The small island of Elba, once ruled by Napoleon for 300 days, offers all manner of hills for bikers and beaches for sun-lovers. The bay of Biodola, about 8 km of winding road from the ferry town Portoferraio, is a lovely cove with mostly limpid waters and a sand beach. Hotel Biodola has its own section of beach with well-kept sunbeds and parasols.
The hotel has a pool with a view, and tennis and golf can be booked in the neighboring hotel. At the top level there is a large bar terrace and breakfast is one level lower in an outdoor restaurant. The best part are the long and large dinners with 5 to 6 courses accompanied by excellent regional wine and the weekly regional buffet.
Near the beach there is a camping area and several beach restaurants with sandwiches, salads, fruit, inflatable toys, ice cream, drinks. Toward the south, some steps above Biodola Beach boat rental lead to a half-ruined path winding around the cliffs and through a cave to another not too distant cove with a pebble beach.
Biodola is a great place for other excursions to Portoferraio with its churches, forts and Napoleon’s town house, to Napoleon’s Villa di San Martino in the valley, and to Capoliveri, a tiny village high up in the mountains above Porto Azzurro.
On the way back from Elba, we stopped in Bolzano, Italy, in the Hotel della Città, a rather quaint place plumb in the middle of the small town with narrow streets. Below there is a garage with direct access to the hotel and dining area.
We wandered around the cobble-stone streets enjoying the delicious South Tyrolian food, such as at “Vögele” and beer from micro-breweries. South Tyrolians are absolutely fluent in German and Italian, and often of course in English for the countless tourists. Many shops offer luscious fruit, cured hams, schnapps and wine, spiced buns “Vinschgerl” etc. The tap water is entirely pure and the hotels offer free bottles to sample it and take some along.
his fur cap
Ötzi the glacier mummy
Naturally we went to visit Ötzi, the frozen Alpine glacier mummy that a couple accidentally found in 1991 in Tisenjoch while trekking over the mountains, as the ice had thawed a bit and he was sticking out. He is currently kept in a sort of freezer at perfect temperatures with a large viewing window. On view in different display cases at different temperatures you will encounter his cap, his leggings, his tools, his coat and further apparel.
There was a line at the entrance, but not too long. The museum endeavors to let in only a few persons at a time according to average visiting times. There are many other historic museums and churches and fountains in Bolzano, a really nice place for a visit and a hearty meal.
One of the highlights on the Isle of Elba in the real sense of the word is climbing up to Forte Falcone and the Medici fortresses in Portoferraio. They stand on the highest point, 79m above sea level and from the highest vantage point you look out over the Tuscan archipelago from about 84m height.
The large fortress complex is due to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, with the approval of Charles V of Spain, and so construction started in April 1548. The fortification system planned by the architects Bellucci and later Camerini has two defensive areas, the Linguella at one end of the peninsula, and the Fronte di Attacco at the other extremity of Portoferraio. The whole is connected by strongholds and covered communication trenches ending in the north in Forte Falcone and Forte Stella, the strongholds, which were also put to good use during the Second World War, albeit fortified with steel ceilings in the vaults.
There is the story that the Turkish pirate Dragut, under French orders, attempted to enter the fortress, but desisted from attacking once he had a closer look at the unapproachable walls.
As it is, it’s a beautiful walk from the Piazza della Repubblica where you can park through narrow streets with laundry flying high at the window, up long flat, seemingly endless stairs that occasionally lead past a church, up to the Forte Stella, past Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini and steeper still, over the drawbridge into the strong fortifications with its moat and breathtaking views.
Inside you can see displays from the reconnaissance of the Marines in the Second world war, an exhibition of Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s town Cosmopoly, many walkways and lookouts and a very nice snack bar with homemade schiaccini (a kind of pizza sandwich) on the top floor. If you acquire a combined ticket, Napoleon’s villa and theater etc. can also be visited within a week.
Elba is a rather small but beautiful emerald-wooded island with beaches varying from pebbles to fine golden sand, but always with clear blue-turquoise waters. We stayed at the Biodola Beach at a fine hotel with great facilities such as 2 snack bars, an ATM outside the parking lot, a smooth-running AC and exquisite cuisine with four courses to choose from and a salad bar. Parasol pines and giant agave plants dot the landscape.
