The harbor at Lerici, fishing boats poised for battle.
The northern coast of Italy is the sort of place you go after you've seen Rome, Florence, Pisa and the well-trodden tourist traps of the rest of Italy. There's no single famous spot demanding its photo, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There are no crowded piazzas, like Florence. No streets teeming with tourists, like Rome. In fact, in February, there are no crowds at all, and temperatures were mild, making the Italian Riviera, as it's known rather optimistically, a pretty nice winter bolt hole.
We stayed in Lerici, which is south of La Spezia and right on the Gulf of Poets, so named for Shelley, Byron and others who loved the place so much they lived—and in the case of Shelley, died—there.
I can see the appeal, especially for Shelley, who along with his wife Mary was a vegetarian. The Italians really appreciate vegetables. At our hotel, Hotel Doria, we had a wonderful plate of grilled vegetables. The region of Liguria is famous for its trofie pasta, small horn-shaped pasta and its pesto. Trofie is made from chestnut flour (but is also often made of wheat flour). Other regional specialties include olive oil, focaccia bread, and Sciacchetrà, a sweet white wine made from raisins.
Lerici is a small but thriving town. It offers little for tourists other than its natural beauty. The local castle overlooks the harbor and surely has many tales to tell, but unfortunately was closed for the winter, though someone said it opened sporadically.
The water of the Mediterranean is clear as glass, the beaches at this time of year deserted, but teeming with tourists during the warm months. The promenade along the harbor was filled with strolling Italians and their dogs—no one seemed in a hurry, and when I reached San Terenzo at the other end, I could see why—there's not much there either.
Lerici's claim to fame is its palm trees, the fronds used by the Vatican on Palm Sunday at the Basilica of St Peter. I was glad to see them before they disappeared.
Lerici's famous palms
Lerici, and its neighboring villages—San Terenzo, Tellaro, Fiascherino, and on the other side of the bay, Portovenere, are all good locations from which to visit the Cinque Terre.
The Cinque Terre (pronounced chin-kwa TERRa), or the "Five Towns", is on the other side of La Spezia, in a hard to reach part of the coast—all the guide books warned me against attempting to reach them by road. From March to October a ferry service is available from Lerici, but I had to take a bus to La Spezia and then a train to the five towns (in fact, I started so late I only had time for four towns). You can also walk between the villages, though certain paths are steep and treacherous. However, the first two are connected by a well-maintained trail (la Via dell’Amore) that hugs the mountainside. With a 5 euro pass it's well worth it to walk rather than take the train. Though the train ride between towns is only minutes, through a series of tunnels in the mountains, the trains don't always run on time.
The Cinque Terre towns are, in order from La Spezia, Riomaggiore, Manorola, Corniglia, Vernaza, and Monterosso. I made it to the first four, though I wish I'd skipped Corniglia and headed for the last, Monterosso, instead. That way I wouldn't have trudged up 382 steps (the Lardarina) for a rather boring village that offered little more than a church with graffiti on its backside and a few sad looking cafes.
I did love Manarola, though, especially the Marina Piccola restaurant. Located right on the pretty harbor, it offered me the most delightful meal I had in Italy: pesto pasta with potatoes and green beans, and a 1/4 carafe of white wine. I also found a pretty pottery shop in Manarola, but if you go to Cinque Terre to shop, you'll be disappointed. There aren't many tacky tourist shops, in fact, as is usual in this part of Italy, there were more shops selling produce than trinkets. Fine with me; all I wanted were postcards, a refrigerator magnet, and a tiny piece of made-on-the-spot pottery to take home with me.
Pasta from Manarola in Cinque Terre
Maybe it was the wine, or maybe the full meal, but I quickly grew too tired to enjoy the rest of the Cinque Terre. Faced with a long bus ride back to Lerici (and uncertain about the train schedule) I opted to skip the last town. Of course I missed the giant carving of Neptune, carved into the mountainside.
But maybe another day.
Our last day in Italy was spent driving to Pisa, and seeing the landmark Leaning Tower of Pisa. Our sat nav failed us again and we spent the better part of an hour just figuring out where the tower was. It's not tall enough to see from anywhere other than the immediate vicinity, unfortunately—though after all it was begun in the 12th century. Had it been much taller it probably wouldn't have been with us today. The cathedral next to the tower is worth a visit, but other than that, Pisa offers little to keep tourists occupied. Unless, that is, you wish to engage the hawkers selling watches, sunglasses, and designer knock-offs. If you go to Pisa, take the time to research and find a decent restaurant. The one we chose, near the tower, offered mediocre food, though my spinach was delicious.
But that was only a minor quibble. For me, discovering the food of Liguria—familiar, yet so much more delicious in its original locale—was the best part of the trip. I ordered a Ligurian cookbook when I arrived home, and hope to grow enough basil to make my own pesto (though I understand Genoa grows its own variety of basil, and is ideally suited for the herb). The scents and tastes of Liguria—a steaming plate of hot focaccia, a warm bottle of the local red wine, a wide plate of grilled vegetables, the fresh-squeezed blood oranges at breakfast, the scent of arugula from the seat next to me on the train—are enough to make my mouth water, even now, two weeks later.
For more photos, including several of the cats I saw, go here. And if you decide you want to visit the Italian Riviera, go here. There are non-stop flights from Gatwick to Pisa, about an hour's drive from La Spezia.