Finding Napoleon - everywhere on Elba

This is one of the great attractions of small luxury cruising – the world is yours to explore at your pace in a totally relaxed and unrushed atmosphere.

A case in point was my visit to the island of Elba, famous as the place where Napoleon was exiled two centuries ago.

Of course, Napoleon could certainly have done a lot worse than being exiled to the little Mediterranean island in 1814, as punishment for his surprising loss in the war with Russia, which he’d sought to add to his many other conquests across Europe.

Not only was Elba a place of exquisite natural beauty 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.

Extraordinarily, he was also allowed sovereignty to run the place.

But 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, Napoleon was also quietly plotting his escape.

He was successful just 10 months after setting foot on the island. And he did it remarkably easily.

One evening when the British Navy’s “guard ships” based in the island’s Portoferraio Harbour were conveniently away elsewhere, Napoleon – a hero to most of the locals – and his men simply hopped aboard a few vessels put at their disposal and sailed 280km across the Med 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 four million visitors who annually invade the place between March and October.

Tourism is now the most important industry after the open-cut iron ore mines were closed in 1982 because of their spreading disfigurement of the picturesque landscape.

We spent a captivating day on Elba during a Mediterranean cruise, taking a tour 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. Bees thrive on wild rosemary and lavender and the blossoms of Australian eucalypts that were imported to manufacture medicine.

Among places to visit are the historic Tenuta La Chiusa winery that’s both a winery and a collection of holiday cottages right on the beach in Portoferraio, and which dates to the 1700s. Today’s owners proudly say Napoleon chose to stay there on a couple of occasions.

A specialty wine is Aleatico, a rich, sweet, dessert red that as well as being heartily tossed down by the glass is also tossed with gusto into another favourite called Schiaccia Briaca – the locals’ appropriately-named “drunken cake”.

And yes, our guide assured us, Aleatico was a favourite of Napoleon, who would drink a glass with breakfast every day.

She revealed her grandmother swore by the wine too, quaffing a glass a day for her health – and Grandma lived to 100 years.

There’s also the tiny off-shore island of Monte Cristo, the one made famous by Alexandre Dumas in his 19th century tale The Count of Monte Cristo.

If you want to visit there, register now as only 1000 visitors are allowed on this 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 which makes it famous.

Just about every major building seems to have some link with the man.

Michael Osborne explored Elba as a part of a SeaDream Yacht Club cruise. See your licensed travel agent or visit seadream.com