Visiting and exploring the Isle of Elba, Italy
By Karen Bowerman
The Isle of Elba, the largest island of the Tuscan Archipelago off Italy, is known for its temperate climate and picturesque hiking trails. Karen Bowerman explored its mountains and its shores.
Bumpity, bump, bump, bump: the car seemed to be handling the terrain well; being squashed in the back suddenly had its advantages – I was pinned between shoulders and hips with a row of fleshy female thighs (mine included) cushioning the impact. My friends and I were jolting down a cascade of enormously wide 16th century stone steps in Portoferraio, the capital of the Tuscan island of Elba, doing an impromptu Italian Job – albeit in an estate.
I glanced out of the window to catch, at an angle, a church’s grand façade, a wooden door in a crumbling stone building and an alleyway strung with diagonal lines of washing. “Should we really be doing this?” I asked, as the jolting went on and on. “It’s fine!” our taxi driver exclaimed. He lifted his hand off the steering wheel with a flourish, to demonstrate (I presume) that he was still in control. I decided on no more questions.
If he were being economical with the truth, no one in Portoferraio seemed to mind our mid-morning antics. In fact no one batted an eyelid: two old ladies in headscarves heaved open the door of the church and stepped into the darkness inside. A moped swung round the corner. An old man wheeled his bicycle down an alleyway, bumping over the cobbles as he hobbled in and out of the shade.
At the foot of the steps we spun round, reversed into a passage way (no room for three point turns) and sped out again – for the full experience of the alternative route from the historic Villa dei Mulini (Napolean’s residence-in-exile, 1814-1815) to the town’s medieval gates. I could have spent longer in Portoferraio (where we’d arrived by ferry from Piombino, the ‘knee’ of Italy) although given the spiritedness of our driver it may not have been wise. Besides, our destination was the tiny, less touristy village of Sant’Andrea, about 16 miles west. (Elba’s 18 miles long and around 11 miles wide).
Sant’Andrea is set on a promontory, covered in woodland. Whitewashed houses are dotted among lemon groves, poppies and wild broom, on a hill that slopes down to the sea. Our hotel, Hotel Ilio, was just a minute’s walk to the beach (I could hear the waves from my room) and a couple of minutes’ drive to Marciana, a popular base for hiking.
Marciana is home to one of the island’s National Park Visitor Centres (the whole of Elba is national parkland). We met one of the guides, Pat Costa, who was taking us on a trek and set off along an ancient mule track that led into hills once covered in vines. “Mule trails were once the only link between local farms and villages,” Pat said. The owner of our hotel, Maurizio Testa (who, without any persuasion, had offered to carry our picnic) chipped in. “When I was a child, more than 35 years ago, my parents were still using donkeys. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it?” He explained how his family relied on the animals at harvest time to ferry grapes from their vineyards that were scattered across the island.
We haven’t hiked far up Mt Giove when in a small clearing we come across a pile of large, hewn stones and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Apparently this was where locals planned to build a church, until some of the stones mysteriously moved to the top of the mount. Villagers took this as a sign that the virgin wanted her sanctuary at the summit! The hill grows steeper, its slopes covered with Mediterranean maquis: tall shrubland characterised by the glossy-leaved strawberry or cane apple tree, the holm oak with its drooping, knobbly catkins and the invasive buckthorn. Our path is marked by the stations of the cross; we tick them off to distract us from the gradient.
At the top, amid the cool of tall pine trees, we visit the Virgin’s preferred dwelling place: the 16th century church of Madonna del Monte, one of the island’s most sacred sites. Messages from pilgrims are pinned to its walls. It was the perfect place too for a picnic. Maurizio handed round ham sandwiches oozing with ripe tomatoes and soft cheese, crisps, oatmeal biscuits and fruit. Then he opened a bottle or two of local red wine.
When it was time to set off again; I got to my feet feeling a little light-headed. I refilled my water bottle from a natural spring(after hearing Napolean thought it did wonders for his liver), and followed a light-footed Maurizio (his backpack now empty) along a narrow trail overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The papery, silvery leaves of helichrysum brushed against our feet as we made our way downhill. We paused to admire the delicate pink flowers of the rock rose, a riot of yellow broom and an almost fluorescent green gecko, darting over a rock.
The trail cut through a shady chestnut wood where fallen leaves made it soft underfoot. Minutes later it was nothing but upturned earth where wild boar had been digging for roots. Finally, it joined another mule track whose stony path, smoothed, over the centuries, by the passage of feet, took us to the village of Zanca and back to the sea. Then it was just a mile or so to Sant’Andrea cove where we threw down our towels and sprawled across the sand.
Sant’Andrea has a small seaside café, a row of yellow and orange beach huts and a quirky shack, decorated with driftwood, where you can hire snorkelling and diving gear. That morning I’d followed a slippery path along the base of the cliffs, past an ornate, rusty letterbox belonging to one of the houses above. The cliffs, pot holed with erosion, were draped with the succulent Sally-my-handsome plant. Postcards showed its summer flowers cascading down the rocks like a bright pink waterfall. At the edge of the bay, the rocks, smoothed into soft pleats by the constant pounding of the waves, looked as if they were studded with large crystals. The granite contains orthoclase or feldspa, that’s also found moonstone. I watched the sea crashing into the cove, as if desperate to extract the gem for itself.
That evening we dined at Hotel Ilio where Maurizio’s wife served ravioli with truffles, and octopus. In the distance, on the slopes of Mt Capanne, hilltop villages were studded with tiny orange lights. Directly below us, beyond the hotel’s terrace and the rooftops of Sant’Andrea, the sea, now calm, broke gently against the shore. I kept my shutters open so I could hear it through the night.
Hotel Ilio: a small, family run hotel, 150 metres from the sea at Sant’Andrea, Isle of Elba.