The spell is cast as the ferry enters the harbour at Portoferraio, passing close by the large lighthouse on the Grigolo rock, silent sentinel at the entrance to the gulf. The Volterraio Castle stands high above you on the opposite side, defending the Island.
It is the Island of Elba's most ancient fortress, initially built in Etruscan times and then used as a defensive lookout point for the entire Island. It was never taken by the Turkish pirates who made repeated raids on the island in the mid 16C.
The Etruscans and then the Romans grew rich on the area's mineral wealth, and its Roman name of “Fabricia” (from the steel workshops), the medieval “Ferraia” and subsequently Portoferraio all reflect this. As well as mining the area's minerals, the Romans also appreciated the many qualities of its environment and discovered its therapeutic muds and its excellent wine, which led Pliny to call it "the Island of Good Wine”. The Museums of Archaeology at Portoferraio and Marciana contain amphorae recovered from the sea, relics of the flourishing trade of ancient times.
The massive Medici walls that surround the town, with its quiet, sheltered Darsena, or old harbour, welcome the visitor arriving in Portoferraio. A more careful look reveals the fortifications built by Cosimo de Medici, the Falcone, Stella and Linguella forts, all part of system of defensive walls considered "impregnable" at the time. The town then known as Cosmopolis, founded by Cosimo de Medici in 1548, was created and built as a military hub, for the precise purpose of clearing the Tyrrhenian Sea of pirates and making it safer for trade; it was considered an engineering gem, and a unique safe haven for shipping in the Mediterranean.
It was able to take in most of Elba's population during pirate raids. From 1548 to the end of the 18C its defences were continually updated and improved, and a navigable canal was actually dug on the landward side. This moat linked the area outside the old harbour (where the ferries now moor) with the Ghiaie beach, making the town into a real fortified island. In 1925 it was filled in to allow the town to expand beyond its walls, the area where the road between the old and new towns runs is still known as "Il Ponticello" or the "drawbridge", recalling an older Portoferraio, still dear to many, which now exists only in the past.
Many visitors arriving on the Island consider Portoferraio as just the ferry port, but if they look around them they will notice that every corner of the town is rich in history. In his 9 months' exile on the Island of Elba, Napoleon was welcomed with great enthusiasm by all the islanders. He decided to adapt a residence between the Stella and Falcone forts for his use, and lived there with a small court, surrounded by favourite objects from Paris and the fashions and elegance of the city itself. The town of Portoferraio, in a whirl of artists, painters and musicians, was never so glamorous or busy. Napoleon built a Theatre, introduced innovations and reorganised the town, and gave it a flag with three bees, symbolising the hard-working nature of Elba's people, which is still proudly flown all over the island.
From the early 20C, iron mining on Elba developed fast, and blast furnaces were built to transform the ore into cast iron. Since they were erected close to the harbour, the town of Portoferraio changed in character, becoming modern and industrialised. The harbour was expanded to accommodate the increase in shipping and long quays were built to enable vessels to load the ore. This was the birth of modern Portoferraio, but it was not the last revolution. After the closure of the steelworks, as a result of the fierce bombardments, which also destroyed some of Portoferraio's finest historic palazzos, Elba discovered its potential as a holiday destination, thanks to a landscape rich in unique beauty. Portoferraio, with its harbour infrastructure, was well placed to become the ideal ferry terminal.