The Island of Elba: Visiting the Site of Napoleon’s Trysts
By Max Hartshorne
We took a long walk one morning up to the top of Madonna del Monte, the tallest peak on Elba.
There is a chairlift that brings people up, but we took the path that is marked by 14 little white stone domes — stations with pictures of Jesus that look like phone booths, along with the faded concrete steps that line the way.
Our excellent guide, Tatiana Segnini, a lifelong resident here, had time to share some of the lore of Napoleon, who spent a few nights up here with his lover Maria Velesca, just a short time after he arrived on the island in May 1814.
Safety in a Storm
He worried about her safety during a storm when she left, and he didn’t mind the spartan setting — he was there for love, and he was a military man, after all.
Tatiana told us that he suffered from ulcers or stomach cancer, hence the constant clutching of the breast. And that he was frustrated at his sentence to be exiled here, and tried to poison himself unsuccessfully. And that he spent his last six years exiled to yet another island, even further away, St Helena off the coast of Africa.
But by then he was a prisoner, not a King as he was on the French-controlled Elba. when he came for his famous nine-month stint.
Napoleon came to Elba without his wife, Maria Louisa, and he wrote her letters every day. But his father-in-law, Austria’s King, never showed them to her and eventually, she took up with another man.
The emperor was busy here — funds were cut by Louis the 18th, who despised him, so he had to raise taxes and he helped establish schools, hospitals, and a working economy. He gave this island a lot, mostly the fame and notoriety that would live on for centuries. And the that would live on for centuries.
And the silly palindrome that everybody says when you tell them you’re going to Elba.
Elba’s Stunning Vistas and Crisp Whites Please the Senses
Elba is fantastico and fabuloso. I knew we’d like it here but I didn’t count on such stunning cliffside vistas, such gorgeous beaches, and such crisp dry wine and fresh from the sea meals.
We began our day at the Hotel Ilio and met Maurizio, who had just returned from Milan. He’s getting his master’s in marketing. “You know how you have passions and you have your job?
I have this hotel but what I really love is marketing and promotion.” So he runs his own PR shop and helps promote not only this hotel but this part of the island and Elba proper.
Over coffee we reviewed our maps and decided to go to Marciana Marina, where a long protected harbor is flanked by a concrete seawall and a long beach is filled with Sunday morning loungers. We walked its length and made it to the end where we found Attilio’s Ristorante Capo Nord.
We walked in and immediately were greeted by our host. “Max! GoNOMAD!” he said, and brought us to a prime table overlooking the stony beach and sunbathers basking on the rocks on the far right.
We decided to leave lunch in his capable hands, and he didn’t disappoint, bringing out a plate of appetizers of tuna, anchovy in tomato sauce, little white beans and mussels with breadcrumbs.
It was all delicious and the sun shone brightly as people teeter-tottered their way into the sea.
Then he brought us pasta with swordfish chunks and risotto with octopus, redolent of the nearby sea.
The wine was from Elba, crisp and dry. Later Maurizio met us and we followed him in his silver Porsche Cayman up the winding roads into the hills to the tiny village of Poggio.
Here we met Roberta and learned about the wonderful work she does with orphans in an impoverished Kenyan village. More on this amazing woman later.
To Cavoli, for an Italian Beach Day on the Island of Elba
Today was the classic Italian beach day. But first, it was time to visit the market in Marciana Marina. A typical Italian weekly market, with the usual stuff–clothing, shoes, kitchen stuff and one highlight–rotisserie chicken.
We had asked our guide Tatiana her favorite place for lunch and she steered us to the stand where they roast it in the back of a truck.
So we headed off to the island’s southern coast to the small beach town of Cavoli. Like so many of these towns, it’s a long way down from the road up above, and mountains tower over that.
We wound our way down and found a parking place that also sold umbrellas and beach chairs. So we made our way up to the first row and devoured the chicken and some fresh figs and peaches from the market.
Nowhere on Elba, it seems, do you get to park for free near the beach. There’s always a machine to feed coins into, or an attendant waiting for euros. So for e22 we had the whole package and we’re set for a half-day of beachfront leisure.
The water was brisk but soon felt great as I floated out and looked back at the beach. There was nothing to do except bask, bask in the lovely little sliver of beach, bordered by rocks, and gaze at our fellow beachgoers while letting the afternoon drift away.
A Rented Vespa and Elba’s Thermal Beach
The highlight of our visit to Elba, however, came when we decided to travel like the locals do. We rented a 125 cc Vespa scooter and set out to the other side of the island. The prize was a beach called the Thermal Baths of San Giovanni, which is as it sounds…Mediterranean water heated by underground thermal to the temperature of a bath!
Of course, this was Italy, so there was a bar and restaurant perched on the cliffs, go to along with the amazing hot water beach experience. This combined with the freedom and fun of being two tourists on a motorbike made Elba a highlight of our Tuscany visit.
Roberta Adami: One of Elba’s Finest Citizens Helping Kids a World Away in Kenya
Some of the best moments on our trips are the times we arrange to meet ‘interesting local people’ and learn about fascinating work that is being done in the very place we are visiting.
We had an eye-opening visit in Roberta Adami’s home this afternoon in the tiny village of Poggio.
She is 45, a medical researcher who spends a great deal of her time and energy helping the poorest of the poor–orphans and adults who live near Lake Victoria in Kenya. She told us about the Mama Magdelena Ndeda Foundation and how she’s rallied people from the Island of Elba and the world to adopt Kenyan kids and help improve their lives.
“One time I opened my door and there were 3000 people waiting there, all wanting medical care,” she told us. “There wasn’t anything we could do, you can’t pick and choose.” She goes to Kenya regularly during the year, helping a pastor there minister to a flock of thousands. “Once we asked all of the kids who are orphans to raise their hands…and nearly every hand went up.”
She laments that the country seems to be comprised solely of orphans and widows…so many widows. “45% of the people in the region are HIV positive,” she said, making health care even more difficult.
Despite the grave situation, she remains hardworking, steadfast, and hopeful that her hard work will someday ring the ears of some of the rich Kenyan widows she knows. “If we could only start a family home, a place where kids could live… I know someday we will be able to do it.”
We ate ice cream and as she talked, her passion and devotion to this place and these hard tales was palpable and noble. She is a lovely woman who deserves a rich widow or a richer foundation’s generous funding.
Maurizio, Our Guide on Elba
Maurizio Testa was our host on Elba. He knows the place like the back of his hand since his dad owned the Hotel Ilio and he spent many years living here.
We only disregarded his advice once, when we went into Marciana and chose a locals-only restaurant. A platter of just-caught fish was thrust in front of us, with instructions in Italian that this was the menu and we should make a choice.
I pointed to a foot-and-a-half long red specimen, with an ugly face. About 30 minutes later, they brought it back on a giant platter with small potatoes and a savory sauce. It was enough fish for four, and my partner politely informed me that all of a sudden, ‘she didn’t eat fish.’ Ugh.
We got our bill later and learned that fish on a platter is charged by the gram. And this 900-gram monster set us back $45 euros. Next time trust the local advice!