Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Ere We Saw Elba

"I wanted to ask you why you stopped at the Isle of Elba."

"It was to carry out an order from Captain Leclère. As he was dying he gave me a package to deliver to Marshal Bertrand there."

So that was Edmond Dantes’s excuse—a deathbed promise. Cadfael and I had no such noble focus. Did you know that Dumas decided to write The Count of Monte Cristo after visiting Elba himself? He was traveling with a nephew of Bonaparte’s, and as they sailed back from Elba he saw the other islands in the Tuscan Archipelago--Gorgona, Capraia, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio, and Giannutri-- and vowed to write a novel in memory of the trip. So there must be something captivating going on there. . . .

Cadfael and I drove southwest from San Gimignano to the port of Piombino for the ferry to Portoferraio, the city of Napolean Bonaparte’s first exile.

Our first foray to visit the Emperor’s town residence--Palazzina dei Mulini, located in the highest part of Portoferraio between Fort Stella and Fort Falcone--was nearly thwarted by the port’s tiny stone streets, and the fact that there is no place to park. Being a New Yorker I thought I understood the meaning of those words, but I was close to weeping after circling through an eternity of narrow stone streets that wouldn’t allow us to get where we needed. Luckily, Cad is deeply unflappable, and an extremely skilled driver. He piloted the Micra onto sidewalks, performed the drive-backwards-up-an-entire-hilled-street maneuver, and coaxed the mighty Micra down a flight of stairs—all to outflank those one-way signs.

Cad won, as usual, and the Micra was finally parked. We bounded up to the Palazzina only to see “Chiuso,” those most dreaded of Italian letters. Undaunted, we took ourselves to the Emperor’s summer residence, Villa di San Martino, at 6 km from Portoferraio along the road to Marciana. The man was only on the island for a total of 10 months, but decorum at all times.

I am not an imperialist at heart, but I was jazzed to be walking through the exiled Bonaparte’s bedroom, and his study, and to look out where he surveyed the sea, when we finally got into his town residence the next day.

But what I remember most about Elba overall is color and sky: the pink of Bonaparte’s town residence under a huge, tropical blue sky. Later in the day we drove west, away from the towns, on a mountainous road above the sea. The sky there was huge, majestic, and humbling, and we drove into layers of grey and blue offset by the sun’s gold. Peter Gabriel was our soundtrack as we egg-and-darted along the rising road, going deeper and deeper into that space between sea and sky. I understood what could have made such an impression on Dumas.