Andrea/Cara here, I’ve recently started working on a new Lady Arianna mystery novel, and after having sent her and Lord Saybrook to Scotland in the last adventure, I decided to head south to the Mediterranean.
More specifically, to a certain island in the Mediterranean—one that will likely ring a bell with aficionados of Regency-era history. (Though there’s a little unexpected excitement along the way.) Elba was home to Napoleon during his first exile from the world stage. But I knew little else about the rugged speck of land in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Which of course meant I needed to do some research.
Oh, joy. Now in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll confess that I have a thing for islands. I love the sense of their being a little world unto themselves. The closeness of water seems to bathe them in a special aura—things always feel calmer and more relaxed on an island. (Yes, yes, I know—an oxymoron when it comes to Napoleon!)
Elba didn’t disappoint. I found it to be a fascinating place, rich in history and natural beauty. Allow me to share some of the highlights of my research . . .
First let’s place it a little more exactly. It’s a mere 6 miles off the coast of Italy, which raised concerns from the start among the Allied leaders at the Congress of Vienna when Napoleon requested it as his place of exile. As the Emperor of Austria wrote to his foreign minister, Prince Metternich, “The important thing is to remove Napoleon from France, and God grant that he may be sent very far away. I do not approve of the choice of the Island of Elba as a residence for Napoleon; they take it from Tuscany, they dispose of what belongs to my family, in favour of foreigners. Besides, Napoleon remains too near to France and to Europe.” Lord Castlereagh of Britain agreed, but Tsar Alexander harped on the need to get Napoleon to abdicate quickly, and so he was grudgingly given the island as his new empire.
Elba was no stranger to foreign invasion. Its mineral resources—it has a rich vein of iron ore—made it a very desirable possession. Ancient Greek writings say that Jason and the Argonauts spent time there. The Etruscans and the Romans occupied it, followed in the Middle Ages by the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. For two centuries, it remained in the hands of the House of Appiani. In 1544, it plundered by the Barbary pirates, then in 1546, Cosimo de Medici was given part of the island, which became part of Tuscany. It passed back and forth between various European powers, and finally became part of France through the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
Napoleon, who was born in nearby Corsica, arrived in his new kingdom on May 30, 1814 and, as was his wont, quickly set to work reshaping according to his vision of an ideal society. He embarked on an ambitious program of social and economic reforms, along with building roads and bridges. Alas, he soon ran out of money, as the stipend promised to him by the newly restored King of France never materialized. (Finances are believed to have been a big reason why he chose to recapture his former glory.)
But even though his mother and sister came to live with him, along with a number of court followers (including occasional visits from his Polish mistress and illegitimate son) who ensured a lively social swirl of balls, theater and concerts, he soon became bored. Having recently commanded millions, he now found himself with an army of 700 Imperial Guards (the Treaty of Fontainebleau had specified that he was only allowed 400, but apparently no one was counting) a paltry collection of horses and mules and a tiny flotilla of ships. No wonder he was soon plotting to reclaim his former glory.
On February 26, 1815, while the British observer, Colonel Campbell, was away, he slipped away on the ship Inconstant, which had been painted to look like a British naval vessel, and set sail for France . . . and Waterloo.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Congress of Vienna decided that Elba should become part of Tuscany—and it has remained so to this day.
Tuscany. As that’s one of my favorite spots in the world, I was delighted to discover that the island shared much in common with the rest of the region in terms of natural beauty and culinary splendors.
Elba has a varied terrain, from rugged mountains to flat farmland and many secluded beaches with crystal clear blue water. Wild herbs grow in profusion all over the island, including rosemary and calamint, which makes its local honey prized by connoisseurs. Chestnuts and wild mushroom are also staples of Elba’s cuisine, as are the local olives and the catch of the day from the sea. The island’s Aleatico red wine has been famous since antiquity, and the modern variety is a great favorite of oenophiles.
A beautiful setting, stunning ocean vistas, sunny Mediterranean climate, fabulous food . . . honestly, why on earth would anyone want to leave! (I have now put Elba high on my Wish List of places to visit.)
So what about you? Do islands hold an allure for you? Have you a special one you’re dreaming of visiting?