On the isle of Elba
Stay at an estate off the Tuscany coast recommended by John le Carre
IN the unlikely event that anyone should wish to kill you, John le Carre knows the perfect hideaway. It is a wine and olive oil estate on a small Mediterranean island, running down to the sea below the ruins of a medieval fortress.
It is a tranquil place far from the madding crowds who invade the island in high summer, where a visitor may contemplate a vista of misty mountains and thousands of years of turbulent history. It was thus an ideal refuge for le Carre’s reluctant hero in The Constant Gardener when professional hit men came looking for him.
The author was so taken with the location that he recommended it in an epilogue: ‘‘If you should ever chance to find yourself on the island of Elba, please do not fail to visit the beautiful old estate . . . called La Chiusa di Magazzini . . . They have a few cottages that you may rent. There is even an oil room where those in search of answers to life’s great riddles may seek temporary seclusion.’’
Such invitations are not to be ignored. I expect to find the vineyard besieged by le Carre acolytes pondering the meaning of life and aspiring to write great novels. But no, my only neighbours in a cottage by the sea are an Italian couple on a romantic interlude and a pair of ducks that waddle into the kitchen shortly after I arrive.
My wife Claire, who practises yoga, is in seventh heaven. A pink yoga mat on a patch of grass shaded by Mediterranean pines, with views of the aforesaid vines, sea and mountains, is apparently a flying carpet to nirvana on a fresh spring morning.
Accommodation at La Chiusa is not luxurious. The converted farm labourers’ quarters are simple and rustic, but on one side there are grapes ripening in the sun and birdsong, and on the other a limpid blue sea and the sound of waves lapping on a pebble beach.
Throw in sunsets over the ancient fortified harbour of Portoferraio and you wonder why Napoleon — who visited the estate twice during his exile on Elba — left it all behind for another attempt to conquer the world. Having seen where he ended up, on the Atlantic outpost of St Helena, I take the view the man was mad.
The time to savour the best of this friendly little island is spring and autumn, when the hills swathed in chestnut and pine are alive with colour, the air and the locals are suffused with languor, and tables are always available in bars and restaurants lining quiet quays and beaches.
In the maze of alleys and stairways of old Portoferraio, which has changed little since it was fortified by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1548, there is a cafe by the Piazza Gramsci that looks over a jumble of red pantile roofs to the harbour. This is a good place to enjoy impromptu street theatre, such as the elderly man we watch stepping backwards down a precipitous staircase with infinite care, gripping a pram containing a grandchild oblivious to their peril.
Lunch here tends to be a sociable affair. On hearing us speaking English, a gentleman at an adjacent table proudly informs us he met Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson when they visited the island in 1951 and gave them directions to their hotel.
Both Edward and Napoleon appear to have left favourable impressions, the latter having devoted much of his 10-month exile to reorganising agriculture, transport and trade in his pocket kingdom. His residence in the Villa dei Mulini has been preserved for those interested in musty mementos of imperial adventures, but I find the sea views from the gardens more inspiring.
One fiercely independent village that turned its back on l’Empereur, and every other foreign despot and swashbuckler that happened along, is Capoliveri, perched high above the sea in the east of the island. Its ancient piazzas and narrow streets have since fallen to the crafts and cappuccino brigade, who have brought a lively mix of art and pavement cafes to a village that looks like a film set for Romeo and Juliet.
There are invariably a few starcross’d lovers strolling hand in hand, along with cyclists on wobbly legs after the long climb up, old ladies hanging washing out of windows and little boys in Juventus football shirts practising for the day they play for Italy.
It is in a small beach resort down a switchback road from Capoliveri that we encounter modern Italy in all its brash, gaudy and stylish elan, in the form of the annual Elba international motor scooter rally. A swarm of classic Vespas and Lambrettas in every conceivable colour and chrome-adorned accessory is spilling out from a carpark in a noisy, happy cavalcade of rasping engines and voices all enveloped in a cloud of fumes.
We watch them snarling up the steep, winding road like a procession of asthmatic lawn mowers and give thanks that we are not driving anywhere near them.
There are no mad drivers on the way from the village of Marciana to Madonna del Monte, a sanctuary dating from the 13th century, because it is a footpath rising through a nature reserve. This is the way to see Elba: moving at a leisurely pace through deep evergreen forests, with vistas of sea and mountains all around and the sun on your back.
In the church, there’s an impromptu shrine, a collection of crucifixes, charms, bracelets and a child’s plastic sandal fixed to a wall with scrawled pleas for divine protection. If you took away the family snaps strewn among them and it could be a scene from the Middle Ages.
Outside, we follow another path for a few yards, find a grassy spot among boulders with sweeping views of the coast and settle down to a picnic of fresh prosciutto and local formaggio sandwiches.
The air is warm and still, suffused with the buzzing of insects and the sound of a church bell tolling far below.
Another romantic image of the past is the Folgore, a wooden sailing ship that brought the first car to Elba in 1945. Refurbished as a gaff- rigged ketch, it is available for sailing and diving trips for up to nine passengers, who can see the island as it first appeared to generations of seafarers.
With its oak hull and decks of teak, this old sea dog is a joy to sail around rocky headlands, as well as quiet coves where three people constitute a crowd. Its captain, Carlo Cavallo, is unquestionably the man for the job. ‘‘I love the sea, the wind and freedom,’’ he says.
As a weekend sailor, I am allowed to take the helm when the wind freshens on our way home, and the Folgore comes alive and rides the waves like a thoroughbred.
I imagine we have left the noise and bustle of the 21st century far behind. Wrong. We have attracted the attention of a Tornado of the Italian Air Force, which roars low off to starboard and wiggles its wings in salute.
It is an incident that could have come from a le Carre novel. Perhaps one day it will. tenutalachiusa.it tuscany.org enit.it
The harbour of Portoferraio and, below, Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in
The Constant Gardener