Italy: 90 Days on the Island of Elba
A few months ago, I was getting off a plane with my skin tanned brown and dust caked under my nails and into my clothes. I was ending a beautiful two weeks in sandy, sunbathed Arequipa, Peru and was greeted with the harsh wind and biting cold of New Jersey in February. I was returning home to Long Island. I have to admit, I had been missing my little beach town but I was coming back here with no idea what to do except to try and pick up a few shifts at my old job, save a bit of money, and… then what?
Things were going well after a few weeks, but I was itching to leave again. Through a series of events, I was told about this guy who owns a big, old farmhouse on the Island of Elba and who hires a new staff every year to come work on his land and in his home in Tuscany. I sent him my resume, got a phone call back and next thing I knew I was preparing to live in Italy for the next 90 days.
“Able was I, ere I saw Elba”
Those famous last words. I couldn’t help but say them over and over in my head on the ferry over from Piombino to Portoferraio, though it couldn’t have been more untrue. This famous excerpt of Napoleon Bonaparte’s writing as he was exiled to Elba is a famous palindrome, meaning it reads the same way backwards as forwards. I find though, as I approach my 8th week on Elba, no matter how much time I spend going back and forth on this island, zigzagging through its winding roads, there is always something new to discover. Whether it be one of the many, each uniquely different, family-owned restaurants tucked away in the alleyways, each serving recipes passed down from generation to generation, or a deserted beach with smooth, white, polished pebbles, and little angel fish swimming just below your feet: this place never ceases to amaze me.
Le Viste, Portofferaio, Isola D’Elba, 2016
This Tuscan island offers some truly exceptional swimming spots. Some of my favorites include Lido and Felciaio. Their caves make for some cool exploration and all those rocks provide a nice vantage point for someone who likes a view, or maybe just likes to jump in water from up high. Felciaio is known for its 25 ft jump and also for its beautiful rock formations. Located near Lido beach, the parking is not free (€7 euros for the whole day) but even the path down is worth it, with its gorgeous view and wild rosemary growing along it.
Besides the beaches, you can also visit the many historical sites on the island. There are ruins of forts dating back to the 17th century scattered around the island, Napoleon centric museums and exposés, including tours of his home perched nearly at the highest point in the city of Portoferraio and of his summer home in San Martino. There are also tours of old iron mines which were, until the late 60s, almost solely responsible for the islands prosperity. There’s also the amazing hike up from Marciana Alta to il Santuario della Madonna del Monte, an old church dating back to 1343. You can go further still and you will find yourself walking along a path with gigantic rocks towering over you, balanced perfectly on top of each other. The altitude here is about 800m and there is a nice view of Marciana Marina. You can climb the rocks and get an even nicer view. As you sit up there, you might get the feeling that you are literally sitting in the clouds. This is how I felt as we watched a large cloud roll in straight over and around us, and then past us.
Marciana Alta, Isola d’Elba, 2016
When the sun sets but the heat still lingers on, sometimes the only way to cool off is to take one last dip in the sea. Whatever beach is close by should be open after dark but my favorite is Norsi. A short walk down from the free parking area brings you to a pebble beach with small and large rocks. A night time visit to this beach will allow you to see the town of Capoliveri all lit up on the left hillside. The water might be a bit cold, but just dive in. A surprise awaits you in there. Phosphorescent fish light up the water as you swim, turning the black water into a starry night sky. Another night time event is la notte di San Lorenzo, an annual meteor shower that happens every August over the course of a few days.
Something worth mentioning about Elba is that it is rich in local delicacies. Of course the fresh fruit and vegetable stands hardly disappoint but if you’d like to spoil yourself, treat yourself to the Grappa, a clear liquor made from grapes. Speaking of alcohol, there are over twenty varieties of wine specific to Elba only and an interesting fact is that the island is also known for its cinghiale, wild boar, which populate the island’s forests. Italy produces some of the highest quality foods on earth, quite possibly the world. It’s really hard to go wrong in the local foods department. My go-to place for pizza is Da Michele on the port road in Portoferraio. Finish with a granite next door at Zero Gradi gelateria.
Although there’s not much of a nightlife here, I’ve found that the amazing views while hiking, and the great swim spots are all the excitement that I need.
So maybe it’s the narrow cobbled streets and their walls filled with secrets, and especially the food Italy is known for that grabbed my interest… but Elba. Oh Elba, and it’s wild Rosemary… lazily growing on the side of the road, gloriously soaking us in its scent, and moonlight swimming, being witness to a light show put on just for you as your movements disturb the phosphorescent organisms living in the water, even the crushing heat lulling us all to our beds for an afternoon nap. All that and more is what made me fall in love with Elba.