“Il mare in certi giorni è un giardino fiorito. Reca messaggi il vento. Venere torna a nascere ai soffi del maestrale” (Vincenzo Cardarelli)
La Spezia is a town of the Eastern Ligurian Riviera, a tourist destination par excellence which has recently become a cruise port. It overlooks the Ligurian Sea and borders to the west with the Region of Tuscany and the mouth of the River Magra.
With the Apuan Alps as spur, the town is situated right in the centre of a Gulf that bears the same name, known also as “The Gulf of Poets”, close to the Cinque Terre and its Natural Park , which is a Unesco location near many other areas which are part of the World Heritage, such as Portovenere and its islands, Lerici, the beaches of San Terenzo and the historic town of Sarzana.
La Spezia is a province made up of different areas, facing the pier, with a modern waterfront and hills at the back, that climb towards the panoramic state road.
A town of “wide roads, tall and yellow houses”, as Ernest Hemingway once wrote, that started its life as an ancient seaside village and then has become a pole of international importance for every kind of tourism.
Its typical winding alleys and the architecture of the past, can be found in the buildings facing the seafront promenade, Passeggiata Morin, which is not far from the Navy Arsenal.
A bit of history...
The history of La Spezia is rich and certainly much older compared to many other towns that are along the coast, we can say unique in its kind.
As regards the name of the town, there are several opinions about it, the historians believe that it was probably for its hospital role, but perhaps because of its trades and the salt tax, which was a basic necessity in the houses of the aristocrats, as it was shipped throughout Europe.
In the Dark Ages, the town was under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Luni, who as lords of the Gulf, struggled against the descendants of the local lords Obertenghi, Vezzano, Lavagna and Da Passano. The influence of Genoa begun around the twelfth century, but only in 1273, after a brief period under the Fieschi family, La Spezia became part of the jurisdiction of Genoa as well as Carpena.
After 1371 the town became the administrative seat of the eastern Riviera. The statutes of the town date back to 1407. In 1797 the town was part of the Ligurian Democratic Republic, as per direct decree of the General Napoleon Bonaparte, this started its real economic and demographic development.
Napoleon, who had ambitious military plans, understood that La Spezia, with its narrow streets, situated in an environment protected by a gulf, could becone the maritime bulwark of his future empire; after his defeat he celebrated the town as the city with “the most beautiful harbor of the universe “.
Almost a century later, with Domenico Chiodo as leader, the project of the Military Arsenal started, this became the feather in the cap of the Navy, with its several hectares, that included nearly thirteen kilometers of inner roads, blended with the city as a real vital offshot, it employed workers, engineers and cartographers.
In that period La Spezia acquired another kind of popularity, not less important than the military and commercial sectors, as a place for elite tourism, when the royal families and the most brilliant intellectual minds came here on holiday, the town changed its civil architecture, a soul innovator with an impulse towards the future.
etween the first and second decade of the twentieth century, also La Spezia had an unusual artistic momentum, it was the centre of modernism and futuristic cultural gathering backgrounds; not even the bombing of the Second World War, weakened its spirit, as on the mountains of Gottero the partisans resistance helped to free the town before the arrival of the Allies.
At present La Spezia is trying to build new infrastructures and to develop its hospitality towards tourists and cautious investors, through services that were not considered important until the end of the second millennium.
The new generations understand the importance of a European integration; the economic dash is trying to fill the gaps of the past, to meet new requirements of beauty due to the development of the markets, not just of the real estate sector, but also on a larger industrial scale.
When you stay in La Spezia, you should not forget about the inland. Worth to mention are the historic gardens, open to the public, a small botanical garden located in the town centre, behind the historic centre of via Chiodo, where there are benches for resting and admiring beautiful examples of the local flora, such as the scented cedars of the east. For those who don’t want to turn down the sea, Morin promenade is just there in front of you, there are kiosks and eateries in abundance, waiting for you.
The best season to enjoy the kind atmosphere of La Spezia is not the summer, but the last days in spring.
The town does not have a proper beach, you can either go to Lerici in about ten minutes by car or to Portovenere, more or less at the same distance.
La Spezia is a perfect place when it’s warm, and the flowers in the parks are in bloom, there is an explosion of colours and shops often meet the tourists needs, applying reduced prices.
The benefit of the climate can also be appreciated inland, walking along the path that runs along Mount Alpicella and goes up to Mount Gottero, here you can admire the lush woods of hornbeams and birch trees, as well as the range of biodiversity of the Tuscan Emilian Apennine, bumping into anemones and wild orchids.
Near Arcola, the Lipu Oasis of Saint Genesio is waiting for your visit, this is one of the best places for bird watchers, it is part of the Regional Natural Park of Montemarcello-Magra.
The Park is responsible for protecting the area of the river, that includes the stretch of the river Magra that flows in Liguria from the promontory of Caprione, then from Arcola towards Punta Bianca and the sea: it goes from the Gulf of La Spezia and the open sea on one side , to the mouth of the river Magra, the plain of Luni and the Apuan Alps on the other part, an arch of eighteen municipalities including Brugnato, Pignone, Santo Stefano Magra and Sarzana.
