Italy: Fix it again, Tony

By Pam Neville

The tooting of horns interrupts us. Not the blasts of get-out-of-my-way frustration you hear at every intersection in Italy - actually, they've passed a law banning horn-tooting in Italian cities, but it doesn't seem to be working - more a merry beep-beep-beeping as if Noddy and Big Ears are in town.

The noise distracts us from peacefully absorbing Portoferraio, which is the port and one of the two main towns on Elba. Houses painted in the pastel colours of the Mediterranean spill down the cliff and line a U-shaped harbour protected by a medieval wall and twin fortresses. This is where Napoleon was exiled in 1814. He escaped within a year and went off to meet his Waterloo (though not before he'd fixed up the island's road and sewerage system) leaving behind a couple of decent villas which are now tourist attractions.

Through the arched entrance in the old wall between town and harbour, the Porta al Mare, the first of a long, beeping line of Fiat 500s emerges. There is Bambina after Bambina after Bambina, though they are not called that here. Bambina is a New Zealand name. In Italy they are simply the beloved Cinquecento, of which about 600,000 are still on Italian roads. We see convertibles, station wagons, people movers, souped-up boy racer versions, one with an old bakelite telephone installed, another with a leather suitcase strapped on the back, and the piece de resistance - an amphibious Fiat 500.

We realise something special is afoot, and stop counting as the number of cars nears 100. It turns out that this year, 2007, is the 50th birthday of the Fiat 500. Half a century of enduring foreigners taking the letters F, I, A and T individually and making the Fix It Again Tony joke. And it's also the year in which Fiat is to re-launch the 500. The new model is due out this week.

No wonder the Fiat 500 Club Italia (20,000 members) is partying with rallies like this one all across Italy. We leave them to their celebrations - which include a Mr and Miss 500 Elba contest - and turn our attention back to Elba.

In late May, we find the island peaceful and very pretty. There are sandy beaches here, unusual on Italian islands, and the water is clear and clean because Elba and the other six Tuscan islands form a marine reserve. Inland, it's mountainous with New Zealand-like bush punctuated with needles of cyprus. Of course, the attractions of Elba are obvious to Italians and to very large numbers of Germans. Visit in August, we are told, and the 30,000 people of Elba are joined by one million tourists. They come by plane and ferry, and it's bedlam.

Our brief stay coincides with a storm bringing lightning, thunder and a deluge of rain. Our elderly Fiat Punta (60 for 24 hours) cannot cope, so we retreat to Portoferraio and leave the beach resorts for others to explore.

Out of season, and in a storm, Portoferraio doesn't seem touristy at all. We peek at a mass in one church, and admire the enormous chandeliers, and the statue of a prone Christ lying on velvet cushions in another. The local Elba wine is famous, especially the top-of-the-range reds. We are more than happy with mid-range Elba Rosso at 11, and there's nothing wrong with the 5 version either.

For dinner, the Rough Guide recommends Osteria Liberteria on the waterfront but we follow our rule of retreating a few streets back and climb the hill, past Piazza Victor Hugo (the novelist spent this childhood here) towards Piazzale Napoleone. Half way up, near Piazza Gramsci, we dine at La Cisterna, so-called because it's built around an old Roman water tank. The pizza at 7 is excellent, beaten only by the tiramisu and panna-cotta which follows.

Lunch next day, and it's still raining. The back-from-the-main-street rule pays off again with Osteria Pepenero, which is obviously a favourite with the locals. Much of the menu remains a mystery as the staff have no English and our Italian phrase book is unhelpful. We do find out, however, that the giggling waitress knows the difference between carne (meat) and cane (dog), even though one of our party orders the latter.

The Fiat 500 brigade leaves on the ferry for Piombino on the mainland and so must we. But we are not nearly as eager to leave as Napoleon was. Despite the motto he lived by in exile, "Napoleon is happy everywhere', he escaped Elba in 1815 and went off to lose the Battle of Waterloo and face a second exile on remote St Helena island in the South Atlantic, where he died.

I wonder if he ever wished he had just stayed put on beautiful Elba?

*Pam Meville travelled to Europe with the Star Alliance network, flying Thai Airways, SAS Scandanavian Airlines, and Air New Zealand.

- Detours, HoS

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 26 Oct 2014 08:57:54 Processing Time: 1662ms