Conquering a beautiful slice of Italy

Portoferraio Harbour.
Portoferraio Harbour. Contributed

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 had sought to add to his already many other conquests across Europe.

Because not only was Elba a place of exquisite natural beauty lying in the sunny Tuscan Archipelago off Italy, but the allied Sixth Coalition that had forced the Emperor's banishment 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.

While he 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 10 months after setting foot on the island.

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 Napoleon and his men simply hopped aboard a few vessels and sailed 280km across to land near Cannes in France.

Today just 31,000 permanent residents live a laid-back lifestyle on dreamy little Elba, somehow putting up with an extraordinary four million visitors who annually invade the place between March and October.

Tourism is the primary industry after the open-cut iron ore mines were closed in 1982. We recently spent a captivating day on Elba during a Mediterranean cruise, taking a tour there with a proverbial "walking encyclopaedia" guide from Italian sightseeing specialist DDP-Incentive.

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."

Among 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, which dates back to the 1700s - and where, today's owners proudly say, Napoleon chose to stay on a couple of occasions.

Elba is most-famous, however, for its beaches, including two that are reserved for dogs.

Humans don't swim at these unless taking their pets into the water.

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 Count of Monte Cristo.

But if you want to visit there, register now. Only 1000 visitors are allowed on this now-national park annually, and waiting-time is three years.

Elba still exports vast amounts of roof and floor tiles made from the local clay, but it is its beaches, restaurants, bars and museums - and its connections with Napoleon for which it is best-known.

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.

If you're visiting Elba, Rome-based DDP Incentive Management specialises in sightseeing, tailor-made tours and airport, hotel, ship, and other transfers there and across most of Italy.

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