Here, surrounded by Mediterranean maquis, among holm oak bushes, myrtle, we bump into white cistus and hawthorn berries on the promontory of Caprione, we can cherish in the peaceful humid zones where water birds nest, protected by the area of Montemarcello, a true joy for the eyes. The magnificent cork oaks grow almost undisturbed in the area of the Cinque Terre.
While walking, surrounded by vegetation, sometimes the woods give way to pastures and cultivated terraces, admiring glimpses of paradise of the National Park of the Cinque Terre and its clean sea.
However, be careful, not to leave the beaten track, the many trails, for those who love this kind of sport, are very busy, you need all the proper information, so you won’t get lost.
Places of interest
In Piazza Giulio Beverini you can pay a visit to the church of Santa Maria Assunta, actually it is more like an abbey than a church. The church is probably the oldest religious building of La Spezia.
Even if it was bombed during the war, it was subsequently renovated and it hasn’t lost its Christian charm, with the typical Ligurian architecture, divided into wide naves with columns on both sides, and two smaller aisles, the outer cover is vaulted, with grey stones on top of the light yellow plaster, with the characteristic stripes.
Similar in age and structure is the church of Nostra Signora della Neve, located in Via Garibaldi, it has a Byzantine style, the materials used inside are in general richer compared to the other church, the pulpit was made by the sculptor Angiolo Del Santo. The church is divided by three naves and has a panelled ceiling. The facade is decorated with alternating stripes and the access is through a gate and wide steps. One of the three portals, the central one, has a richly decorated prothyrum. There are two fake bell towers on both sides, the real bell tower is the on bottom of the church, on the right side, in Via Napoli.
In the central Piazza Europa, on a privileged location, is the imposing Cathedral of Cristo Re: with an unmistakable circular structure, protected by a wide churchyard, inside there are twelve pillars marking off an ambulator and its central hall, that can hold up to 2,500 people. When the Diocese moved to La Spezia in 1929, it was important to create something that could join the centre of the town with the eastern part, so a competition was called, it was won by the architect Brenno Del Giudice, unfortunately the project was shelved until 1956, when it was completely altered by another architech Adalberto Libera, who understood the potentiality of the new church with its wide square in front, so he decided to emphasized the religiuos area, placing the church yards behind the building, the cathedral is just like a big ring that ideally and phisically joins these areas.
During implementation, the original project of the architech Adalberto Libera was partially changed by the architech Cesare Galeazzi. In the vaulted crypt there are the relics of Saint Venerio, the tomb of the mystic Itala Mela and the first bishops of the Diocese. The cathedral was consecrated, only in 1975.
La Spezia is also famous for its Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (CAMeC), the building in the past was the Palace of Justice, it was then adapted to host the most disputed scenarios, recent works and atmospheres, it is located in Cesare Battisti square. The building develops in height and has several rooms built especially for exhibitions and conferences, on the roof there are two large terraces, also used to display works of art and to look at the town from a different prospect. The museum houses the collection of the Gulf prize and also the collections Cozzani and Battolini; you can also admire works by Jacopo Benassi, Cinzio Cavallarin, Mauro Melis, Monica Michelotti, Ottonella Mocellin, Nicola Pellegrini, Romano Rizzato and Diet Sayler among many others. The museum organizes regularly temporary exhibitions.
Certainly smaller and more discreete, is another museum which has a completely different character, the museum Amedeo Lia in Via del Prione, its name comes from the collector Amedeo Lia, who donated the majority of the works, that belong to different periods, Medioeval miniatures and a rich collection of paintings of the seventeenth century.
The castle of Saint George is a historic castrum, located in the inner part of the town, with its untouched walls, it overlooks the buildings from above the hill Il Poggio, it has a sort of mysticism aura, typical of the Medioeval fortifications. The castle of Saint George is the most emblematic monument of the past of La Spezia: its tower is built in the highest part of the structure, and leads to a small part of the old foundations.
In 1443, the castle underwent a considerable renovation, a new wing was added in the the lower part of the castle, for using weapons; also the bastion was built after, in order to increase the defense, unfortunately this is no longer visible, recently some ruins have been found in the area of the university campus, behind the castle. The castle is also the archaeological museum Formentini (known as the Museum of the Castle of Saint George), a place of incredible importance as regards prehistoric artefacts, it houses the mysterious stele statues.
The name of the museum Ubaldo Formentini, was given to remembered the director of the Library and Museum, who worked there from 1923 to 1958, and was also a protagonist of the cultural life of La Spezia, he was the biggest promoter of the history and customs of the people of Lunigiana.
