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.
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.
Elba, from one perspective, is Corsica without Corsicans -- with laid-back Italians in the place of the fiery French. It is, in another way, Tuscany untamed -- without 600 of years of fussy high breeding.
Bed and Med
If I could design a paradise, it would look a lot like northwestern Elba (minus the mammoth motor coaches on small mountain roads and absent the Italian practice of lighting up in every dining and hotel room).
Our first of three mornings on the island, we awoke in a small family-run hotel on the Capo Sant'Andrea. From the door of our room, we looked down a stone-stepped path under the umbrella pines to a natural bay made from sea-smoothed granite. The sounds of morning were the twittering of swallows from the roof above and the lapping of waves on the shore below.
After breakfast, we walked around the bay following a path carved in the rocks. Several Italian families were already installing themselves on a postage-stamp-size beach. We continued on to a point where we saw no one and slipped into the water, which in late May was just cold enough to take the breath away for half a minute.
After a swim, we sunned ourselves on the rocks and began to think about a lunch of fritto misto -- a plate of fried seafood -- in the nearby port of Marciana Marina. That afternoon we took the coastal route to the other side of the island, a little more than 90 minutes away by car. Elba is shaped something like a fish, with its head facing west, a longish body and two tail fins splaying off its eastern end. We were up at the top of the head, above the eyes, and our destination was the bottom tail fin.
As we traveled southward along the west coast, the landscape changed completely. Whereas the north side is verdant with forests of ilex and pines, the south is dry and Sardinian: rose-colored rocky earth covered with low Mediterranean flowering scrub. Off the southern coast the sea views change as well: There's Corsica, dark and mountainous off in the distance; Pianosa, an utterly flat island made from mineral deposits; and Montecristo, the conical rock crowned by a fort made famous by Alexandre Dumas's novel.
At one particularly panoramic spot along the cliffs, a pair of Guardia di Finanza officers (the Italian customs guard corps) stood on a guardrail in Mussolini-era styled uniforms, looking out to sea. Were they appreciating the same view we were? Or were they spying on the owner of a magnificent sailing yacht anchored offshore?
As we continued east along the southern coast, the terrain flattened out and the landscape became touristy to the point of tackiness. Billboards for theme restaurants included Spaghetti Western and -- no kidding -- Ristorante Mickey Mouse.
We stayed that night between the ancient hill town of Capoliveri and the lively port of Porto Azzurro. Our second hotel had a nice view of the sea, but the room was dark and cramped and too close to the rumble of trucks by the road below. We were all lamenting that we'd left the paradise on the other side of the island. A bottle of coastal Tuscan Morellino di Scansano brightened my mood, as would our discovery the next day of the Madonna of the Snow.
Following the Signs
The plan that next morning was straightforward enough: Head back west about 30 minutes to the beach of Cavoli, which we were told was Elba's most beautiful sand beach. Then we would finish the day by looping up above the capital, Portoferraio, to visit Napoleon's second residence at Villa San Martino.
As it turned out, we did neither.
Not five minutes into our trip, my wife saw a small marker for the chapel Madonna della Neve. Madonna of the Snow? Here?
In Portoferraio, we'd been impressed by the churches and their odd mix of styles and local traditions. The Church of Santissimo Sacramento, for example, had 18 crystal chandeliers hanging from the wooden rafters, as well as a domed, Byzantine-style war memorial chapel with Turkish lamps and artillery shells. So why not Madonna of the Snow? I turned up a dusty road through rows of vines and found the hilltop chapel. We tried the doors -- locked.
On the way back down the hill, we saw a hand-lettered sign announcing the sale of wine and olive oil direct from a producer in what seemed a normal house.
Within minutes we were chatting with Signora Anna, as she is known. She is a schoolteacher and her husband an agronomist, both mainland Tuscans who settled in Elba years ago. The couple's minuscule operation is called La Chiesina, after the church, which Anna said drew its name from the local legend of the miracle of snow in August.
We bought our Aleatico and told her we were off to Cavoli. She said Cavoli was indeed beautiful before the crowds swarmed in August, but just up the road was the magnificent Punta della Stella -- the point at the end of Capo Stella peninsula, accessible only on foot or mountain bike, something not to miss. Our plans changed, we drove to the trail and headed out on an hour-long hike to the point. We walked under the shade of umbrella pines and eucalyptus, passing first one German couple, then another -- the men wielding cameras with lenses the size of killer zucchini to shoot wildflowers.
The peninsula provided a dramatic perspective of looking back over the sea to the island and the twists and turns and layers of its coastline in all directions. We followed the path down the cliff toward the coast, descending through a spice rack full of Mediterranean color and smells: wild lavender, rosemary, curry and tarragon.
A set of stone steps brought us the final 100 yards to the water's edge and a field of red volcanic boulders that looked like beached asteroids. We waded in the pools among the asteroids and ate the provisions we'd brought with us -- a bag of Italian cheese doodles.
By the time we got back to the car it was after 2 o'clock and we were ravenous. On the beach in nearby Lacona, we followed the signs to the Essenza Restaurant and Pizzeria, which also announced itself as a "Disco Bar."
At first I was dubious. Walking on the terrace of Essenza, we found ourselves in another world -- postmodern Italian beach culture. All the furnishings -- tables, chairs, sun awnings -- were made from angular plastic and metal right out the Alessi design shop. We sat at a table set with cylindrical stemmed wine glasses and white, flat, round ceramic discs. (I never figured out if they were meant to be plates, placemats or just cool looking.) The joint appeared to be run by a couple of young, well-financed Italian ragazzi ("dudes") in baggy pants and leather Pumas. They had their own small table where friends -- mostly female -- stopped by on their way up from the beach. Sunken into the dune nearby, a stone dance pit with what appeared to be tens of thousands of euros worth of light and sound equipment sat idle.
In Italy, some cliches just seem to work. The food was better and the prices cheaper than all of the urban pizzerias I've tried in the eastern United States.
Our individual pizzas arrived on the most impossibly thin crust I've ever seen. Yes, I've eaten plenty of pizza crust that's "paper thin," but this stuff was razor thin, supple and covered with fresh buffalo mozzarella and sweet tomatoes.
As we left, one of the ragazzi handed us a flier: On Friday nights, the restaurant -- in concert with local wine and olive oil producers -- serves up a menu of antica cucina Elbana, old-fashioned local cooking.
I had to laugh. I'd seen Elban cookbooks around the island -- the most popular one featured a nona on the cover in a peasant dress. She was old enough to be these guys' grandmother. Was it Grandma, I wondered, who was preparing the menu, which promised octopus salad, tuna in tomato and basil sauce, and baked local fish? Or was it a Florentine cooking school graduate in red Pumas?
I later studied the flier, laid out on cream linen paper, and noticed that a chef had signed it. I cannot make out the name, but judging from the cool, careless scrawl, I would not bet on Grandma.
Robert Camuto, a writer living in the South of France, is a frequent contributor to Travel.