Sleepy summer days on Italy's island of Elba

A memorable place

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March 05, 2006|By SHANNA YETMAN

The cat stretched lazily along the stone staircase. The steep staircases peppered the port of Rio Marina; they led to simple stuccoed buildings with terra cotta roofs and green shutters.

They took you along narrow alleyways that dropped off into the glistening blue Mediterranean.

I peered down the nearest alleyway. A woman, probably about 80, had planted herself firmly on a bench. Her skin was like tan leather that had been hardened by age. It was as though she had all the time in the world; content to spend it sitting, watching and commenting.

Last year, while on a summer trip to Italy I visited the island of Elba.

Elba did not see its share of American tourists.

It was remote, even for Italians. The train ride to the port of Piombino and the short ferry to the island wasn't what inhibited most: it was that Italy had so much to offer.

Rome had the Coliseum; Venice had the illustrious gold of San Marco; and Florence was not only in the heart of Tuscany, but it boasted of Ghiberti, Giotto and Brunelleschi.

Whoever heard of the sleepy island of Elba? An island not even Napoleon could stand when he was exiled there in 1814. He plotted an escape for 10 months.

Italians live a simple life, and on this island, transportation is just as easy: the moped.

The motorized bicycles were about as fast-paced as the islanders got. They motored up and down the mountainous landscape and past Porto Azzurro; they drove dangerously close to the edge along Marciana Marina and stopped only when they reached Portoferraio.

Portoferraio was filled with restaurants and its harbor with yachts. Cafes advertising gelati, espresso and time. Il conto, the bill, was only delivered when requested - even when hours had passed. Portoferraio was quintessentially Italian: a true escape that existed to be coveted and remembered.

Americans in Portoferraio between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. are forced to slow down. The town is blissfully quiet and all one can do is wait and wander the deserted streets until the islanders return to work.

There exists a lifestyle not contrived around the clock or the wallet; it is a lifestyle that soothes. On Elba, the days are slow and methodical and the nights are long and welcoming.

Shanna Yetman lives in Baltimore.

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