“Nature arms each man with some faculty which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other.”
- Emerson (The Conduct of Life. Wealth)
“The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
- Emerson (Series I Self-Reliance)
One weekend in Spring 2006, I escaped to the very same island of Napoleon’s exile, Elba.
Overall the weekend was peaceful and educational (learned more history on Napoleon from visiting his villas and interacting with the islanders), but Saturday’s event is a story in itself.
My adventure that day resulted in a great sense of accomplishment and ended in epiphany.
Without a plan in mind and few options because tourist season hadn’t yet hit, I woke up and randomly ascended a long flight of marble stairs outside Alpe Albana, my hotel. It turns out that these stairs were just the beginning of an ascension.
After visiting the smaller of Napoleon’s two main villas on Elba, I hopped on a Pullman to Marciana simply because I had seen that it was a mountainous region on the map. I asked the bus driver if it would be a good place for hiking and he wished me luck. Unaffected by his lack of response, I got off the bus and started walking towards the mountains with dark clouds overhead and thick mud beneath my feet from Friday’s storm.
Suddenly I spotted a small sign for “Madonna of the Mountain,” which seemed appropriate for the nature of my trip, solitude.
After about an hour and a half of climbing, I encountered a series of Roman numeral labelled niches each with a phrase and fresco from Jesus’ life. I guessed there would be ten for the Ten Commandments, but there were seventeen.
After a mysterious build up, I reached Madonna of the Mountain, later to discover was a well-known sanctuary on Elba. Water ran from only one of three lion head fountains and other than the drip, all else was silent. Flowers, cards, signatures, and paintings by people from all over the world cluttered the small room. Having not seen a single person since the bus driver, a large Madonna fresco whose eyes stared down and seemed to follow me sent a shiver down my spine. Without fully defined religious beliefs at the time, I began to pray like I had at San Francesco’s tomb.
After a while I exited the church and followed a small wooden arrow pointing to Chiessi. I walked up and down mountains for a total of about five hours encountering wild boar, a thundering stampede of ram, breathtaking cliff views, brightly colored birds, a huge body of silvery reflecting water, and a variety of new plants and wildflowers. One of the best parts was starting out in cold, misty weather with dense vegetation in the middle of Elba and then ending in a drier climate with cacti, blossom trees, and sun.
At one point beginning to worry that the trail would not end before dark, I started formulating sleep plans (perhaps under a rock or tree). Luckily I spotted farmland and proceeded to make my way down to Pomonte. Upon setting foot on flat ground, an elderly woman hunched over tending to her garden and an old man with wrinkles so deep they resembled the cracks of desert earth appeared. Their visages and body language suggested years of toil. I envisioned them as young kids playing in the farmland.
Starving from the hike, I bought two apples (one red and one green) and a two liter bottle of water all for 1 euro. Passing through the center of the small town on my walk to the water, I established exactly where to catch the bus, which was coming in an hour. After a ten minute stroll, legs feeling like jello, I reached a gorgeous white pebbled beach with a few big rocks where the waves broke. I dipped my apples into the perfectly clear Mediterranean water and enjoyed the taste of sweet and salt. I then stayed for one of the most beautiful sunsets ever. Our study abroad coordinator Giuditta later told me that she and her husband watched sunset for their honeymoon at Pomonte.
I took a Pullman back to my hotel enjoying the darkness and nice seat on the bus and then ate the most delicious meal of smoked swordfish, cabbage, and white wine. Since I had been “troppo gentile” the night before according to the waitress, she discounted my dinner. Her husband insisted on giving me his number for scuba diving should I happen to return that summer.
Dead tired, I stretched and passed out…
Upon waking the next morning, I felt noticeably different - spiritually, mentally and physically stronger, accomplished, independent, and confident. I felt more alive and had gained internal stability from the sanctuary and hike. Words cannot come close to describing the feeling, but I can say one thing about traveling.
Rather than worrying about seeing every sight, rushing to catch a bus and confusing oneself with maps, just go with the current like water flowing down a stream.