryside, near the seaside village of Procchio and its beautiful beach.

The first one was intended as his official residence, bringing to Elba a hint of the grandeur of the French palace. Though the exterior might not seem impressive, a visit to the beautiful two-storey shows otherwise. The building is perched on the promontory between the defensive structures of Fort Stella and Fort Falcone, strategically overlooking the city and the harbour. The plastered halls display antiques, décor and furniture from Napoleon’s time, as well as a part of his very own book collection; the ballroom lets imagine the sumptuous parties thrown for Paolina – yet also the near by Theatre of the Vigilanti was built to this purpose – while the small but charming garden has a blissful vibe. Until October 31st, the Museum also hosts a special exhibition to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth and his presence in Tuscany, displaying a rare collection of tin soldiers dating back to the time.

Fort Falcone is mainly worth a visit for the stunning view and the cosy terrace Sunset Bar: the ideal place to get e better knowledge of Elban wines, as it’s managed by the owners of the well-stocked wine shop Calata Mazzini 15. While the nearby St. Crispino Church – also known as Misericordia, Mercy – hosts the small yet interesting Museum of Napoleon Relics (which include the Emperor’s face cast and original flags).

Villa San Martino, facing vineyards and woodlands, was bought by Napoleon as a summer residence and – vainly – as a love nest to share with his wife Marie Louise, archduchess of Austria, who had repaired to her home country with their son and never came to visit. A small and basic rural house, it was converted into an unpretentious but beautifully decorated mansion, where he received diplomats and dignitaries before his flight. It was only in 1856 that the Russian nobleman and art collector Anatoli Demidoff, a passionate admirer of the Emperor’s feats who had married his niece Mathilde, bought the villa to restore it. The majestic Neoclassical colonnade gallery – a much grandiose welcome to today’s visitors – was built by his will to enshrine Napoleon’s heirlooms, as a sort of mausoleum. The museum displays engravings, portraits and even satirical drawings: not everybody loved Napoleon, except for the Elba inhabitants.

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