In travel as in life, journeys should be as interesting as destinations. And my long, convoluted voyage to Elba is never short on stimulation. That’s the thing with islands. They require commitment to reach, and make you see so much else on the way. Then strangely, when at last you find yourself on their private sea-girt world, nowhere else quite seems to matter.
As my plane comes in to land, I spot the leaning tower of Pisa poking its cheeky white diagonal over surrounding buildings as if to welcome me to Tuscany. It’s April, the very start of the visitor season, and I shall be among the first foreign guests of the year on Elba. A train carries me toward the port town of Piombino through a rolling Arcadian landscape dressed in bright spring greens and fizzing with pink and yellow blossom. Piombino arrives as an arresting tangle of steelworks and hellfire, with chimneys belching acrid smoke over a landscape of gantries, pylons and rusting iron. It’s so extreme it’s beautiful.
I step from the tiny ferry-port station into dazzling sea-light and all the typical colours of ships – white, orange, dark blue. A hundred cars and snarling packs of mopeds wait to board the next ferry to Elba. It’s Italy’s usual ordered chaos. Elderly men stand chatting between the vehicles, and excited children run rings around buses. In the front seat of one of the cars, a man has impossibly squeezed a gigantic Newfoundland dog onto his lap. And then we’re all crossing the sun-dazzled sea. And Elba slowly rises its tall, mountainous silhouette higher and higher in front of us. And suddenly there are grassy slopes lying off the bows off the ship. And a castle swings past, and harbour walls, and fruit-coloured townhouses. And we’re here.
The third largest island in Italy, Elba lies less than ten miles off the coast of Tuscany, but it has always been very far removed from the mainstream of Italian history. Essentially, nothing has ever happened here. Except for Napoleon’s brief banishment to the island in 1814, of course. (Never one to sit still, the diminutive French emperor did an awful lot for Elba in the ten months he was confined here – building roads, streamlining the economy, and improving law and education.) Elba was sometimes referred to by the Romans as ‘the island of good wines’ (and yes, its wines are still good). But from ancient times until the 20th century’s start of package tourism, Elba was above all just a place to be mined for its minerals. (The name of the island’s main town, Portoferraio – ‘ironworker port’ – tells you everything about Elba’s chief usefulness to the outside world.)
It might have been a do-nothing backwater for most of its life, but Elba unexpectedly helped create some of Italy’s greatest cultural masterpieces. Ochre pigment from the island’s super-rich soil went into the paintings of Michelangelo. And high up in Elba’s granite mountains you can still see the holes where the columns for Rome’s Pantheon were quarried. Indeed, some half-hewn old columns are still lying about up there. Today, the island’s mining and quarrying industries have been vigorously supplanted by tourism. Crystalline seawater, pale sandy beaches, charming little towns – its visitor appeal can make Elba a very crowded place in the summertime. Which is why I’m coming here at the comparatively empty start of the year. Plus I want to relish the island’s hiking routes in spring’s floral glory.
On my first day, I set out for the seaside town of Marciana Marina. A charming taxi driver named Angelo takes me there, and we chat away using his weak English and my weak Italian. “You are from Elba?” I ask brightly. “Si, sono Elbano,” he tells me with obvious pride. Well-dressed and dignified, Angelo tells me of his deep love for the island, especially its quiet villages and its less-populous west. “Troppo tourists sulla spiaggia in July and August,” he laments as we swing round a steep headland with a view across umbrella pines down to the cobalt sea. “I do not like Firenze. I do not like big cities,” he confesses with a smile, and admits he rarely visits the mainland unless he has to. I grin and nod, surveying the pretty homes and trees passing by and understanding why one might never feel the need to leave this place.
Suddenly Angelo slows the car and points eagerly to the woods at the side of the road. “Look! See! Is… mufloni! Come si dice in inglese? Moufflon!” I can’t believe I’ve just heard someone say the word ‘moufflon’. I’ve always secretly wanted to see one of these rare wild antelope-like sheep with their magnificent curling horns. They only live in very few places in Europe, and I didn’t know that Elba – like its neighbour Corsica – was one of them. I peer excitedly between the trees and indeed there are the robust haunches and curly headdresses of several big ginger-brown beasts, who hesitate for a moment then spring away in magnificent leaps. I am overcome. Angelo and I drive onward in rapturous silence, then he then tells me that on early morning journeys he often sees small groups of wild boar grazing at the side of the road. “Sempre I drive zlowly in the morning,” he says. Then adds quietly and with feeling, “I love the animal.” “Oh, I love them too!” I exclaim.
