Here I was, on my way down to Rome, dreading the terrifying traffic, the herds of tourists I’ll have to fight my way through in order to visit a tiny handful of churches, twist my ankle on busy crumbling ruins and eventually wave at the Pope in the Vatican (writes Julia Ossena).
My excitement at the prospect of visiting the eternal city was tempered with the unpleasant idea of expensive accommodation and botched meals, miles away from the authenticity I was looking for. I left the highway and got lost in the countryside, only heading towards the coast to grab a last glimpse of the Mediterranean sea before diving into city madness. This little detour led me to the industrial and rather unpleasant harbour of Piombino. Not the peaceful beauty I was looking for. A ferry was leaving: out of the blue I decided to take it, and this is how I ended up an hour later on Elba Island.
The third-largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia, Elba is part of the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago. The place offers a surprising variety of landscapes for you to experience, like quiet sandy beaches, spectacular rocky cliffs, and a flat central area hosting the main towns of Portoferraio and Campo nell’Elba. The eastern part of the island is its oldest, formed 400mn years ago, and provides the iron deposits that first put Elba on the map economically speaking. The centre of the island is dominated by the granite shape of Mount Capanne, towering 3,340ft high, also known as the "roof of the Tuscan Archipelago". During summer a chairlift can take you straight up there, although hiking to the top is infinitely more rewarding, giving you time to stop on the way for picture-perfect views and opportunities to spot wild boars, as well as the elusive mouflon – a type of native wild sheep.
Famous above all for hosting Napoleon’s first exile in 1814, Elba has some great historical heritage to offer. Visiting his two palaces, it’s hard to believe the former French Emperor got so desperate here he actually managed to escape back to France. His gorgeous mansion in Portoferraio – the island’s capital – bulges with rich tapestry and furniture, and the romantic garden leans against a stunning backdrop of cliffs falling straight into the sea. Further inland, nestled in a thick pine forest, his palace stands proud on the top of a hill overlooking the surrounding wilderness. High ceiling rooms and a large downstairs hall exhibit military maps and personal letters of the little big man. However the most striking feature of the building is certainly the roof terrace. Up there, drenched in sunlight and surrounded by the smell of pine trees, you can put yourself in Napoleon’s boots and imagine him staring across the bay and longing for freedom, to the hypnotic sound of cicadas.
Portoferraio itself is a darling harbour with lightly coloured houses and singing fishermen, cobbled stone streets and miles of terraces and restaurants. You can lounge at one of the many cafés by the boats, sipping strong coffee while the day goes by, or find a local canteen in the maze of shady lanes to taste the catch of the day, washed down with locally brewed vino. On every corner you can feel the slow pace of Italy's art de vivre, the one I felt I wouldn’t find along Rome’s busy avenues. You can’t get more authentic than that, unless you venture to the villages peppered on the hills around the island: far from becoming open air museums, they still have the traditional feel you can find in Corsica or Sardinia, with traditions and craft work still very much alive.
Elba’s stunning historical remains, its authentic way of life and overwhelming landscapes almost make me forget to mention the other main attraction of the island: the sea. The Mediterranean is exposed at its best here, with crystal clear waves lapping the crumbling cliffs or breathing in and out of secluded sandy coves. The whole spectrum of blues multiplies to infinity, and turns into a spectacular light show at sunset. There are several reliable diving centres along the coast that will be more than happy to help you discover one of the most interesting underworld corners of the Med.
But don’t worry if you’re short on budget or not such a keen diver: simple snorkelling gear will grant you access to all Tyrrhenian Sea species, including sea anemones, sea-fans, coral and starfish, various types of dolphin, the brownstone bass and the rare moon fish. If you’re lucky enough you might also spot the occasional sperm-whale, the common razor-back or even the rare nun seal. Renting your own boat is an option on Elba Island, so it’s up to you to find your own personal sea garden.
There is all kind of accommodation here, from luxurious hotel to friendly B&B, but I personally enjoyed camping so much that I would recommend it to anyone. From proper campsites to sandy coves and breathtaking view points, waking up at the sounds of waves and cicadas made me forget every morning where in the world I was. I would recommend to plan your trip preferably in spring or autumn, in order to avoid the Italian summer crowd. And if you don’t have your own vehicle, simply rent one on arrival (car, scooter or bicycle) and go explore! With beaches to laze upon, mountains to climb, jolly people to talk to and an underwater world to die for, Elba is definitely worth discovering for an alternative taste of Italy.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".