Sailing into the bay of Portoferraio, one can’t but think of him: Napoleon, emperor of half of Europe, who can’t have been much impressed by the beauty of the Mediterranean island paradise. A mere 10 kilometers off the Tuscan coast, Elba is Italy’s third biggest island (ranking right after Sicily and Sardinia, but with its 223 km2 much smaller than the first two).
Beautiful beaches with Caribbean style water didn’t mean much to a man who had set out to conquer the world. Workaholic that he was, Napoleon wasn’t prepared to spend time admiring Elba’s natural treasures, but immediately started a series of major works to improve the island’s infrastructure. Roads were built, the iron mines were reorganized and his small republic’s jurisdiction was overworked.
But all the bureaucratic tasks couldn’t keep a man like Napoleon busy enough. Who knows, maybe he could have made friends with his fate, if it wasn’t for the view towards Corsica’s mountains. Born and educated on Corsica, he had left that island as a young man to become the most important political figure of his time. Watching the Corsican mountains appear on the horizon during sunset may be a highlight for the average traveler, but it must have been a rather humiliating experience for the ex-emperor.
After 11 months on Elba, Napoleon managed to escape, reconquered France and started his second reign – now known as the Hundred Days – which came to a sudden halt with the notorious battle of Waterloo. He swiftly asked for political asylum with the Brits. But this time round Europe had learned its lesson. Yes, it would be exile again on an island, but one that couldn’t be reached that easily. Elba was far too close to the European mainland for one of the most important military strategists the world had ever seen.
Saint Helena, a tiny island lying 1870 kilometers off the western African coast, was a much safer option. It was continuously circled by naval ships and heavily monitored by British soldiers. Napoleon Bonaparte would never see his homeland of Corsica again.
(…pictured here in the background, with Portoferrario, Elba in the foreground)