Piombino. Even if you do not know the port city, the very sound of its name makes it into an industrial monstrosity in your mind's eye. Piombo is, after all, "lead" in Italian--but perhaps that's not the origin of the name, which very well may have derived from Populino, meaning "Small Populonia". Refuges from that city flocked to the seaside village after Populonia had been attacked by Greek pirates in the 9th century.
That said, Piombino isn't just a gateway to Elba Island. Those who use it as such are normally quite surprised by the pleasurable aspects of the compact medieval center--which Napoleon Bonaparte's sister called "my little Paris". There is fantastic food to eat, and the views to Elba (a mere 10km away) and, on a clear day Corsica, are thrown in as a bonus.
So why go to Piombino? You'll learn all about the culture and the mining they did in these parts in the Archaeological museum. You can sneak a peek into the 14th century church of Sant'Antimo, first passing under its mosaic lunette featuring the Archangel Michael and then head inside to the left aisle to see the striking marble baptismal font in late Gothic style, created by Andrea Guardi in 1470. There's a classic Tuscan Renaissance cloister cloister built by the same Angrea Guardi. You can visit the Museum of the Castle and City, which not only contains historic artifacts that tell the story of the city, including a center housing documents on the Resistance in the Val di Cornia, but has the best view to the sea in Piombino.
Important notice: In the off-season the Castle and the Archaeological museum are only open on weekends.
Now that you have the art and culture part of your vacation covered, you can begin the living-well portion of your travels.
The main gate into Piombino was the torrione, or St. Antonino gate. It dates back to 1200 and is the oldest monument of Piombino. Between the torrione, the big tower, and the Torre dell'Orologio shown below is where you'll spend the bulk of your lazy evenings.
First, of course, you need to stroll a bit. If you're in Piombino in the off season, you'll join the locals and head off to the sea by going past the clock tower and walking down to Boviòs Square and await the sunset to complete the coloring of the view of Elba (and perhaps Corsica) you get from the edge of the piazza.
If you are in the summer and are getting hungry, by all means just turn around and have yourself a meal at the restaurant in front of you, La Rocchetta. If it's early, head back to all the bars and eateries that vie for visitors between the two towers. If its something to stimulate your appetite, head over to the venerable Caffè Nanni where you might choose a glass of local wine or Prosecco or your might venture into some of Italy's newest obsessions as in I Nostri Spritz, literally "our spritzes" which come in the normal Aperol and Campari versions as well as some inventive ones like strawberry and ginger. The Mojito list seems endless as well. The drinks are reasonably priced and the bits of food you get to eat with your drinks are a bonus.
Then, when you've watched the people flowing up and down the street long enough, you could head to a place we thought was one of the best little restaurants we'd visited recently, Al Baccanale on Via XX Settembre. The chef is inventive and clever without drifting too far from tradition.
There are quite a few hotels in Piombino to take care of the "overnight before my ferry to Elba" travelers; You can find the best prices by searching for them using the box below. In summer reserve well in advance. We had a pleasant stay at the recently remodeled and affordable three-star Hotel Moderno, (now more moderno than ever). The hotel was in an excellent position, only a very short walk from the historic center.
Ferries leave from the port in Piombino to call at Portoferraio on the north side of Elba Island. Four companies provide passage: Corsica/Sardinia Ferries, Moby, Toremar, and BluNavy. The trip takes between 40 minutes and an hour, depending upon the ferry type. The average round trip price for two people and a car seems to hover around 150 euro. Compare prices on Direct Ferries.
Piombino anchors the southern end of the Etruscan Coast, a relatively unknown area for American visitors. A visit to the town of Populonia and the Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia will put you in touch with the area's mineral resources and the spectaular way that Etruscans exploited it.
Etruscans were fine metalworkers, masters at casting and adept at hammered bronze and iron products. On the Via del Ferro route, you’ll see reminders of Etruscan iron working from the 6th to the third century BC, some of the ore coming from the nearby island of Elba. In fact, the coastal burial grounds, the Necropolis of San Cerbone, was buried under an enormous pile of slag left over from the process. It wasn’t until the Italians needed iron for WWI that they looked at the slag and discovered that the ancient process only extracted about 40% of the metals. When they removed the slag for reprocessing they discovered the tombs below the slag heap.
Just north of Piombino is one of Italy's most famous wine regions. The Etruscan coast wine and olive oil road takes you to its heart, Bolgheri, a wine village stuffed with fine restaurants and wine shops. This is where the Super Tuscan revolution began, and it's a place I highly recommend visiting.