Elba: Capo Sant Andrea – Napoleon's island paradise is written by Trine Søgaard in cooperation with Capo Sant'Andrea, who had invited us along on the journey. All opinions are, as always, the author's own.
Autumn in an island paradise
I pull my jacket around me as we stand on deck and watch the sun set over the mountains of Elba on the horizon. The sky is painted in flaming red colors and the waves crash against the sides of the ferry as we sail towards the island's capital, Portoferraio. What a beautiful sight.
The only thing I know about the island beforehand is that it was where Napoleon was once sent into exile. And that's it.
The cool evening wind plays with my hair and its embrace causes many to retreat as the sun slowly disappears behind the mountains.
Even though it's a little chilly here at the end of September, I have a big smile on my face. It's great to be back in Italy, and I have missed it. Quite a lot even.
Most of my memories of the boot country are from summer holidays with my family, and that is getting to be a long time ago now. With me firmly wedged between my two siblings and the pack in the back seat, my parents drove us between Italy's big cities, villages, through the mountains, along the coasts and other times around the middle of nowhere.
They knew how to show us the many facets of the country, its charm, culture and rich history, and although I may not have really appreciated it at the time, it has left its mark on me.
Here I don't just mean the wanderlust that probably runs in my family's veins. Rather, I mean a fondness for the place I will be for the next three days: the town of Capo Sant Andrea the island of Elba, which lies off the coast in Toscana.
Because if it reminds me of some of the other lovely places I've visited before in Italy, I can't possibly be disappointed. And I have to promise that I didn't stay.
Capo Sant Andrea – an undiscovered oasis on Elba
By the time the ferry docks at Elba, it has become dark. We have to drive an hour to get to Capo Sant Andrea. Everyone is a bit quiet as the car turns the sharp turns as we drive on the winding mountain roads. Outside the windows, everything is black. It is only the car's movements that so far give me an idea of the island's landscape.
The next day I sit on the hotel's terrace and eat breakfast with a view over the bay of Capo Sant Andrea. My gaze follows a white sailboat in the distance, which I drowsily observe while the hostess brings coffee.
"Buongiorno signora", she says smiling with a twinkle in her dark eyes. Good morning, I reply back in Italian, accepting the steaming little pot of elixir of life. Around me sit middle-aged and older couples enjoying fresh fruit, yoghurt and some pastries from the simple breakfast buffet. Some speak softly, while others need time to wake up.
How quiet it is here, I think. As someone who on a daily basis has his daily walk in Nørrebro in Copenhagen, this silence fills me with a sense of peace. You quickly get the feeling that the pace in Capo Sant Andrea is calm. Very quiet.
Perhaps this is connected to the fact that we are visiting the island outside the high season. Or the tourists just haven't found this little oasis yet.
An authentic experience
Later in the day, we move around the small coastal town, where several people are wearing summer dresses, shorts, sandals and swimwear. The weather is mild and warm, and the temperature is around 23-25 degrees here at the end of September. For me, this is an ideal situation, because with age you can become a little hypersensitive to heat. Many people can probably recognize that.
The small town is spread over a mountainside and opens around the bay. Along the steep and winding main road are houses, restaurants and small hotels with a wonderful view out over the dark blue Mediterranean Sea.
It's hard not to feel a little mesmerized by the scenery, and although I've never been to the popular holiday island of Capri, I have an idea that there are similarities.
But it quickly dawns on me that you don't come to Capo Sant Andrea to experience luxury. It is more my impression that you get an authentic insight into life as an Italian islander in a small coastal town where only a few hundred locals live.
Here there are no grand gestures, no five-star hotels or expensive Michelin restaurants.
On the other hand, the food is local and bears the stamp of the city's connection to havet, the hotels are small and charming, while the area is breathtakingly beautiful. I have to admit, this goes right to my travel heart.
While we sit in a lush garden surrounded by lemon trees, one of the local writers talks about Elba.
For many years the island was a goldmine for mining, where iron and minerals were brought up from the underground and sailed to the mainland. Later, agriculture became a large part of the island's export sources, as the climate proved ideal for vineyards and olive groves, which locals and visitors enjoy to this day.
The elderly gentleman sits with his arms crossed, and I can see his gaze grow distant as he talks. It's as if he dreams himself a little away in his stories, and you can feel how much the place means to him.
