Kayaking Elba By Dave Leshan
In the Mediterranean off the island of Elba a kayaker can see the bottom fifty feet down through the blue-grey water of this stunning inland sea.. To get there we drove southwest through Tuscany from Impruneta, a nearly touristless gem twelve miles south of Florence. There the seven of us had spent several days as the paying guests of the Becucci family, owners of the Albergo Bellavista, overlooking the central square of Impruneta, where the wine harvest festival, with its tractor drawn floats and dancers replayed the maturing of the vineyards under the Tuscan sun. The festival, the delightful charm and warmth of the Becuccis, and the helpful good humor of their sons couldn't have been a more perfect introduction to Italy.
Our group included three guides and kayaking experts from H2Outfitters: Cathy, Whitney, and Jeff and paying clients Karen, Peter, Preston, and me, a decent ratio of guides to clients. On Elba we added a forth guide, Gaudensio aka Gau, a local outfitter and advocate of Greenland paddles.
Teasing all of us mercilessly to keep us in line was Jeff, fearless negotiator of Elba's thrilling mountainside roads. He also dealt with the Elbans somewhat successfully by speaking a version of Italo-English he seemed to have picked up from Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Jeff and Cathy had negotiated with Gau to provide kayaks and equipment. The boats were Italian made, some fiberglass, some plastic each about 17 feet, most of them yellow, significant only because, as Whitney discovered, there's a certain kind of Mediterranean fish that bangs into yellow hulled boats but not black or white ones.
From Piombino, on the mainland, we took the car ferry to Elba's Portoferraio. From the port we careered around hairpin turns and up and down small, steep mountains to Marciana Marina, where we met Gau, to arrange for the kayaks, skirts, and paddles we would need the following day. We then drove to our final destination and home base, Sant Andrea, the site of our B & B. The town is a small resort catering mainly to German tourists, who invade it from May through September. In October restaurants and hotels are beginning to shut down, but after a walk on hardened lava flows to see the sun set over the Mediterranean, we found a place on the beach that served the traditional Italian five-course meal with plenty of local wine and creme Catalana for dessert. Elba makes excellent whites, less common on the mainland, where red is the preferred beverage and white is considered a close cousin to water.
On our first day on the water we paddled about ten kilometers along steep, volcanic cliffs sticking up among tiny resorts and then to a lighthouse. At lunch Tomaso Beccuci and I went for a swim, and he showed me some free diving techniques. The water was so clear and beautiful it made me want to stay down longer than usual, which reminded me of the story about Byron having to dive down and rescue Shelley, who was lying on the bottom of the Mediterranean because he had become so captivated by its clarity he had forgotten to surface. Another day we paddled up the coast to Marciana Marina and beyond, passing by the tiny island from which Napoleon's mistress was said to have swum in the nude as well as WWII pillboxes, finished in elegant stonework, built to defend the coast against allied attack. (Iron mining had been a major industry on Elba until mines were bombed during the war and came in the fifties to be replaced by tourism as the prime source of island income.)
On another day our leaders gave us the choice of a marathon paddle into the wind or a day of instruction in our well-protected harbor. Most of us chose the latter and made the most of it. Since Peter, Preston, and I tended to over-verbalize and question whatever we learned, Jeff wisely gave us a lesson: draw, sweep strokes, high brace, and then made us give one another a nonverbal lesson in the same techniques, no questions or analysis, just pantomime. It worked pretty well. My second lesson of the day, with Cathy and Whitney required using the Euro-paddle, instead of the Greenland I was used to. For two days Gau had encouraged me to use the Greenland. By then our leaders had had enough and, without insisting I change my approach, began to show me the virtues of the Euro, including an efficient new roll. I came away with a more open mind, thanks to their firm but tolerant approach.
Before dinner Gau very graciously invited us up to his bachelor pad for coffee and gave us T-shirts advertising his kayaking business. He's a charming, self-centered guy who thought he knew more about kayaking than our guides, including how to tie boats on a trailer. On his wall a photo of himself naked, sitting beside his clothed girlfriend, told you another thing or two about him.
One day we took a cable car 1,019 meters up Monte Capanne, the top most point on Elba. With each pair of us in a barred but open cage, we floated over three or four different microclimates. Low growth, then pines and chestnuts, then volcanic slabs, then nothing but cold fog. From the top we could see back to Marciano, the small town fortified centuries ago against pirates, where we had started at 375 meters above the sea. Mildly freaked by our little ride, Jeff eagerly herded us back into our cars to tour the island, its national park, the western coast, and the town of Marina de Campo. The rest of us thought the mountain roads were far more risky than in the cable cars, but there were no mishaps.
After four days on Elba we took the ferry back to the mainland and drove through the countryside to San Gimigano, passing grape vines and olive trees by the thousands planted on short, steep hills. Soon we were seeing almost nothing but ash-gray ploughed soil that we later learned was for growing wheat. Makes sense, where does all that pasta come from? After the Tuscanos, the food, and the wine what draws anyone to Tuscany is the human scale of place: hardly a building over four stories, except for towers and cathedrals, stucco walls, red tile roofs, narrow streets, small cars and scooters, people walking and talking in the streets. There is something operatic about the whole thing, as if all of Tuscany were a stage set for the Met, which is exactly what Siena and Lucca and Florence, and Impruneta look like. And as if Elba were a stage for all the cities of the mainland in the middle of Da Mare Mediterraneo.
by Dave Leshan (10/29/07)