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D + 4: When the Medici met the Ottomans

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

After a quiet night in Portoferraio which has far fewer visitors than in a normal year – maybe a third – we intend to sail to the south of Elba today. Before it became Italian, Elba had actually three owners. The Medici from Florence in the north, the Spanish around Porto Azzurro in the south and local owners for the rest of the island.

The Castello di Volterraio towering 394 meter above sea between our sails

But before we set sail, David and I wanted to climb up to the Castello di Volterrraio, 394 meters above sea level. The castle was commissioned by Pisa in 1231 to consolidate its rule. Its main purpose was to protect the island from pirate raids. When Turgut Reis attacked the island in 1544, he also tried to conquer the castle. But his attack was repulsed. The castle was too well fortified and positioned. The rest of the island was raided however and the local population abducted into slavery.

First draft for the fortification of Portoferraio - we found it in the Museum of the Forte Falcone


A castle in the mountains did not provide sufficient protection. The island needed something better. Thus, the northern part of the island was handed over to Medici Duke Cosimo I. who started an ambitious fortification project. For him it was a starting point to rival Genoa as sea power. His fortifications were so impressive, the corsairs never returned. One for the Medici – zero for the Ottomans.

The Castello di Volterraio - photo taken from the info panel next to the Castle


Climbing up to the castle was relatively easy. The air was still fresh and cool at 9 am. There was nobody up there except two Italian couples we crossed on the well maintained hiking path. The reward for our efforts was the stunning view. We could see the outlines of Corsica and Portoferraio lay to our feet. Today, the castle mountain is mainly populated by goats but we met only one which immediately run away. These must be semi-wild goats not used to see human beings. On the lower slopes, the hill is full of olive and almond trees. They must have been part of a giant orchard. Sadly, it is not well maintained. Probably too much work.

Looking down on the town and the bay of Portoferraio - the navy blue AFAET is in the middle of the bay

Almond and olive orchard on the steep mountain slopes

The beautiful but eerily empty 5 Start Hotel Ottone down on the beach


On the way back to the beach where we were picked up by our dingy, we walked by an eerily empty 5 star hotel. Only a quarter of the rooms were booked and the rows of deck chairs on the beech very empty. The hotel guests were – with one exception – all Italians. Must be a tough season for the hotel owner. We stopped there for coffee and a brioche. Nobody wore a mask but for paying we had to don one.

The AFAET in front of Portoferraio - waiting for us

Our stash of basil for pesto and mint for the Mohitos


By lunch time, we were back and set sail again to travel to Porto Azzurro, the Spanish part of Elba. The bay is guarded by two giant Spanish Forts, Forte Longone and Forte Focardo which we will visit either today or tomorrow. Seems that the Spanish were in a building competition with the Medici. These forts were finished in 1596 and equally impressive. Looking forward to exploring them.

The giant Spanish Forte Longone in Porto Azzurro on Elba's south coast

The sister castle Forte Focardo

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