Saturday, August 27, 2011

Beach-hopping on Elba Island

Before I started spending a lot of time in Tuscany I had heard bits and pieces about Elba Island but honestly it just went in one ear and out the other. I recalled from my college French classes that Napoleon I had been exiled there, and I had always pictured a desolate, barren and wind-swept stretch of sand with the feisty French emperor moping behind bars in a cement shack, gnawing stale bread and moldy cheese, vengefully plotting his escape route.

Then, one rainy day last June, a colleague of mine from Castello di Casole (a private estate near Siena where I sell luxury farmhomes) who has family in Elba was raving about the island and my curiosity was piqued.  I had been craving sunshine and salt air so I invited my friend Barbara to join me for a quick three-day getaway. Other than a few tips we’d been given from Italian friends, neither one of us knew a thing about the island nor did we have time to prepare, so we booked a random hotel in Porto Azzurro which someone said would be the best place for us to stay, and we took off.

Elba is surprisingly easy to reach. You can take the train to Piombino Marittima then a short bus ride to the ferry and then forty-five minutes later you are there. Barbara and I opted to drive two hours to Piombino and bring my car on the ferry so that we could explore as much of the island as possible.

As our ferry chugged across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards the largest port town, Portoferraio, I was immediately struck by the size of the island. Elba is the largest island  in the Tuscan archipelago and the third largest in all of Italy after Sardinia and Sicily. At 86 square miles or 150 kilometers around, it takes several hours to drive from one end to the other. The landscape is surprisingly lush and parts are heavily forested. Underneath lies what was once a treasure trove of minerals and semiprecious stones, though there are still a few active mines on the island today. The hilly interior is peppered with olive groves and vineyards and a cable car runs up the highest “mountain” Monte Capanne. Nestled in coves all along the coastline are more than fifty beaches. Those on the quieter west side are sandier though harder to reach while the more rugged east side has high cliffs and stony beaches.

Italians will shake their heads in disappointment when they read this, but since our ferry was arriving in Portoferraio anyways, Barbara and I decided to kick off our visit with a tour of Napoleon Bonaparte’s residence, Villa dei Mulini, in the city center. A far cry from a cement shack, the once grand two-story villa is now weathered and its gardens are sadly overgrown. Some exquisite furnishings, such as Napoleon’s desk and library, remain, and the views framing a lighthouse are stunning.

A quick tour of the villa gave me a chance to brush up on this obscure part of French history which I will impress you with now: When Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed, the allies shipped him off to Elba, made him governor of the island, handed him two million francs and a volunteer army of 400, built a plush villa for him in the main port town and another equally plush villa in the countryside for weekend getaways. And they let him keep his title “Emperor.” Not bad for a chap who conquered northern Italy, occupied Egypt, invaded Austria, Russia, Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Turkey, Spain and Portugal, killing thousands of people, demolishing historic buildings and pilfering priceless art along the way….
During his 300 days as sovereign, when he wasn’t masterminding his short-lived return to glory before being defeated once and for all at Waterloo, the kinder, gentler side of Napoleon carried out a number of economic and social reforms on Elba and added roads and other forms of infrastructure that remain to this day.  His stay on the island is the basis for the famous English palindrome (which I recall from high school English is a phrase that can be read the same way in either direction): "Able was I ere I saw Elba” whatever the #$*% that means…

But enough of the little French Emperor. Barbara and I had made it our mission to find the best stretches of sand on the island so we spent that afternoon and the whole next day beach hopping. One thing I love about the beaches on Elba is that there is so much variety. On a day in early June before the hoards of summer vacationers descend on the island in July and August, for example,  you can can opt for a beach like this:

