Napoleon could certainly have done a lot worse than being exiled to the little Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814, in punishment for his surprising loss in the war with Russia, which he’d sought to add to his many conquests across Europe.
When the allied Sixth Coalition banished Napoleon to Elba – a place of exquisite natural beauty laying in the sunny Tuscan Archipelago off Italy – they allowed him to take a thousand or so faithful troops and other followers with him, and extraordinarily bestowed upon him sovereignty to run the place.
But while Napoleon stated publicly that Elba was “where he would be happy to rest”, and where he threw himself into building new schools and hospitals, improving road networks and encouraging the arts, he was also quietly plotting his escape…successfully doing so just ten months after setting foot on the island.
And he did it remarkably easily: one evening when the British Navy’s “guard ships” that were based in the island’s Portoferraio harbour were conveniently away elsewhere, Napoleon – a hero to most of the locals – and his men simply hopped aboard a few vessels put at their disposal, and sailed 280km across to land near Cannes in France.
Today the 31,000 permanent residents, who live a laid-back lifestyle on little Elba, somehow put up with an extraordinary 4 million visitors per year, who invade the place between March and October. Tourism has become the most important industry on the island since 1982, when the open-cut iron ore mines were closed because of their spreading disfigurement of the picturesque landscape.
We recently spent a captivating day on Elba as a stopover on a Mediterranean cruise. Our tour guide was a proverbial “walking encyclopaedia” from Italy; she had a yarn to spin about everything from Napoleon’s time on the island to the wine, the culture and the honey industry, whose bees thrive on wild rosemary and lavender…and the blossoms of Australian eucalypts that were imported to manufacture medicines and, she said, “are simply nice to breathe”.
Amongst places we visited was the historic Tenuta La Chiusa Winery that’s both a winery and a collection of holiday cottages right on the beach in Portoferraio, and which dates back to the 1700′s – and where, today’s owners proudly say, Napoleon chose to stay on a couple of occasions.
A speciality wine here is Aleatico, a rich, sweet, dessert red that as well as being heartily tossed down by the glass is also tossed with gusto into another favourite called Schiaccia Briaca – the locals’ appropriately-named “drunken cake”. And yes, our guide assured us, Aleatico was a favourite of Napoleon, who would drink a glass with breakfast every day.
Our guide revealed her grandmother swore by the wine too, also quaffing a glass a day: “She said it was for her health’s sake, and Grandma lived to 100 years, one month and ten days.”
Elba is most famous, however, for its beaches, including two that are remarkably reserved for dogs. Humans don’t swim at these beaches unless they bring their pets into the water, and inspectors regularly check that canine patrons have a Pet Passport certifying they’ve been micro-chipped and appropriately vaccinated. And after their ocean frolics, the happy pooches can rinse-off under their own little doggy-height showers.
Our guide also pointed out the tiny off-shore island of Monte Cristo – yes, the one made famous by Alexandre Dumas in his 19th century The Count of Monte Cristo. But if you want to visit there, register now: only 1000 visitors are allowed on this national park annually, and the waiting time is three years.Elba still exports vast amounts of roof and floor tiles made from the local clay, but it is still best-known for its beaches, restaurants, bars and museums – and its connections with Napoleon. Just about every major building seems to have some link with the man, and while he lived in an apartment in the local Town Hall, there are also six or eight houses that the locals claim he also occupied at some stage of his just 300 days on Elba.