Marciana Marina is a radiant seaside resort, but also a very real town with a thriving local life – especially at this point in the year before the summer hordes arrive. A pretty marina bobs with tidy boats and yachts, water slapping their sides and wind pinging ropes against their masts. Verdant mountains rise steeply behind the town, adding to its sense of safe, cosy perfection. I wander the seafront, soaking up the sun and the affluent calm all around. Local families splash and play on soft strips of sand. Prams are pushed through a leafy park, elderly people sit chatting on the harbour wall. It is a vision of ideal community. In the peaceful alleys full of brightly-coloured homes, preparations are underway for some sort of jolly festival this evening. What a perfect life can be lived in Marciana Marina.
I travel inland to see the hill village of Poggio, famed for its mineral water and its pretty streets. In the main piazza, two teenage boys are playing football, alternately cheered and chided by a trio of plump matriarchs watching from a sunlit bench. There are flowers tumbling from every corner. I have a superb lunch at Poggio’s swanky ‘Publius’ restaurant, with vertiginous views down to the sea, then travel onward to the little village of Marciana, which claims to be the oldest settlement on Elba. It’s a charming place, a delirium of stepped alleys and belvederes, but it’s the village’s access to hiking trails that I’ve really come for.
Elba’s walking routes are among the island’s best features. But they’re often overlooked by visitors, who can’t bear to tear themselves away from the beaches. The walks range from hearty treks to piece-of-cake strolls, all on well-marked paths that snake around the coast, wriggle across stout peninsulas or plunge off into the mountains. I climb a tree-dappled footway to a high, open hillside where spring flowers smile shyly from the spongy carpet of macchia and giant granite boulders lie weathered by the winds of millennia into smooth, eerie sculptures. The views down to the coast and across the island are breath-taking, and as I stand panting in awe, a strong breeze gusts the scent of blossom my way. I realize that the black, magnetic lump of land lining the whole western horizon is Corsica, and happily trace the island’s silhouetted geography.
Evening sees me in the chic coastal village of Sant’ Andrea, just in time to hear the nightingales tuning up their instruments for the coming twilight performance. As if three hours in the mountains wasn’t enough walking, I take a pre-dinner stroll along the surrounding lanes, past lemon groves and umbrella pines all glowing in the hot orange light of sundown. I take a sudden turn down a rural footpath and emerge at a deserted crescent of sand hugged by two sculpted stone headlands. It is one of the most perfect beaches I’ve ever seen in my life. More a stage set than a piece of real geography. No wonder so many people are drawn to Elba, I sigh with a smile.
Elba is the largest of a chain of seven islands which together form the Tuscan Archipelago. Aware of the beauty of these isles, fanciful locals long ago explained their origin thus: as the goddess Venus was passing high over Tuscany’s coast, her bejewelled necklace broke, and several gems slipped off the string and dropped into the sea. Each of those jewels became an island. Aww! Who couldn’t love a story like that?
The islands – Elba, Giglio, Capraia, Montecristo, Pianosa, Giannutri and Gorgona – are remarkably different from each other. Geologically, some of them are granite, others sedimentary rock, and little Capraia presents a volcanic – and almost treeless – landscape. Most of the islands are visitable, but some are essentially uninhabited or serve as strict nature reserves. Gorgona used to be a prison, rather like Alcatraz. As well as being by far the largest of the seven islands, Elba has the largest population, with about 32,000 residents. Others have a few hundred. Little Giannutri and Pianosa have only about ten people on them, and Montecristo apparently has just two – each guarding its nature sanctuary.
The archipelago’s seven islands – plus ten minor islets, some rocky outcrops and all the surrounding sea – are protected together as the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano or Tuscan Archipelago National Park. It’s the single largest marine park in Europe, covering nearly 45,000 acres of ground and 140,000 surface acres of sea. Various rare species of flora and fauna inhabit the archipelago and its waters, so the protection that comes from National Park status is much appreciated.
©Fleur Kinson 2013