In the footsteps of Napoleon

Get a taste of imperial exile on the Italian island of Elba


I can think of worse places to be exiled than the island of Elba, just off the Tuscan coast. Only 17 miles long and around 12 miles wide, it’s home to perfectly preserved medieval villages, nestling in the hills above the sea, plus plenty of sandy beaches — and was famously where Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to spend nearly a year of his own life in exile.

As 2019 marks the 250th anniversary of the French emperor’s birth, I’m following in his footsteps to discover it for myself — his rather more reluctant ones, forced to abdicate in April 1814 and imprisoned here a month later.

It’s around an hour by ferry from the port of Piombino in the south of Tuscany to the attractive capital of Portoferraio, founded by Cosimo de’ Medici in 1548 who built the impressive fortress which towers above the harbour.

He was only here for the money, specifically the rich seams of iron ore, which have been exploited since Etruscan times and are the oldest mines in the world.

In the summer the island gets crowded with Italian beach lovers but in late April, when the spring flowers are out and when Napoleon would have first set eyes on Elba, it’s perfect for exploring both on foot and by bike.

I get one of the latest e-bikes with big fat tyres and set out from the hill town of Capoliveri to explore the east of the island.

The open cast Vallone mine dominates the landscape: mining ended in the early 1980s, with a museum now offering guided tours inside the underground galleries. The disused railway tracks also make convenient bike trails, skirting the cliffs by the sea.

Nuggets of iron pyrites, Fool’s Gold, glint in the sunlight as I pass rusting equipment sitting at the foot of the huge stepped hillside where the ore was dug.

In the centre of the island towers the craggy peak of Monte Capanne, at 1,019 metres the highest point and accessible by chairlift.

The journey up from Pozzatello is a unique experience, definitely not for the faint-hearted. The exposed baskets take two people standing, as they climb slowly above the forest up to the top.

It’s windy and cold but I’m rewarded with views over the entire island and Corsica looms in the distance. I hike back down, on a path paved with giant stone slabs, skirting the village of Poggio, before reaching the Madonna del Monte Church and its hermitage.

Napoleon used it for a secret liaison with his Polish mistress Maria Walewska in the summer of 1814, before the locals found out and he had to send her away. Sheltering from the wind, it’s a great spot to enjoy a picnic.

Further on, the track ends in the village of Marciana, dominated by the Fortezza Pisano, a 12th century fortress once home to the island’s mint and foundry.

The steep streets are too narrow for cars and a network of stone stairs leads through arches and cramped alleys, balconies attractively decorated with flowers and climbing plants. Make time for a glass of chestnut beer at the Bar la Porta, just outside the main gate along the way.

The island’s west is altogether wilder, steep cliffs descending to a vigorous sea, broken up by tiny coves with stony beaches. A scenic road hugs the hillside, covered with heavily scented maquis, Mediterranean bracken, eventually leading to Fetovaia where the island’s best beaches start.

There’s a glorious stretch of sand almost a mile long at Marina di Campo lined with hotels and campsites, heaving in the summer. Today there are just a few brave surfers heading into the waves.

Before I take the ferry, there’s time to explore Portoferraio, its harbour dominated by the two forts of Forte Falcone and the pink Forte Stella.

From the central square of Piazza Cavour, I climb up the wide Scalinata Medici, 140 misshapen stone steps leading up to the forts and the Villa dei Mulini, the home of Napoleon. Apparently he chose the site so he could keep an eye on the ships coming into the bay.

Inside is his grand ballroom, study, and dressing room with the Elban flag on one wall. The bedroom still has its original furniture while the library contains his collection of over 2,000 books.

He made his escape in March 1815 when his British minder was visiting his own mistress in Florence, but he certainly left his mark on the island.

Nominally sovereign of Elba (despite patrols by the French and British navies offshore to keep him on the island) and with his own personal guard of 600, the dethroned emperor used his 300 days on Elba to attempt to improve the quality of life for its inhabitants.

As well as the roads he built, there’s a Napoleon fountain, a Napoleon staircase and even a Napoleon lager. Not a bad achievement for a stay of only nine months.


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