Napoleon, upon being pressed to give up his power came to this small island of Elba in 1814. Within days of his arrival he invited all higher officers and set about reorganizing the marines and rebuilding the town of Portoferraio (lit. port of iron). He had sewer canals dug to keep the water off the streets, he had the little military house dei Mulini (lit. of the mills) rebuilt for himself, he suggested improvements for the entire population of Elba, restless as he was.
One edifice Napoleon did not have to rebuild was the Forte Falcone at the north end of Portoferraio, near the Villa dei Mulini.
Every once in a while Napoleon would seek refuge in a mountain recluse Madonna del Monte where he spent two days with his Polish lover Maria Walewska Laczynska in September, and prayed and talked to his mother who at times joined him there.
Later, Napoleon fell in love with a villa in the valley San Martino that commands a fine view all the way to Portoferraio. He asked his sister Paolina if she could lend him the money. She obligingly sold some jewels and it is said she was the model for Canova’s statue in this wonderful palace. He had it renovated, decorated with his initial and heraldic signs of the Elban bee, and installed a bath that could be accessed by a trap door to the floor below. Next to the bath are a further room and the kitchen.
The husband of his niece Davidoff enlarged the two-storied villa by a large gallery of paintings on the ground level.
The so-called Egyptian room is decorated following Napoleon’s campaign there and the publication of two tomes on Egypt. In the middle of the room is a small tub in black and white tiling like the rest of the room. Hieroglyphs are painted on the walls and one table has Egyptian symbols.
Another room is known as the room with the “love knot”, a ribbon held up by two doves on the ceiling to symbolize Napoleon’s love for his wife, Maria Luisa, who did not join him on Elba.
uring one’s visit, you will also see a turn-of-the-century greenhouse with its panes and heating fully intact, built for the owner of this lovely mansion many years later. Some of the ceiling windows are reminiscent of Gaudí’s constructions.
One thing is for sure: the view through the valley to Portoferraio is superb, you will not want to miss it.
In the end, after long preparations to supply a ship, Napoleon decided to leave the island and its inhabitants in February 1815, albeit protesting he loved them very much. The aftermath, the disastrous Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s exile to St. Helen in the middle of the Atlantic, are well-known.
When tired of swimming and snorkeling and in the need of stretching your legs, you can climb up the picturesque but not quite easy walk “percorso salute”. The first steps are above the marine center of the spiaggia or beach Biodola to the west of Portoferraio.
The steps lead up to a flagstone path which is pleasantly shaded by the brush and steep rock face on one side and precariously leaning fence parts and steep stairs to some rocks below on the other side. You overlook the entire bay and the many boats anchored there.
You continue up and quite soon you see the entrance to a sort of tunnel through the rocks, which are yellow and ferrous red in turns with a moist flooring, almost like in a mine. In between there is another lookout, but entirely without any barrier to the rocks below.
After emerging from the rock tunnel, the path is rather deteriorated, part of the path is broken away and at times there are only remnants, so be sure to wear proper shoes. The path winds around and goes up some more steps and you reach a dirt path under trees, leading to a small pebble beach with clear, deep-blue water and more ships and boats. Happy landing in Porticciolo!
We stopped over in Ravenna on the way down to the ferry port in Piombino. It was worth every minute. I had not realized how many mosaics and works of art and lovely churches there are and many are on the UNESCO world heritage site list.
In the center of the old town there is the Piazza del Populo with restaurants, gelaterias and the town hall. We stayed at the quaint Palazzo Galletti Abbiosi, renovated from the 18th century, with tiny rooms yet a lot of ambiance and a decent breakfast. You buy a combined ticket for 5 UNESCO buildings that are worth visiting.
We enjoyed the mosaics museum as well which even offers a reduction in certain restaurants. Yet what was interesting were the examples from different areas and epochs, some modern mosaics are truly amazing.
Don’t forget to visit Dante Alighieri’s tomb. He wrote the Divina Commedia and spent his exile in Ravenna. The theater is named after him and there are many plays, as well as summer concerts in June through August.
One of the best places to sample regional food and wine is the enoteca or wine house Ca’de Vèn in the pedestrian zone, following the suggestion of the young lady in our Palazzo. They have all sorts of fancy food, but they recommend piadine, simple sandwiches with Parma ham and a soft white cheese not quite like mozzarella. The wine is very full-bodied and aromatic.
For other meals we can strongly recommend the Osteris Piatto Forte in the Via del Ariani, 10, right in the courtyard with one of the tinier UNESCO buildings that is unadorned on the walls but has a beautiful mosaic ceiling.