Lighthouse on Elba
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Everyone who gets sent to exile should be as lucky as France's Emperor.
Napoleon Bonaparte might have been irritated that his empire was being stolen out from under him, but he still managed to make the most of his eight months and 22 days on the island of Elba, a bucolic slice of Mediterranean paradise off the northwest coast of Italy.
The legend is that Venus' necklace broke, dropping her jewels into the sea, and one of those jewels became Elba. This island, just 86.5 square miles (224 square kilometers), has attracted and been governed by the Lugurians, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Spanish and finally, Italy. The mountain regions had been rich in iron ore that, once mined, was smelted by fires so numerous that the Greeks named the island Aethalia, which means "spark."
Porto Ferraio, the largest city and biggest port on Elba, is located in a protected harbor, which makes it an ideal haven for yachtsmen from all over the Mediterranean. And indeed, the marina area is rich in shops and cafes that cater to the sailors who convene here. But long before this, Admiral Nelson called Porto Ferraio the "safest port in the world" because of the way it's surrounded by bluffs with exceptional sightlines; the Greeks believed it was the port of call of the Argonauts and named it Argoos.
This is a charming port stop for smaller ships; you won't find mass-market behemoths disgorging their guests onto these shores. The fact that it's small and easily negotiable on foot make it an ideal day out for those who enjoy simple pleasures. And for those who choose to explore more of the island of Elba, well, that's easily accomplished as well.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malaga • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Positano (Amalfi) • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Italian. Very little English is spoken here.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the euro. U.S. dollars are not accepted. There is a bank on Calata Italia (which fronts the port) just past the first ferry dock (Pontile com. TE G. Massimo) if you are going to use an ATM; there is a change office on the same street just before the ferry dock if you want to change dollars or pounds to euros, and there is a post office (to change traveler's checks, which banks won't touch) above the marina on G. Gasribaldi near the Piazza della Repubblica.
Too bad the gelato doesn't last, because that would be it. Otherwise, the shops along the marina are really upscale and sell maritime baubles and totes with Porto Ferraio written on them. The main export of Elba is minerals, so you can also purchase jewelry made with stones mined from Elba.
Where You're Docked
The dock is in the middle of town at the bottom of the Fortezze Medicee. To the left, as you leave your ship, is the central business district and ferry docks; to the right, as you round the bottom of the Fortezze, is the marina with the yachts and upscale shops.
Just adjacent to the ship's dock is a cafe bar, a nice place to stop for a coffee. It's located in the parking lot adjacent to the dock. Across the street is a large bakery/gelatteria where you can grab a sweet bite and watch the maritime activity, including all the ferries coming and going to and from the mainland. There's also a little dockfront square with nice benches; its breezy location is lovely on a hot summer's day.
If you're going to spend your time in Porto Ferraio, almost all of it is accessible on foot. The climb to Napoleon's city house and to the fortresses can be difficult for those with mobility problems, but there are plenty of taxis. There are also tourist vans that do a tour of the city and surrounding areas, and during the summer, from the end of May to the end of August, there's a little tourist train (on wheels) that offers a series of different sightseeing tours from two to four euros. All options are easily accessed from the parking lot in front of the ship's dock.
Villa dei Mulini: (Napoleon's Palace, Phone: 0565-915846) When Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to sleepy little Elba in 1814 (when the island "belonged" to France), he certainly made the most of his "imprisonment." Of course he didn't realize that he wouldn't be staying awhile, so he built an elaborate villa above the city, near Fort Stella, using a simple Tuscan structure as its base. Most of it is unchanged from his stay, with artifacts such as art works, furniture and documents preserved for public viewing. Closed Tuesdays.
Fortezze Medicee: When construction was started on this stunning crenellated fortress in the mid-1500's, Elba was under the governance of Spain, and the structure was built for the behest Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, with the blessing of King Charles V. The fort proved its worth in 1553 when, sent by the French to try to capture Elba, the Turkish pirate Dracut decided that the port was impenetrable and departed.
Museo della Misericordia: Located next to the church of the same name, this important little museum holds, among other things, Napoleon's death mask (we're not sure how it arrived here from Devil's Island, but most of the items were donated by Prince Anotolio Demidoff, Napoleon's nephew, who was left in charge of many of the French Emperor's effects).
Been There, Done That
Villa San Martino: (Phone: 0565-914-688) Napoleon Bonaparte decided that his palace in Porto Ferraio wasn't enough, so he also built a "summer villa" inside an old church. Still standing, and updated by Prince Demidoff to include his gaudy monograms strewn around, it's the cottage in the back where the Emperor really thrived, wrote and relaxed. The villa is located about two miles south of the city and is accessible by cab.
Terme San Giovanni: (Phone: 0565-914-680) Fancy a spa day? Take advantage of Terme San Giovanni's open-air facility where for only eight euros you can enjoy a thermal salt bath, for 25 euros you can have a "complete" Shiatsu massage, and -- our favorite -- for 16 euros you can enjoy a "gurglebath." It's located about two miles outside of town near the Villa San Martino.
Dell' Open Air Museum Italo Bolano: (Phone: 0565-914570) Elba's current favorite son, contemporary artist Bolano, has a gallery/museum in the "open air" that visitors can wander through. The artist features paintings, sculptures, ceramics and glass works; of course you can purchase items as well as gawk at them.
Da Zucchetta: (Piazza della Repubblica 40, Phone: 0565-915331) Located in the historic center of Porto Ferraio, this little restaurant has been around since 1891 and serves everything from pizza to oysters in a charming Tuscan-inspired atmosphere. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
La Barca: (Via Guerrazzi 60/62, Phone: 0565-918036) "The Boat" is one of Elba's better-known restaurants, located in the Old City. Locals love it and return again and again; you can sit outside or inside. Try the "gnocchi all'Elbana" for a regional taste or choose from among many fresh fish items.
Editor's Note: There are several casual dining spots and trattorias along the waterfront at the new marina.
Island Drive and Villa San Martino: Apart from visiting the Emperor's summer estate, this tour also takes you to Porto Azzuro, a colorful fishing harbor on the opposite side of Elba, and to Punta delle Grotte, the ruins of an ancient Roman villa.
A Taste of Southern Elba: Take a motorcoach tour of the southern regions of Elba, stopping at a wine farm to sample passiti, an island specialty, along with some light snacks.
Mount Caponne -- On Top of the World: This excursion is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor for mobility-impaired guests. It involves entering a two-person metal basket that wisks you up the side of a mountain. Once there, the spectacular views make it all worthwhile -- if you don't have a coronary before you arrive.
Staying in Touch
WIND: (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 34, Phone: 0565-918842) Telephone and Internet service. Closed Sundays.
Elba Tourist Office: (Calata Italia 26, phone: 0565.914671) Located opposite the first ferry dock, go up the stairs. Closed Sundays except during some periods in the summer.
Editor's Note: Due to an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
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