In the millennia-long history of Italy’s third largest island, there have been many important presences that have variously altered its fortunes. Today, however, it is mostly a paradise for sea vacationers and boaters who want to explore it.
Elba Island: from the Etruscans to Napoleon
Italy’s third-largest island thanks to its 223 square kilometers of area, Elba is also the largest remaining strip of land of the “passage” that in the earliest geological eras connected Italy to Corsica. It is part of the Tuscan Archipelago-as well as the territory of the National Park of the same name-along with the islands of Pianosa, Capraia, Gorgona, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri. Its northern coasts are washed by the Ligurian Sea, those to the east by the waters of the Piombino Channel, those to the south by the Tyrrhenian Sea, and those to the west by the arm of the Corsica Channel.
Administratively, it belongs to the province of Livorno, and is divided into eight different municipal territories: the main one is Portoferraio, the others are Campo nell’Elba, Capoliveri, Marciana Alta, Marciana Marina, Porto Azzurro, Rio Marina and Rio nell’Elba.
Ancient and fair
Characterized in its western area by a mountainous part dominated by the peak of Mount Capanne, a whopping 1,018 meters high and nicknamed the “roof of the Tuscan Archipelago,” Elba, on the other hand, has at its center a flat stretch of land whose width is reduced to only four kilometers. It is precisely in this part of the island that, interestingly, the largest population centers, namely those of Portoferraio and Campo nell’Elba, are located.
In the eastern part of the territory, on the other hand, lies the oldest part of Elba, that formed well over 400 million years ago, according to scholars. It is precisely in that wide hilly area, dominated by the barren peak of Mount Calamita, that one finds the iron deposits that made the Island of Elba famous and “desirable” to all European rulers of the past. That is also why, visiting it today, one discovers how Elba is still rich in the memories of its past.
Rome to. Pisa
However, its thousand-year history can tell of even prehistoric inhabitants, iron mines, Etruscans and Romans, pirate raids and the many bloody battles that were fought to rule over this small but important territory.
In fact, Elba’s fate has always been determined by two factors: its strategic location and the mineral wealth of its subsoil. Because of these characteristics it was often considered a land of conquest for the various powers that came to the Mediterranean in different historical periods.
Already for the Etruscans it was an inexhaustible source of wealth, and it was Elban iron that contributed to the prosperity of their civilization.
The Romans also appreciated the island for its deposits, but they also did so for its healing mud: not for nothing have the remains of two wealthy patrician villas positioned right near the thermal basin been found by archaeologists on Elba.
The island’s Middle Ages then saw the domination of nearby Pisa: even today we can still admire some important and striking constructions built precisely by the Pisans to defend their territory and which show how important maintaining possession of the island was.
A few centuries later came the Spaniards, who settled in Porto Azzurro and also put their hand to the defense of the territory with a massive construction. It is that Fort St. James, which even today, having become a penal home, dominates the small town.
Portoferraio, on the other hand, is now the most populous town on the island of Elba and is therefore considered its capital. Situated in the center-north of the same-noting that its territory also includes the tiny island of Montecristo-it was founded in 1548 at the behest of Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, from whom the city took its first name, Cosmopoli. Conceived as a military garrison with the purpose of defending the coasts of the Grand Duchy and the island of Elba, the city was at first little more than a collection of fortifications. Of course, Napoleon’s brief exile, who stayed here ten months before plunging into the tragic 100-day adventure for him, also left a significant imprint on the history of this tiny kingdom of his: indeed, it should not be forgotten that negli was ruler of Elba and not simply a prisoner as on St. Helena.
Characterized by the presence of cliffs to the N and beaches to the S, the island offers throughout the year, pleasant and mild temperatures. Its Mediterranean, maritime climate ensures a small number of rainy days from May onward. On all its shores the most frequent winds are the sirocco and the mistral: both blow placidly and steadily during the good season, ensuring good regattas.
More difficult to navigate when SO and W winds are predominant: rare in summer but not impossible to find, they contribute to dangerous waves.
Along the coast
Elba’s 147-plus kilometers of coastline are presented, on the NO side, as a long row of sheer cliffs overhanging the sea, formed by broad slabs of granite. Descending along the O side to get to the S side the coast becomes softer, until you reach the low beaches of Cavoli and Fetovaia.
The S side, in which the beaches of Marina di Campo, Lacona, and Lido di Capoliveri stand out, is the lowest and also the most built-up part, while the long E coast is characterized by the wide bay of Porto Azzurro set at the foot of the cultivated slope.
Not to be missed
Portoferraio: is the true “capital” of Elba: a spectacular village with towers, cathedral and ancient buildings to discover. Fort Stella dominates the bay.
Porto Azzurro: delightful town formed by a maze of narrow streets that slope down to the sea and the town’s wide dock.
Fetovaia Beach: greenest because of the dense scrub and bluest because of the sea, it is quiet and protected behind by the small Monte Cenno.
Golfo Stella: home to the enchanting Lido Norsi and some of Elba’s most beautiful and diver-loved seabed.
Bight of Cabbage: protected by Mt. Huts and composed of quartz grains, it is the best-equipped lido but worth seeing.
The Stagnone: on the southeastern side of the island opens this natural bight that widens between the spectacular wild cliffs of Mount Calamita.
Le Ghiaie: a truly unique beach because it is characterized by very white pebbles that make the water turquoise.
Palazzina dei Mulini: In the center of Portoferraio, this is the house where the exiled but unconquered Napoleon lived for ten months.
Don’t miss the other installments of Boat Vacations in the Tuscan Archipelago
- Tuscan Archipelago, mix of history and nature
- To navigate the Tuscan Archipelago
- Elba Island, from the Etruscans to Napoleon
- Ports and marinas on the Island of Elba (in programming)
- Bays and landings in the Island of Elba (in programming)
- Discover the various souls of Elba (in programming)
- Capraia, two “steps” from Corsica (in programming)
- Giglio Island, among fortresses, towers and sheltered bays (in programming)
- Giannutri on vacation where Nero went… (in programming)
- Gorgona, Pianosa, Montecristo, landing on the forbidden islands (scheduled)
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