La Spezia is a port city located mid-point along a gulf — the Gulf of La Spezia, as it happens — on the northwestern coast of Italy. Part of the Italian Riviera, in the 19th century it was a hang-out of the English literary set the likes of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. Lord Byron, it was said, would swim from his house on the western side of the gulf to the Shelleys’ on the eastern side.
It’s also, according to tourist websites, a lovely town full of good restaurants and museums and a convenient, inexpensive place to use as a base while exploring the Cinque Terre. I’m not convinced that anywhere on the Italian Riviera is “inexpensive” (I suppose it’s relative) but we weren’t there for any of that, anyway. We were in La Spezia only long enough to catch a ferry to Monterosso al Mare.
Monterosso al Mare — along with Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore — is one of five small neighboring towns clinging to a piece of rocky coast just northwest of La Spezia. The five villages are collectively known as the Cinque Terre and as such, are part of a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reason the Cinque Terre (along with the three villages and three islands that make up the municipality of Porto Venere) is a world heritage site, says the UNESCO website, is that they are part of a “landscape of great scenic and cultural value” that “encapsulate the continuous history of human settlement in this region over the past millennium.”
“That black yacht belongs to King George,” said our local tour guide, as the ferry putted past all the yachts in the harbor. “That would be Georgio Armani.” Yes, but I’d rather know who owns the larger white one.
On the way to Monterosso, we passed the other four towns of Cinque Terre, as well as Porto Venere. That’s it in the photo below, with the Castello Doria di Porto Venere looming above it. Below the castle is the church of St. Lawrence, first built in 1098. Fires and fighting took parts of it over the years. Its current iteration is a 1582 restoration.
Porto Venere is on the the western tip of the gulf, and at its end is the 1198 Church of St. Peter. After a visit to the church, Lord Byron wrote:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar.
Round the promotory that holds St. Peter and the coastline occupied by the Cinque Terre comes into view.
A walking path, called the Via Dell’Amore, connects the five towns of the Cinque Terre, but the section between Riomaggiore (below) and Manarola was wiped out by a rock slide. It’s currently closed but the hardy can take a steeper, rocky and more circuitous route between the two villages. The less hardy can wait until it reopens in — maybe — 2020. They say 2019 but you know how that goes, so I’m adding an extra year.
There are vineyards above the towns. Making Cinque Terre wine is hard-going, because the vines cling to the sides of the cliffs on rocky terraces, and everything has to be done by hand. But according to Wine Enthusiast magazine, the result is “crisp, light-bodied whites with heady aromas of wild flower and citrus flavors” to “vibrant, full-bodied complex wines boasting sage, citrus zest and intense mineral notes.”
Fun fact: cacti grow in Italy and prickly pear fruit is a popular food product.
The boat trip took about an hour (and cost 35 euros for the 2018 season – it doesn’t run in winter) from La Spezia to Monterosso, the northernmost of the Cinque Terre. I’d highly recommend doing it. It’s a way to see the beautiful coast and landscapes of Liguria and approach the towns that make up the Cinque Terre National Park the way most visitors did before the introduction of a rail line in the late 19th century.