La Spezia Gulf – Portovenere
The first village you come to, as you travel westwards from La Spezia, is Le Grazie, which lies in an enchanting natural inlet quite close to the important archaeological site of “Villa Romana del Varignano”, which is open to visitors.
Worth visiting is the Monastery of the Olivetani, where some fifteenth-century frescoes by Nicolo’ Corso have been discovered – evidence of the important cultural activity of the brotherhood during mediaeval times. Also worth a visit is the late-Gothic Sanctuary of Nostra Signora delle Grazie. One place you really must stop at is Portovenere, which is recognized by UNESCO as part of world cultural heritage.
The picturesque Genoese-style village (twelfth century) is full of typical coastal charm. You can admire the Genoese castle and the Church of San Lorenzo (consecrated in 1130 and entirely rebuilt in 1931-35), which preserves some remarkable works of art (a marble altarpiece attributed to Mino da Fiesole, the fourteenth- century “White Madonna” and a fifteenth- century triptych over the main altar) and, in the vestry, some magnificent treasure (Arabic- Phoenician and Byzantine ivory caskets).
At the far end of the promontory stands the ancient Church of San Pietro, which was built in 1277 on existing sixth-century foundations. You can leave Porto Venere by boat to visit the island of Palmaria, a marine reserve lying in the centre of the “whale sanctuary”. You can then visit Tino and the ruins of the Monastery of San Venerio.
The festival of San Venerio, a religious hermit who lived on the island of Tino, is held on 13 September every year. The island itself, a jewel in the Gulf of La Spezia, is occupied by a naval garrison but can be visited on the occasion of religious services in remembrance of the saint. You can visit the remains of the abbey, the small cloister and the reconstructed church. Not far from Tino is the small island of Tinetto, where you will find the ruins of a fifth-century church. The island of Palmaria is a splendid nature reserve.
Its host of beaches and coastal rocks make it an ideal place for a holiday with a difference. The network of paths running across the island are ideal for rambling in the greenery. All kinds of water sport can be practiced in the Gulf. There is no shortage of accommodation in Porto Venere and its beaches have many facilities.
The typical dishes (seafood and an infinite variety of fish) are quite rightly famous throughout the western part of the Gulf and are served in nearly all restaurants. The seascape of the Gulf is marked by rows of wooden poles: these are part of the breedinggrounds for mussels, which are another fundamental ingredient of La Spezia cuisine.
The ancient Portus Veneris is believed to date back to at least the middle of the 1st century BCE. It has been said that the name refers to a temple to the goddess Venus which was sited on the promontory where the church of Peter the Apostle now stands. The name has also been linked to that of the hermit Saint Venerius. In Roman times the city was essentially a fishing community.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Portovenere became the base of the Byzantine fleet in the northern Tyrrhenian Sea, but was destroyed by the Lombards in 643 CE. Later, it was a frequent target of Saracen raids. First indications of the existence of a castle date from 1113, and in 1161 the walls were erected. Portovenere became a fiefdom of a family from Vezzano before passing to Genoa in the early 12th century. In 1494 it suffered a devastating bombardment from the Aragonese fleet during their war with Genoa: subsequently the old part of the town declined in importance, giving way to the development of the Borgo Nuovo (or new district), which had existed from 1139 and is centred on the church of St. Peter.
A tour of the eastern side of the Gulf is just as interesting for its natural variety. After leaving the city you go through the commercial and industrial ports. As far as Muggiano, you will see a never-ending series of small and large shipyards and factories.
Once you have gone through the Scoglietti tunnel, you see the charming bay of Lerici. You then go through San Terenzo, the historic site of Villa Magni, where the Shelleys stayed. You will also see the Genoese castle, which is to be a precious museum dedicated to the memory of the nineteenth- century novelist and poet Mary Shelley, the interesting seventeenth-century parish church containing a painting by Fiasella (1629) and magnificent Villa Marigola (formerly Villa Pearce), where Sem Benelli wrote his Cena delle Beffe and where many illustrious figures have stayed.
The villa belongs to the “Cassa di Risparmio della Spezia” Bank and is used for conferences and important cultural events. It gives onto a beautiful Italian-style garden that is the only one of its kind in the province. After San Terenzo comes Lerici with its Genoese castle (thirteenth-sixteenth century), which was basically an extension of an earlier mediaeval castle. Inside the castle you can visit a very old chapel dedicated to Sant’Anastasia (1250).
Lerici Castle houses the Museum of Geo-paleontology, which was created after the discovery of prehistoric remains in the area. The museum also has a virtual-reality section, which offers scientifically guided tours through fantastic worlds. The earthquake room actually simulates earthquake phenomena. The castle is also used as a venue for important cultural events. Also of interest is the Oratory of San Rocco (a Baroque church built on the ruins of an older church), which has a remarkable painting by Fiasella, a bell-tower and some fourteenth-century gravestones.
The parish church of San Francesco was entirely rebuilt in 1632 following its total destruction. It contains some impressive works of art: two canvases by Fiasella, a marble triptych by Domenico Gare (1529), a “dead Christ” by Maragliano and some remains from the earlier church. The climate of Lerici makes it a pleasant place to stay all year round: the surrounding countryside is characterized by green hills and lush vegetation. You can visit charming Fiascherino, where D. H. Lawrence once stayed, and then go on to Tellaro, where the buildings are particularly charming.
The greenery covers the whole eastern side of the Gulf as far as Bocca di Magra: above Lerici is Barcola and beautiful Villa De Benedetti (now Villa Picedi) and Villa Cochrane (now Villa Carnevali) and its wonderful park. Then there is La Serra, where you can take a path that offers beautiful panoramic views and leads you through woods and pine groves as far as Montemarcello.
From here you can walk down towards Ameglia (with its castle and sixteenth century church) and the Magra estuary. Lerici has good accommodation facilities, including all categories of hotel, bed and breakfast and camp sites. There are many typical restaurants, bathing establishments and discos. Dishes: mussels, all kinds of fish, Lerici-style spaghetti.
The beaches of Lerici and San Terenzo (the neighboring town) are the first beaches south of the Cinque Terre. The beaches are few and often over-crowded in high season, but in June and September you will enjoy the mild climate, the empty beaches the great eating and the quiet life of a traditional village on the Italian north west coast.
A regularly scheduled boat trip makes it possible to admire the whole Cinque Terre coastline along with other nearby places and allows you to move from one village to the next, the boat leaves from the central square Piazza Garibaldi up to several times a day depending of the season. The service is not provided in wintertime, for further information on timetables and connections you may visit the Navigazione Golfo dei Poeti web site. In winter you can rent private boats.
This same boat also brings you to Portovenere right in front of Lerici.
Text courtesy in part of APT Cinque Terre