You’ve heard of Elba – the island of Napoleon’s exile. Know anything else about it? Well, I’ve visited a few times now and can happily call it a bit of a paradise. It is actually in Tuscany and very popular with the good citizens of Siena, Florence and Pisa for their summer holidays, it has fewer crowds than other Italian holiday areas and with some areas having restricted development, much of it retains its old atmosphere. My article in July’s Florentine magazine tells how my own little family went from being beach novices to experts thanks to the our first visit to Elba. But I also long to visit in the spring or autumn and enjoy more of the nature, less of the visitors.
Less fancy than the Amalfi coast and quieter than the holiday towns along the Tuscan coast, Elba is a jewel of an island. The waters are clear, with few unwelcome sea creatures, offers different types of landscapes. Even though it’s just an hour-long ferry ride from the mainland, it can feel like a world away.
Elba is actually the 3rd largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia and it’s quite cool to discover that as part of the “Tuscan archipelago” you can easily spot over the water the little islands of Montecristo (not easy to visit) and of Giglio (car-free and beautiful beaches and now famous for the crash of the Costa Concordia in 2012).
As well as arriving by ferry you can fly here (on very tiny planes) from Florence, Milan and (oddly) Switzerland – which will explain why staff in shops and restaurants often start speaking to you in German.
Elba is all blue sea and beaches along the edge and hills on the inside. It doesn’t take more than an hour or so to drive all the way around. Generally, the western part of the island is quieter, less developed and retains more traditional villages. Traditionally an agricultural and fishing centre, the island started being developed the 1950s, when the main coastal road and resorts started to be built. The busier areas are in the centre and eastern parts, around the main towns of Portoferraio, Procchio, Cavo, The big resort beaches (and noisier nighttime towns) are Marina di Campo, Lacona, Porto Azzurro.
It’s a hilly island and the coastal road can be hair-raising for novice drivers not used to Italian driving styles. There are bus services but it’s easier to get around with your own car. Plenty of cyclists seem to enjoy the length and condition of the roads and there are many hiking trails. And as for water-based activities, well lucky you if you have your own yacht!
Elba might not offer the same insane abundance of artistic heritage found in the rest of Tuscany, but it has plenty of history – Etruscan, Roman, Medieval, Napoleonic – and some interesting archaeological sites and museums, churches, and other spots to explore. The towns are worth spending time in and not just for picking up some beach towels at the markets. Here are a few we’ve enjoyed. Bear in mind that you often need to park just outside the centre and walk up, and that the lunch hour (between 1 and 4pm) seems to be strictly enforced.
Marciana Alta is the older, sister town of the resort Marina di Marciana. It’s a classic Tuscan hilltown with a ridiculously-long history (founded in 32 BC) it has narrow, windy streets, cute boutiques, charm and it has a particulary nice terrace lined with cafes overlooking a fabulous view down to the sea. Follow the road up above to the fortress where they do archery and falconry demonstrations in summer. And if you take the main hike down from the top of Monte Capanne you’ll end up in the back streets of the town. Not far away is the even cuter town of Poggio.
This handsome town dominates the southeastern part of the island and is a very pleasant stop for lunch and shopping. It also has one of the only theatres on the island (which doubles as a cinema) which hosts some interesting festivals. The dedication on the outside reads “to the people of Elba around the world”.
Pomonte on the west coast is a small village with lots of its old features, and it has all the basics (butcher, market, cafes, excellent pizzeria) and it’s a good location near the popular beaches of Fettovaia, Chiessi and Cavoli.
It also offers a shipwreck beach, called Ogliera. Look out for the crowd of diving boats gathered around the spot of a 1972 wreck, or you can swim the few hundred metres from the beach and touch the boat at 12 metres deep. More info here.
With my stubborn Celtic skin and historic curiosity, I am not a natural beach person but Elba’s 40 or so beaches offer such variety – sandy to rocky, very public to almost-hidden – that it’s hard to resist them. It can be smart to ask the locals for their recommendations as some of the best ones are reached only by boat or by leaving your car on the upper road.
All the beaches are free: even if some of them seem taken up by umbrellas and bars, the strip right at the water is free and you will find even a small public section. Have a look at my Florentine beach article for tips on how Italian beaches work.
Here are a few favourite beaches, most of them family-friendly. There are loads of places to go scuba-diving,
Sandy beach – Procchio
In between the bagni (sectioned-off areas) after the sailing club there is a good-sized public beach. The water is clean and shallow and you could easily forget the world during an afternoon here.
Rocky beach – Le Tombe
Park the car along the edge and head down the steps to reach this small but lovely beach. Unlike other off-the-track beaches, this path down is easy and doesn’t involve brambles, and a steep uneven path that might put off some kids.
When you get thirsty on Elba you can spend money on bottled water from the corner shop. Or you can do like the locals and fill up at the local water source – and some of the fresh natural water here is wonderful. To find the closest fonte, ask the ocals or just keep an eye out for cars parked randomly along the road.
This is the fountain just outside of Marciana Alta, heading towards the fortress.
Some of the fountains are nicely-decorated, like this one down a path near the pizzeria in Pomonte.
There are tons of trails for beginner and serious walkers, you see an excellent list on the InfoElba website.
With our two kids we tackled Monte Capanne, which is at 1,019 metres the highest point on Elba. The easiest day out is to take the cableway up and down, but we decided to take it up and then hike back down – with a bunch of kids and hot temperatures it took about 3 hours, but it felt great at the end and was definitely one of the summer’s best-earned ice-creams.
Here’s a link to the cableway/cabinovia. It’s not for the very faint-hearted and the 8 year olds were nervous as they dangled high up over the mountain, but they chuffed when it was over.
The plucky Corsican was indeed exiled on Elba – in fact he chose to be sent here in 1814, the island having been under French possession since 1801. For the 300 days he spent here, he lived in this beautiful villa, with a chosen guard of 600 men, essentially acting as governor for the island. Having done a lot of economic and social reforms for the locals (long before the hotel industry took off 150 years later), he is fondly remembered all over the island through statues, cafe names and commemorations.
Napoleon’s villa is near Procchio and though it is unsurprisingly quite rundown, it’s worth visiting for its location and to get a sense of the life he might have led here (and the Demidoff family who lived there later). Napoleon escaped from here, gate-crashed the Congress of Vienna and was eventually exiled more effectively to Saint Helena in the south Atlantic, expiring there in 1821.
Ferries: There are two main ferry companies – Toremar and Moby – which seem to be interchangeable. There are different ways to buy tickets but in my experience the price is the same either buying online or from the Biglietteria (ticket office) right at the port.
Local specialities: Regular readers know that I don’t claim myself to be a foodie. So for Elba I’ll just say go for fish! Plenty of good options on the menu and fresh fish at the markets. We often passed this local hole-in-the-wall place in Marina di Campo but never got to try it – Aclipesca. Wine – the local speciality is rosè and the sweet dessert wine Aleatico. Here’s some more info on Elba wine.
Markets: Each morning from Mon-Sat there is a market in a different town so you might find the same vendors in each place. Procchio also hosts a food market. Here is a list of markets.
Shopping: Prices for basic goods are higher than on the mainland so you could do as many Italians do and stock your car up at a supermarket in Piombino (except for ice cream and chocolate, speaking from experience). That said, it’s good to support the small local businesses on the island and there are plenty of food shops, cafes, restaurants and petrol stations. The main towns for nice boutiques are Marciana Marina, Portoferraio, Capoliveri and Marina di Campo.