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It seems appropriate that one of the main events marking this year’s bicentenary of Napoleon’s exile to Elba was a regatta for classic yachts. Not the modern, high-end superyachts but the smaller, classic yawls, which, like Elba itself – an Italian island 20km off the coast of Tuscany – possess a quiet charm. The British actor and comedian, Griff Rhys Jones, who organised the regatta, agrees. “Places such as St Tropez are attractive but they are spoilt by crowds and traffic nowadays,” he says, sipping a drink outside a harbour-side café in Elba’s largest town, Portoferraio. “They are really all about shopping, glamour and people enjoying being seen, whereas Elba, which is very beautiful, has retained its identity.”
Elba’s property market has fluctuated dramatically in recent years. Between 2001 and 2007 prices doubled, according to Knight Frank. Demand was strengthened due to limitations placed on the housing stock. It is virtually impossible to build new homes on the island as it is part of the Arcipelago Toscano National Park. Then came the 2008 crash and the market nosedived. Sales volumes fell by a half but many sellers were reluctant to lower their prices. Some estate agents refused to market unrealistically priced properties. Since then prices have found their level – down about 30 per cent from their peak – but it remains a buyer’s market.
Elba Real Estate, for example, is selling a romantic, 150 sq metre, high-windowed, second-floor apartment, complete with sea views and apricot trees tapping against the walls. Located in the heart of Portoferraio, the apartment was initially priced at €650,000. Now it is €550,000 and the owner is open to offers.
Prices roughly equate to those in the centre of Florence – between €3,000 and €4,500 per sq metre, villas being more expensive than apartments. Elba has more than 150 coves backed by wooded valleys and for a very special property – for example, one surrounded by greenery for privacy, with splendid views, a short distance from a beach and close to Portoferraio for the ferry – you could pay as much as €10,000 per sq metre.
Knight Frank is selling two such homes. Casale 99 is a restored seven-bedroom country house overlooking Portoferraio, with an olive grove and the remains of a 19th-century church in its 20 acres of grounds. It is on sale for €2.9m. The other is a one-bedroom, 45 sq metre holiday home, with terraced gardens above the bay of Fetovaia. Six years ago, when the owner finished restoring the house, he was offered €3.3m for it. He is now selling it for €2.6m. Elsewhere, the agency Coldwell Banker is selling an estate comprising a main villa and four detached villas in a wooded area in the east of the island for €4.3m.
Great property, however, does not have to cost millions on Elba. Elba Real Estate is selling a small villa on the seafront at San Giovanni for €620,000, while Coldwell Banker is offering a two-bedroom villa just outside Capoliveri for €640,000. For those with an ambitious restoration project in mind, Madeinitaly Real Estate is selling a six-bedroom farmhouse outside Nisporto for €260,000.
Most people use their properties on Elba as second homes. About 80 per cent of buyers from abroad come from German-speaking countries, although interest is growing from Britain, France and the US. Away from the coast, the hilltop towns of Marciana and Poggio, both reminiscent of the Tuscany of 50 years ago, are much sought after. However, buyers should be aware that if they attempt to update a property they will be subject to stringent planning regulations. The authorities are determined to remain true to the traditional style of the island and are likely to turn down an application for solar panels on a roof, wind turbines, or even a swimming pool if it is too brightly coloured.
Some newcomers – often early retirees or professionals who work from home – come to live on Elba full-time. “The traffic is light, the pace of life slow and crime is virtually non-existent – people leave their doors unlocked,” says Florence Daubas, 60, from Lyons, France, who has lived on the island for 10 years. “It is a good place for children. Many study at the International School of Florence during the week, returning at weekends.”
There are few business opportunities on the island. Tourism is the main industry but the cheaper hotels are being hit hard by the online room rental agency, Airbnb. As for winemaking, many of the vineyards abandoned after the war are thriving once again. However, they are largely run for their owners’ personal use.
For decades Elba’s residents have cultivated a reputation for old-fashioned courtesy. Earlier this month, for example, passers-by barely gave a second glance to Manitou, the yacht formerly used by US president John F Kennedy, when it was in port.
Journeying to Elba is not straightforward. The most common route is by plane to Pisa, then train or car to Piombino, from where there are regular ferries to Portoferraio. From October this year, however, Silver Air will start regular flights from Pisa direct to Elba for less than €50. So, will the service bring an influx of newcomers to spoil Elba’s civilised ambience? “It won’t make it busier because there are a finite number of properties that can be occupied on Elba,” says Lorenzo Zolla of Elba Real Estate. “The people will always hold the same respect for others’ privacy. This island will never change.”
Fred Redwood was a guest of Knight Frank
Photograph: Luca Da Ros/4Corners
● Ferries making the 20km trip between Portoferraio and Piombino on the mainland run every half-hour
● Elba has a population of 30,000
● The island has a total land area of 224 sq km, with 147km of coastline
● New building projects are rare
● Summer temperatures average 23C
What you can buy for . . .
€550,000 A large apartment or small villa in Portoferraio
€1m A restored country house with substantial grounds
€4m A major estate comprising three separate houses with a productive vineyard and olive groves