Or one like this:
The closest beaches to Portoferraio are around Capo Enfola just 20 minutes north so we headed there first. The one we liked the most, Sansone, doesn't have a grain of sand on it. Its shore is a deep, sprawling mass of white, silky-smooth rocks and lying on them is like getting a hot stone massage, only a lot cheaper. The water is the clearest I have ever seen and since you have to hike fifteen minutes down a fairly steep footpath, it is not too crowded. Parking along the street is limited so my advice is to arrive early, and bring walking shoes, water, snacks and an umbrella. Also don’t forget your bathing suit like I did. (I wanted to shoot myself, and bikini-clad Barbara, when I realized my oversight.)
Driving along the windy roads around the island between beaches is exhilarating. You never know what surprise lies around the next bend. Panoramic views of emerald green meadows and the azure blue sea alternate with bouquets of yellow scotch broom, purple thistle and red poppies in full bloom in June.
Heading southeast to the Golfo (gulf) Stella near the town of Capoliveri, we discovered two lovely beaches adjacent to one another, Barabarca and Zuccaro. Both have simple little bars with terraces where you can have a nice lunch looking out at the sea. Barabarca has an approach so gorgeous it literally stops you in your tracks. 

Norsi beach, a local’s secret covered in tiny pebbles, has a fun bar in a thatched-roof hut right out of the Bahamas.
The sandy, longer beaches, like Lido, where you can windsurf, rent a rubber dinghy or a pedal boat, and splash around with screaming kids, really draw the crowds. They are ideal for families and not ideal for two single gals searching for a little peace and quiet.  We were at Lido beach for a matter of seconds, just long enough for me to leave my cell phone on the seat of a motorbike while dusting the sand off my feet. Thirty minutes later, after searching the car, my beach bag and the parking lot several times, Barbara had the bright idea of calling my phone and we heard its feeble ring in the distance ….(That time it was Barbara who wanted to shoot me.)

Had we been there for more than 48 hours we would have ventured to the wilder, quieter west side of the island, or we would have parked it somewhere for a few hours and really relaxed, but we were on a mission and so we persevered, visiting more than ten beaches in two days. It was exhausting. However rather than waste precious time recovering that first afternoon with a nap, we decided to head to Porto Azzuro for a little pick me up after quickly checking in at our random hotel that was so terrible I wanted to jump out the window the minute we entered our room. I had been warned that moderately priced hotels on Elba have “lower standards” than their counterparts elsewhere in Tuscany but this was ridiculous. (I have heard good things about Villa Ottone which is among the island's few luxury hotels.) Fortunately we had driven by another cheerful, inviting hotel called Cala di Mola with a huge swimming pool and great views of the picturesque harbor that, praise God, had a room for us. I would recommend Cala di Mola to anyone visiting Elba on a moderate budget who doesn’t mind the color orange. 

And after a long day at the beach you can also partake in a rigorous exercise class in the pool...

In serious need of a calming elixir, we drove into Porto Azzurro and discovered an inviting bar fittingly named El Curando (“the doctor” in Spanish) in a postcard-perfect piazza. Within minutes I was sipping the best margarita I have had in all of Tuscany listening to Van Morrison and recapping the day’s adventures with Barbara and my friend Daniela who had joined us for the evening. Had we not had a dinner reservation I could have sat there all night.
However, Daniela who always manages to find the best restaurants everywhere we go, had reserved a table at a seafood place just steps from our hotel, run by an, er, slightly attractive friend of hers named Stefano.

There are certain vistas along the Pacifica Coast Highway in California so stunning they can literally bring me to my knees. I had that same sensation when I descended the stairs down to La Caletta and laid eyes on Stefano. No sorry.  I meant I had that same sensation when I descended the stairs and landed on the terrace of La Caletta. 

The setting for this restaurant is so perfect it actually felt fake. I was spellbound by the views of the serene harbor below, sailboats swaying gently in the breeze. The raw fish on the platter I started off with was so fresh it could have leapt out of the sea right onto my plate. My second course, the Zuppa di Mare, was a heaping, steaming mass of shrimp, mussels, clams and fish floating in a rich, spicy, broth begging for a wedge of crusty fresh bread.

On our second night, following another day of rigorous beach hopping, Barbara and I took our sun-soaked selves up to the little medieval hilltop town of Capoliveri. As we joined the locals for their evening passeggiatta (stroll) through winding cobbled streets and alleys, sultry lounge music drifted out from the bars and beckoned us into shops. 

