On the isle of Elba

Stay at an es­tate off the Tus­cany coast rec­om­mended by John le Carre

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - GAVIN BELL

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

PIC­TURES: ALAMY (ABOVE), JAAP BUITENDIJK (BE­LOW)

The har­bour of Porto­fer­raio and, be­low, Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fi­ennes in

The Con­stant Gar­dener

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