He was born in Capo Sant Andrea and has lived there all his life. He explains that many of the city's current residents are descendants of farmers who settled along the coasts over time and have been there for generations.
Therefore, it does not surprise me when Mauricio, our tour operator, slaps the elderly gentleman on the arm and laughingly tells us that he is actually the author's nephew.
How wonderful it is, I think, smiling. And that is exactly the feeling you get in Capo Sant Andrea; a sense of togetherness and a tight-knit community where people not only know everyone, but many are actually related. That is something special.
Sunset over Elba
The sun begins to spread its golden afternoon light over Capo Sant Andrea, and I sit on a beach chair by the small bay and look out over the water. It has been a long time since I have seen a sea have such a beautiful azure color.
The water is so clear that from a long distance you can still see small shoals of fish trying to navigate between a couple of boys enjoying a swim.
Over on the pier sits an elderly man with a fishing rod. The green plastic bucket is almost empty of fish, but he neither looks desperate nor like someone who has to reach something. I stand for a moment watching him before spotting a path leading behind the large rock.
Curious – and with the wrong shoes on – I move along the high rock walls and come around on the other side. Much to my surprise, there is plenty of life here.
A large dog runs to meet me and plants its wet snout on my camera before chasing its owner. Chuckling and a bit feverishly, I try to wipe the worst dog snot off the lens, because this is where pictures are to be taken.
The large granite lumps I face are called Lisce di Sant Andrea and are a gathering point for sunbathing locals and the occasional tourist. Here, people soak up the last of the afternoon sun all around on towels and blankets.
Others have unpacked their fishing gear and are standing side by side, casting the line out into the open sea.
I see a young girl trying to get close enough havet to a dip, but must, to the great relief of many, give up. Even on this fairly windless day, the waves crash hard against the rocks.
Although the bathing conditions are not as good here as in other places around Capo Sant Andrea, I still understand why many spend the late afternoon on these hard rocks.
The sun is slowly setting and it is quite a spectacular sight to witness this to the sound of the rushing sea.
Marciana – a charming medieval town
We round a soft bend on the main road, and suddenly there is a shout: "Stop the car!"
Confused, I look around. First out on the road to see if we're about to hit anyone. Next I look at my side mate who is laughing at the look on my face. Fortunately, it turns out that we just have to stop to take pictures.
The sun is slowly burning through the clouds and casts a blissful light over Marciana on the horizon. The small medieval town is located on the hillside of Monte Capanne just 17 km from Capo Sant Andrea.
The yellow and orange buildings stand in neat contrast to the dark green surroundings, and as we drive into town, the hundred-year-old church bells ring to meet us.
Marciana is lovely and the view over Elba is wonderful. The city was founded over 1000 years ago and has experienced everything from great prosperity and changing dominions to countless pirate attacks throughout the ages. Although Marciana is old, it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the town really took shape.
Remains from this time can still be found today. The town is a small labyrinth of beautiful houses and narrow cobbled streets and old market places from that time. All around, neat flowers and plants grow either wild or from pots and give the streetscape a charming appearance.
Today, around 2000 people live here, and it's hard to notice as we walk around. Here is a very quiet atmosphere, despite the fact that the town's small shops and trattorias is open.
Although I could have spent a few hours in Marciana, we move on and towards the outskirts of the city.
In Napoleon's footsteps
From here we set off towards the Madonna del Monte Sanctuary, a small refuge hidden up in the mountain's chestnut forests. Built in the 1300th century, the church has been visited by pilgrims and a refuge for Napoleon Bonaparte himself and his mistress before he returned to France.
The route requires a good pair of walking shoes, but the view during the walk is breathtaking. As we hike, I can't help but glance over the landscape, even though this is at the risk of tripping. As far as the eye can see, there are seas, forests, mountains and whimsical rock formations that look like animals.
The tour lasts a few hours, and our guide stops at regular intervals to let us taste berries, smell wild thyme and herbs, while he talks about the nature. Up on a cliff I spot something that moves. A mountain goat looks at us in wonder before disappearing and continuing its day.
We reach the main road, where the route ends just before the descent to Capo Sant Andrea. Tired but uplifted, I throw myself on the hotel bed shortly afterwards and take a little rest before going down to taste fried squid and tiramisu at the beach restaurant.
In just a few days I have gained a fantastic impression of this place and I have no doubt that one day I will return again to Capo Sant Andrea and Napoleon's paradise island of Elba.
Really good trip to Elba.