 Eventually we wound our way to Il Chiasso, (which means “narrow lane”), a fantastic restaurant housed in what used to be donkey stables cleverly renovated with tables filling every nook and cranny inside and out. Luciano, the chef and proprietor since the restaurant opened in 1973, dances his way around his guests all the while entertaining them with jokes and smiles. We were fortunate to get a table outside where a three-piece band was playing live jazz and Luciano just kept bringing plates of food to our table. My favorite dish was a local fish called “ricciola,” served raw and finely chopped with champignons and raspberry vinaigrette. It was close to midnight when we reluctantly bid farewell to Luciano and as we made our way back to the car there were even more locals of all ages out chatting in the piazzas, eating gelato, little kids scampering around. Every one seemed happy, relaxed and not wanting that beautiful summer night to end.

During that long weekend, I was so struck by the lush natural beauty of the island, its crystal clear waters, and welcoming people, that I found myself thinking longingly about Elba all winter long and returned again with another friend, Beth, this past June for three more blissful days. This time we rented motorbikes and discovered some new treasures on the island. I’ll save that story for another day. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Ski Adventure in Abetone

“Skiing in Tuscany? Are you kidding???” For the past year that was my standard response when any of my friends would suggest we check out the local slopes for a day. Having lived in Aspen for a decade during some of the best ski seasons on record, I had visions of bunny hills covered in icy, man-made snow with a few Poma lifts, a rickety old chair lift, and maybe even a towrope.

Nonetheless, I was mildly curious about a small ski resort in the Apennine Mountains just an hour and a half north of Florence called Abetone. I mentioned it several times to my friend Marco, who brought me to the Dolomites for my first Italian skiing experience last year, but he always grimaced whenever I brought it up, so I assumed it wasn’t worth the time or the effort. Then in December, while my ski boots were collecting dust on a shelf in my closet and my friends back in Aspen were posting photos of epic powder days on Facebook, I decided to write an article about Abetone for The Florentine, a newspaper for English speakers in Tuscany, leaving me no choice but to check it out.

A friend of mine graciously gave me the keys to her condo so I could spend a full two days exploring the resort. Fortunately, my dear friend Chloe, who grew up in Florence and spent her winters with her family skiing in Abetone, skied the first day with me. She knew exactly where to park, rent ski equipment, which trails to ski, the best place for lunch and where to have a coffee before heading home. After a day of hard, fast skiing on soft terrain under a cloudless, periwinkle sky with my friend, simply put, I fell in love with the place.

Abetone means “large fir “ and as Chloe and I drove up a windy, well-maintained road from Pistoia through the foothills of the Apennines, there were forests of fir trees as far as the eye can see. Along the way Chloe told me stories of learning to ski in these mountains when she was a small child, her family often staying for a week at a time. Now she is teaching her own children how to ski on the very same slopes. Not much has changed in the past thirty years, which is one of Abetone’s most appealing features.

When we arrived in Abetone that Thursday morning, we literally drove right into the resort. Ski shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and markets line both sides of the road. I was delighted to discover that the parking is free, and since it was a weekday, we had no problem finding a space in the lot next to the Total gas station on the right. In fact, the lot was almost empty.
We were immediately welcomed by a cheerful man who carried my boots across the street and into Bibi Sports (who said chivalry is dead?) which is owned by the affable, engaging Senor Bibi. It took only a few minutes to rent a nice pair of Rossignol skis, and Bibi even gave us a little discount.  When he asked where I was from and I told him Aspen, he became quite animated, pulling out a tattered old ski-racing book and pointing to page with a black and white photo of Zeno, who it turns out was one of the greatest Italian skiers ever and was born in Abetone in 1920. At the 1950 World Championships in Aspen, Zeno won the gold medal in both the downhill and giant slalom. Two years later, he won the gold in the downhill at the Olympics in Oslo, Three trails at Abetone are named in his honor- Zeno 1,2 and 3,  #1 being the only black diamond run on the mountain.

