Italy never ceases to amaze me. From the majestic Dolomites to the deep blue waters of the Tyrrhenian sea, the Bel Paese, as Dante and Petrarch nicknamed it, offers plenty of tranquil nooks that are not (yet) spoiled by the vices of overtourism. Elba island is still one of those places. Situated only 10km (6mi) from Italy’s Tuscan coast, Elba is part of the Tuscan archipelago and the third largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia.
There’s more to Elba than Napoleon
Out of everyone who stepped foot on this island, Napoleon Bonaparte is the one who’s stay is memorialised everywhere in Elba. He spent 10 months here on exile after the fall of Paris in 1814. His punishment was only a downgrade in the number of people he once ruled upon, 12000 inhabitants of the island compared to the 70 millions people of Europe. Though not his personal choice, his presence in Elba had a big influence on the island. He set about reforming the education and legal system, he build infrastructure and better sewage system and he even added his personal touch on Elba’s flag, the three bees (thought to be a symbol he associated with “Bonnes Villes”, the cities he most loved).
Once you step foot on Elba, it’s easy to fall in love with it. The island is dotted with lush vegetation and rugged cliffs, azure waters and a great network of hiking and biking trails to choose from. The predominantly granitic geological structure of Elba reveals a strong mining culture dating back to the Roman times. The Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome are just some of the masterpieces that were built using granite from this island.
In fact, Elba itself is one of Nature’s greatest masterpieces. The island is part of the Arcipelago Toscano National Park together with other six islands, including the famous Montecristo island. With a good mix of sandy beaches and rocky coastline, wild areas and well-equipped resorts, Elba has it all.
From sea to mountain top
Save a clear sunny day for Mount Capanne, which at 1019m is the highest point of the island. You can either take a giant yellow birdcage to the top or hike up. I chose the former and descended by foot. Riding the “cabinovia, or basket-lift to the top of the mountain is definitely an unforgettable experience. Unforgettable, in the sense that it offers breathtaking views along with goosebump moments. The open air yellow bird cage carries you through the chestnut forest, above the tree line to the barren rocky top of Elba Island. In case you were wondering about numbers: 950m above sea level in 18 minutes at a speed of 1.5m/sec.
Once on the mountaintop, you can really start to get a better idea of the Tuscan Archipelago. Corsica, Montecristo, Gorgona, Capraia, Giglio and Pianosa, they all reveal themselves as dormant giants resting in the turquoise sea. Besides the views, Mount Capanne has in store other natural wonders too.
On the way down, by foot this time, the trail is dotted with colours and aromas set against the seascape. The scent of juniper, rosemary, lavender and heather engulfs you as the sea view opens up over the undulating path. The chestnut trees will then guide you into to the quiet hilly town of Marciana, one of the oldest settlements on the island.
After a quick stroll on its cobbled small alleys, I reached a small square that opened up to fantastic views of the surrounding forest with Mount Capanne rising behind it. This is where I enjoyed my first Pazanella, the famous Tuscan bread salad. You’d be surprised how good soaked stale bread tastes when it’s mixed with ripe tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, fresh basil and olive oil. To be served with a glass of Chianti and a great view.
Step into a hiker’s paradise in Tuscany
Elba is filled with wilderness and a great network of hiking routes for all tastes. Whether you’re a flora enthusiast, a geology geek or simply on the lookout for spiritual hikes to find a sense of awe, it’s all here.
I went searching for routes that would last a maximum of 4h return. That offer great views of the island, reveal endemic species, show some history and finish near the sea for a well deserved foot soak.
The first hike (second hike if I take into account the descent from Mount Capanne) was to Capo d’Enfola. Situated in the northern tip of the island, this scenic route offers many naturalistic delights and historical ruins dating back to WWII.
The walk starts at sea level just by the Tuscan Archipelago National Park headquarters, slowly winding up along the coastline. As you gradually walk up you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking panoramas overlooking mainland Elba and the narrow isthmus that connects it to the island. I was lucky to venture through this landscape surrounded by the sweet smells of the mediterranean maquis mostly dominated by tree heath. Besides plants that love a dry and hot climate, I was surprised to also find a patch of forest where chestnuts reigned over the coastal landscape.
The path eventually led to a terrace overlooking the sea and a rock called “La Nave” (the ship), precisely for its appearance. Besides taking in the view, this spot is also great for birdwatching and diving. I spent about an hour looking at seagulls caring for their young while in the distance a group of divers were getting ready to explore what lies at the bottom of La Nave.
Tip: the last part of the hike involves a rocky incline, do wear adequate footwear.
Length: about 5 kilometres
How long it takes: 2 hours
Level of difficulty: medium
Monte Calamita and a spectacle of wild orchids
The natural inland of the island is equally fascinating when it comes to hiking trails. Monte Calamita, which made Elba famous for its iron ore, is nowadays a popular destination due to its trekking and mountain biking routes. From March to June, the area becomes a spectacle of colour as blooming wild orchids overwhelm its meadows.
