Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Still Following Napoleon Around the Mediterranean
My fascination with Napoleon has taken me to a lot of places, and most recently has landed me in the Mediterranean Sea. I've talked about his birthplace, Corsica. Now, I feel the need to discuss his place of exile for 10 months or 300 days back in 1814...Elba, Italy. Portoferraio to be exact. As with every other section of Napoleon's life, I find this one fascinating. Just when I thought I knew all there was to know about the Emperor of all Europe, I find out a little more. It's not that I didn't know that he was exiled to Elba. It's just that I'd never learned about his life while he was there.
When Napoleon arrived in Portoferraio, Elba on May 3rd, 1814, he had done so by choice. He'd been given the choice of being exiled to Corfu or Elba and chose the latter. He liked the mild climate, and he preferred the idea of being around the locals there. Reportedly, while he was there, he united several groups into a united island group. I had no idea that he'd more or less put himself in charge and helped to make the place more balanced and peaceful. There are stories of how wonderfully he treated many of the people on the island during his stay. He supposedly paid a dowry so that a young girl could marry the man that she loved. It is said that the people of Portoferraio helped him ready his ships so that he could head out to conquer France again.
Elba is one of seven islands off the coast of Italy. They are part of the Tuscany Province, which I find interesting because you don't normally think of islands when you think of Tuscany. Tuscany is that province of rolling fields and vineyards on the mainland with medieval villages and winding roads. Elba, on the other hand is rocky and mountainous and known for its mines. The island's value for centuries was largely due to minerals that were mined on the island and sold abroad. There are mines on Elba that have now been turned into tourist attractions. Elba is the third largest island belonging to Italy and the largest in it's archipelago. It's known for it's beaches, it's old world villages, and the archipelago is largely national park area. The main activity in most of the island areas is hiking and rock climbing. Off the coast they mostly hang out on the beautiful beaches, sail, and snorkel. The beaches are gravel in most areas, so the water is crystal clear. In the summer time the beaches are busy.
Both of Napoleon's homes, Villa dei Mulini and the Villa in San Martino are now museums where you can see what his living situation was like when he was on Elba. His sister and mother joined him on the island, and they maintained a very close family life. The Villa in San Martino was chosen by Napoleon for his love, Maria Luisa; but she never came to be with him. He did, however, have one visit with his other liaison, Maria Walewska of Poland. She came to visit him and brought their son once while he was there. At the Villa dei Mulini you can see Napoleon's death mask as well.
Napoleon's influence is seen all over Portoferraio. It's strange that the man that we were taught was such a monster, was revered by the people of this town on this island. It's hard to remember that he also did good for the French at one point too. He brought a unity and brought law and education to the masses. That was before he went mad with power, but even Hitler did good in the beginning. The strange thing with Napoleon was that he did good things for the people of Elba after he went mad with power and before he went back to France and took another swing at it in the 100 days war. I guess he had more than one side.
The Misericordia Church is where Napoleon and his family went to church while they lived on Elba. The ancient church still stands today, and is still in use. There is a museum with it that has things from the time of Napoleon, one of their most famous visitors. This is how they feel about the man. He died on St. Helena on May 5th, 1821. Every year on May 5th there is a service held in his honor in Misericordia Church. In 2014 they had a celebration in Portoferraio for the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's exile on Elba. Isn't it strange how one world's monster is another world's hero?
Portoferraio is more than just the location where Napoleon spent a few months in 1814. It is an old town that was fortified by Cosimo dei Medici in the 1600's to protect the territory from pirates. Forte Falcone and Forte Stella were built around the town to that end. Linguella Fort and its imposing Martello Tower are also part of the local fortification. All of these are amazing museums with fascinating histories and should not be missed. The lighthouse at Forte Stella is one of the oldest lighthouses on the Mediterranean Sea. Forte Falcone you can drive to, but the other two have some walking involved. The views are well worth any trouble though.
Now, we've all heard the story about Napoleon sneaking down the steps and taking off in his ship to go back and try to retake France and all of Europe. Not true. There are 140 "wonky" steps that go from the Villa dei Mulini to the harbor below, but as I said; the trip was planned out. The ships took days to ready for the voyage. There was no secret. The locals knew what he was up to. But the steps are a great walk with a great view, so enjoy them. Also, enjoy the water, the beaches, the shopping, the old town, the food, and take time to go sailing. Portoferraio is a fabulous place to spend some time. There are ferries from the mainland and an airport to get you there. There are resort hotels as well. Many cruises stop at Elba, so you can come that way as well. The Europeans thought that it would be a safe place to exile Napoleon to in the 1800's and he took off. It's even easier to get around now. So, take some time to follow the path of the life of Napoleon. Learn something about one of history's most complex dictators. While you're at it, enjoy an incredibly beautiful Mediterranean island off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. Come and see Portoferraio, Elba. Enjoy!