Just a short walk down the street and up a steep little hill is the ticket office where we paid a mere €34 euro for a day pass with a €5 refund at the day’s end for returning the electronic pass. Admittedly, I was a little nervous when I sat down on the weathered, red plastic seat on the first chairlift, 
and even more so when the second lift was a Poma...
...but when we arrived at the top and took in the expansive, snowcapped mountain range all around us, I finally understood what all the fuss was about.
Abetone is a real, honest to goodness ski resort, and though the skiers and snowboarders are fashionably dressed as one would expect in Italy, there is not an ounce of pretention. With more than forty trails, twenty-two chairlifts and a gondola with bright blue cable cars, there is quite a bit of terrain to cover. Both the length and quality of the trails, comprised of mostly beginner (blue) and intermediate (red) runs that are slightly steeper than their counterparts in the Alps, far exceeded my expectations. Plus you can ski all over the mountain without worrying about ending up in another country.

Chloe’s plan of attack was to spend the morning in the Val di Luce area where the light is best (hence the name, Valley of Light) and then follow the sun back towards Abetone in the afternoon. Far above the tree line with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and little villages below, Val di Luce quickly became my favorite spot on the mountain. We carved turns down the wide open, gentle slopes all morning then stopped for lunch at the chalet where the three lifts converge at the base. The spacious terrace was the perfect place to catch rays and people watch.

Within minutes we were chatting it up with two tall, attractive Florentine men, both avid skiers who know the mountain well.

We ended up skiing a few fast runs with them after lunch. At one point, when we got off the chairlift at the summit, we all dropped our skis and hiked up a short, steep hill. When we arrived at the top Chloe and I both gasped. Below us, smoky blue mountaintops basking in golden rays of sunlight rose above a sea of white, bubbly clouds that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean. It was of one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

As we skied our way back to Abetone, we explored other parts of the mountain where the runs are lower and lined with trees. The trails were all enjoyable and there was enough variety to keep us wanting more when the last lift closed at 4:45.

After returning our skis to Bibo, we met the guys and another American friend of mine, Beth, for a coffee down the street at La Casina, famous for its torta di ricotta and handmade chocolates. The red and white Tyrolean-style chalet, which opened in 1948, is adorable, and we had a nice conversation over tea and pastries by a wood-burning fire.

Chloe and I happened to visit Abetone on a warm, sunny weekday when the snow was delightfully soft and, at times, not another soul was in sight. The following day skiing with Beth was a completely different story. The temperature had dropped considerably overnight and the slopes were hard-packed and icy. Overlooking the fact that Beth had not been on skis in two years and taking her word for it that she was an experienced, intermediate skier, I made the mistake of taking her down what I was later to find out was the only black diamond run on the mountain right off the bat. Beth was petrified and rightly so. The trail was a solid sheet of ice. She sidestepped her way down the slope and the next thing I knew she was careening headfirst, skis flailing behind her, gathering speed while I stood below watching helplessly. Thank god a ski patroller arrived just in time and stopped her hurtling body by sliding right into her. She got up laughing but it was a nerve-wracking experience for all of us. 

 We tried to find slopes that the sun had softened but each one had it shady, icy patches that Beth had to inch her way down. We skied four runs in four hours and we were exhausted when we finally made it back to Abetone. It was an important lesson learned for both of us. At least we had a killer sunset to cap off that harrowing experience...
Having spent two dramatically different days in Abetone, here are a few tips for first-timers:
1) Go on a weekday if at all possible. Parking is easy and you will have the mountain to yourselves. Weekends are mob scenes.
2) If you go on a weekend, arrive early and be ready for an interesting experience at the gondola and chairlifts. This is Italy, not Switzerland.
3) Watch the weather and ski conditions. There is not much natural snowfall and though there are 100 canons blowing tons of artificial snow each night, the slopes can be icy, even treacherous.
4) Grab a map from the ticket office. The trails are not well marked and the signage, where it exists at all, is small.

Abetone offers private and group ski and snowboard lessons for adults and children. Group lessons require a minimum of three days, weekdays only, and start at €95. See For hotels and apartment rentals, weather and other details, is great resource. Call the tourist office for ski conditions at +39 1573 60231.