I went searching for the orchid extravaganza on the Anello del Monte Calamita (“Calamita mountain ring”). The path starts off in Cavatore square in the beautiful town of Capoliveri. Once there, there will be a roundabout, head on Via Alcide De Gasperi and follow the road as it slowly starts heading uphill.
As soon as you’re surrounded by meadows you can start hunting away for orchids. The more patient you are the more you’ll discover. Wild orchids are present on the island with over 40 species, but they are also threatened since the reintroduction of wild boars in the 1950’s.
In May I managed to find at least two species of wild orchids, Ophrys classic and the Heart-flowered Tongue-orchid, as I sieved through the highly dense flora in the area.
Besides orchids you’ll also find a great variety of wild flowers, among which lavender, and a rather pleasant sight of Elba’s high ground.
The area, though vast, is packed with outdoor enthusiasts all in search of either a dirt trail (a real mountain biker’s paradise) or for the root of local legends. As an important mining area since the Etruscan era, Monte Calamita has historically been highly regarded due to its rich mineral reserves. The most common being magnetite, the most magnetic of all the naturally-occurring minerals on Earth. With the mines now closed, the spirit of adventure is now what attracts most people to the area.
A beach a day, keeps the doctor away
Sandy or with pebbles, wild or well-equipped beaches, you name it and Elba offers it. With over 100 beaches (including those only accessed by sea), Elba’s coastline stretches along a field of blue that brings to mind the Caribbean.
Though May isn’t exactly bathing season (at least to my standard), a trip to the beach after a strenuous hike is always a well deserved treat regardless of the season. Oh, did I mention that you can have them all for yourself? I guess there are certain benefits of visiting off season.
Sansone beach was my favourite. This white pebbly beach sets against a blue backdrop and is accessed by footpath only (10-15mins walk). Surrounded by rugged cliffs and neighbouring the equally dazzling La Sorgente beach, Sansone offers a little corner of paradise. While on its shore I watched the play of light as the sun was playing hide and seek behind clouds. I bet this must have looked ten times better from the water.
How to reach Sansone
Sansone beach is only 5km away from Portoferraio heading in the direction of Viticcio/Enfola. You can park along the main road just before the junction with Viticcio. Follow the signs towards La Sorgente beach. Once you pass this tiny beach and its camping site, head uphill prepare and yourself for a jaw dropping view of the one and only Sansone beach.
Le Ghiaie beach
Le Ghiaie beach is yet another beauty on Elba’s White Coast (northern side), which is renowned for its white pebbles.
I first got a glimpse of it while visiting Forte Falcone, one of the fortified buildings in Portoferraio. I can perfectly understand why someone would try to invade and take hold of such a rich and beautiful landscape. The beach stood out with its long white stretch surrounded by lush green hills and turquoise water.
The beach is about 300m long and is a protected area due to its rich marine life. This makes it a perfect spot for scuba diving or snorkelling. I only spotted a few jellyfish from the shore so yeah, there’s plenty fish in the sea, literally.
There is no shortage of facilities here either: a public park with plenty of shade, bars, kiosks, a car park and perhaps most important, powerful street lamps for those who might fancy a midnight swim.
If you’re up for a nice short walk, take the path to Padulella beach which is only 20 mins away by foot. You’ll be in for a treat once you reach the top of the hill leading down to the beach.
Bonus tip: for those sunset lovers out there (sorry sunrisers) head to Da Giacomino in Viticcio. A good sunset deserves a good meal. You’re welcome!
Small towns are the prettiest
Elba doesn’t fall short of dreamy postcard-perfect small towns, all off the beaten tourist track.
Fishing quarters, historic old towns, cobbled alleyways, colourful buildings and open piazzas, they can all be found here on the island.
Portoferraio is the undisputed capital and the entry point to the island of Elba. Though small (with only 12000 inhabitants), the “Iron Port” has a very rich history which goes back to pre-roman times. Today’s old town was built under Cosimo I de Medici, featuring three forts (Stella, Falcone and Linguella). The best things about all of them: all can be visited and all offers great views over Portoferraio’s coast. If fortified buildings are not your thing, then wander around and discover the town’s network of narrow alleys.
If small quiet towns are what you’re after, then Sant’Ilario in Campo is the place to go. This very quaint town offers a great panorama over the gulf of Marina di Campo and a view into its medieval past. Built around a church Sant”Ilario has an eerie feeling to it, a magic of its own if you may. It’s the kind of place where you can immerse yourself in the sweet culture of “dolce far niente”.
If this lovely small town leaves you wanting more then make sure to visit the neighbouring San Piero in Campo too. With a rich history, this small village is famous for its granite quarries and the starting point to many panoramic routes on Mount Capanne. Despite being small, San Piero is full of pretty corners with granite laid stairs, romantic balconies, colourful houses and open squares. Piazza Facciatoia or Belvedere Square is one of the places worth visiting. As hinted in the name, it offers a beautiful panoramic view over the Gulf of Campo nell’Elba with the islands of Pianosa, Montecristo and Giglio in the background. A 2.5m statue of Napoleon, made entirely from upcycled materials, will keep you company as you sit and gaze at this heavenly sight.