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Seeking Exile in Elba

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page P01

There was logic, I suppose, in sending Napoleon to Elba.

When the conqueror of Europe was conquered in 1814, the European allies didn't choose just any piece of real estate for his exile. Napoleon's new empire resembled his native Corsica in miniature: mountains full of minerals, dramatic sweeps of cliff coastlines and sandy beaches, an abundance of olives, wild herbs and terraces of wine grapes that dated back to the Etruscans.


The ancient hill town of Capoliveri, on the Italian island of Elba, could make even an exiled emperor happy with its lively street scene. (Robert V. Camuto)

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When the sun is shining, who wouldn't want to be exiled here?

I had just arrived with my wife and 10-year-old son after an hour ferry ride from the industrial Tuscan port of Piombino, and we made our way up the winding steps in the city of Portoferraio to what had been Napoleon's lair -- the Palazzina dei Mulini. Now a museum with a few pieces of period furniture and knickknacks, the Palazzina is in fact smaller than the typical modern-day suburban palace of, say, Northern Virginia.

But what's truly imperial here are the views: over the port and limpid blue waters, along the coast of Elba's lush green hills and out to the silhouette of Tuscany in the distance. We were alone in the upstairs salon, taking it all in and breathing the salt air. Below us, the emperor's courtyard garden was sprouting weeds. A museum "guard" nodded off on in his chair in the corner.

Legend has it that on his arrival in Elba, Napoleon declared, "I shall rest here."

Life on a sleepy island didn't suit itself to an N-type personality. The "Little Corporal" lasted only about 300 days before he and his men set sail for their doomed mission to retake Europe. Still, in those 10 months Napoleon left his mark: reorganizing things, opening an art school, rebuilding the roads. Napoleon has even been credited with starting Elba tourism as he entertained visitors from the Continent.

A relatively modest 18 miles long, Elba is the largest of seven islands in Italy's Tuscan Archipelago, the largest national park marine area of Europe. In recent times, Elba has become a popular holiday destination for Germans, who invade in June, and Italians, who turn the beaches of August into a sea of parasols, suntan lotion, soccer balls and -- this year's fashion -- high-heeled flip-flops.

Most of the rest of Europe and America know little about it. I had no clue where Elba was until an Italian friend in the Tuscan Maremma pointed offshore to the outline of the island and gushed, "That is something you really must see." I hadn't even known it was inhabited.

Despite modern-day tourism and the ubiquitous campgrounds and tourist boutiques, much of Elba has retained its island rusticity -- a collection of perched villages and small ports, eccentric churches, winding coastlines of creeks and coves, and a vibrant tapestry of rock and mineral that's been mined for 3,000 years. At the table, seafood and fish are folded into soups and pastas and meals are finished off with glasses of Aleatico, the dense, sweet red wine made from dried grapes of the same name.


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