Portoferraio & Around
Founded in 1548 by Medici grand duke Cosimo I, Portoferraio is Elba's capital and largest city. Ferries dock in the city's newer half to the west, but its core is still an old fishing village, a U-shaped theater of streets terracing up the rocky promontory. It was guarded in Medici days by two massive fortresses, the Forte Falcone (tel. 0565-944-024) and the Forte Stella (tel. 0565-916-989). You can explore the rambling battlements of both; the Forte Falcone to the west is usually open daily from 9am to 7 or 8pm (closed Wed and at lunchtime Apr to mid-June and mid-Sept to Oct); the Forte Stella is free and open daily from 9am to 12:30pm and 2:30 to 6pm.
The old entrance to the city is through Porta al Mare at the base of Portoferraio's "U." In the town's upper reaches, by the Forte Stella, is the house where Napoleon lived in exile for 9 months: At the Villa dei Mulini, Piazzale Napoleone 1 (tel. 0565-915-846) you get to wander through the emperor's sparsely furnished apartments and see the books he kept in his study -- exciting for history enthusiasts only. It's open April through October Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 9am to 7pm, Sunday from 9am to 1pm. Instead of paying admission to just get in here, buy a cumulative ticket that also gets you into Napoleon's summer villa just outside Portoferraio.
South of Portoferraio, the road divides at Bivio Boni to head east and west. A short trip west (right) then off the main road, following the signs, will lead you to the entrance to the Villa San Martino (tel. 0565-914-688), the more interesting of the two villas Napoleon left on the island. The pretentious neoclassical facade wasn't the ex-emperor's idea -- his step-nephew had it constructed after his death to honor him with its giant N's all over. Head to the left to be escorted up a path to Napoleon's more modest residence -- for the former ruler of half the known world, he had surprisingly simple tastes. The only extravagance is the Egyptian Room, celebrating his most successful campaign with trompe l'oeil desert scenes glimpsed between hieroglyphic-painted walls and columns. Hours and admission are the same as Villa dei Mulini, above, but Villa San Martino is closed Monday instead of Tuesday.
The old Spanish capital of Porto Azzurro, with a 1603 fortress built so well they're still using it as a prison. Today, the fortified Spanish port is one of the island's major resorts, but you can catch a whiff of the past in the shop fronts and bustle of the Old Quarter around Via d'Alarcon. From Porto Azzurro, you can see the fortified Capo Focardo across the bay, with the beach at Naregno leading up to it.
South of Porto Azzurro lies eastern Elba's most picturesque town, the mountainside village of Capoliveri. It's full of twisty old streets, a large terracelike main Piazza Matteotti, and bars where you can quaff Elba's wines or artisan beers until 2 or 3am. In fact, the town is known for its nightlife, as well as for its traditional Thursday market, but gets very crowded in season. Capoliveri is also home to one of the island's fine dining highlights, the Taverna dei Poeti (click for review).
The island's oldest settlement, Marciana is also the most attractive base for exploring western Elba. It's a picturesque and very steep little town made of minuscule tree-shaded piazze and winding stepped-stone streets stacked atop one another. The car park above the village makes an excellent jumping-off point for the hike to the Madonna del Monte, a remote hermitage visited by Napoleon in 1814. Leave 1 1/2 hours for the round-trip. For the best views on the island, catch the Cabinovia Marciana-Monte Capanne (tel. 0565-901-020) from just outside town. The 20-minute ride in an open cage to Elba's tallest peak (at 1,019m/3,343 ft.) ends in 360° views across the arc of the Tuscan coast from Livorno to Monte Argentario, over the Tuscan archipelago, and out to Corsica. You can ride one-way and hike down (leave 1 1/2 hours at least) or buy an andata e ritorno (round-trip). Weather permitting, the cableway is open daily 10am to 12:30pm and 2:20 to 5:30pm, with seasonal variations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.