For those who love art and history there is also the Naval Technical Museum in Viale Amendola, with an important display of nautical objects of the past, this museum maintains a strong link between the town and its arsenal, thanks to the help of the historical office of the General Staff of the Navy. The purpose of the museum is to maintain the nautical traditions, gathering and promoting information and traces of its glorious past, through a collection of Roman amphorae, models of ancient boats, old uniforms and precious finds, among which there is the stern of the Polar Star, MAS by Luigi Rizzo, Grillo and others, a sort of flashback during the war with its relics, the love of men for sea has no age; the new exhibition tries to illustrate the evolution of the ships and the nautical art over the years, up to now. The museum has in addition, more than 150 models of boats, submarines, torpedo boats, prototypes of underwater weapons and old models of assault weapons.
The real gem of La Spezia, is the innovative Mirabello Port, which was inaugurated in September 2010 after a massive reclamation and the construction of its piers. It is located in the bay,between the docks Duca degli Abruzzi and the Mercantile port, it has an artificial peninsula of 40,000 square metres and a stretch of water of 270,000 square metres; this area has not changed the coast, enhancing and providing every type of comfort, there are moorings for boats up to 100 metres wide and the big docks useful for parking, near the boats. The port is open all day, the entrance is on the east side, near the breakwater which runs along the west-east axis, to protect it from the southern winds. Mirabello Port offers 407 mooring, prefering a high target, mega yachts and luxury style boats. There is a heliport for helicopters, 1300 parkings and a qualified staff for mooring and maintenance; thanks to a synergy with the Port Authority of La Spezia, there are more than 700 berths for boats smaller than 14 metres, on 13 floating docks, located outside the main pier.
Being near Lerici, Porto Venere, Cinque Terre and Portofino, but also to the major islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea, makes La Spezia an ideal place for short trips to the most fascinating tourist destinations, such as Capri, the Amalfi Coast or the beautiful Porto Cervo in Sardinia. The area was built in total respect of nature and environment, and has been awarded the Blue Flag in 2013 Approdi Tours.
Accommodation, tourism and events
The wide inlet that contains the Gulf of La Spezia, stretches from Lerici to Portovenere, the easy paths that run through the woods and the hills are worth seeing, and suitable also for families with children.
Near the Bothanical Park in Montemarcello or in the alleys of the villages located on the High path of the Ligurian Mountains, in La Serra or in Pignone, cycling or going along the paths by the sea, from Sarzana to Versilia it is possible to find relaxing moments for all tastes.
From Tellaro going towards Lerici, for example, the paths cut through olive groves, cedar forests and wild fields, without losing sight of the shaded view of the coast; the Cinque Terre, at twenty minutes drive from La Spezia, provide paths, that go from Riomaggiore to Vernazza, or from Manarola to Volastra, you must stop at the beautiful Sanctuary Madonna della Salute.
Even walking along the path on the island of Palmaria, wich is located opposite the village of Portovenere, is very interesting for those who love trekking, you can reach the island by ferry from the pier of La Spezia.
Campiglia is crossed by the main hiking routes of the Riviera Spezzina, that go from Portovenere to Deiva Marina, the hilly roads are a must for romantic evenings, once the inhabitants of Campiglia took care of the terraces, the many trails, even circular trails lead to different neighboring areas.
The wonderful marine area of Tramonti, can be reached walking along Persico path, which is marked number 11 on the map of the Alpine Club, the starting point is from the area of Acquasanta.
The surroundings can be reached by car, just after Campiglia and Tramonti, going towards Portovenere, Cadimare stands out with its views, it is a tiny fishing village where they cook an excellent grilled fish and the village Le Grazie, that has an old tradition in shipbuilding, there is a small bay equipped for pleasure boats.
Inland we find the villages of Pignone and Carrodano, surrounded by woods and karst formation, then Riccò del Golfo, Sesta Godano, Rocchetta di Vara and Bolano, with their parish churches and medieval castles, they are old trading centres perched among streams and ridges, where you can feel the typical atmospheres of the sixteenth century, rural landscapes where agriculture is still a prevailing part of the economy.
From the villages of Ortonovo and Castelnuovo, going down towards Santo Stefano Magra, on the other side of the municipality, we find the famous artisitc town of Sarzana, well known for evening gatherings and the amazing Firmafede fortress.
Although nature and particular backgrounds can be found in the outskirts, the town of La Spezia still keeps many of its historic charm.
Via Chiodo, is crossed by all ATC buses, first of all you can visit via Prione a long and narrow road like the typical Genoese carrugi, with plenty of side streets, that overlook the former residences of the Doria Marquis.
This area is ‘the shopping heart of La Spezia, with several cheap guesthouses. We then find Piazza Sant’Agostino with the church that beards the same name and Corso Cavour, home of Liberty buildings. Piazza Verdi is in the centre, the Post Office building overlooks the square, in the road above, we find the magnificent Villa Marmori, which is now the Musical Conservatory.
In front of Piazza Europa, going up a few steps, we reach the Cathedral of Cristo Re, a superb building with a circular shape, and a dome that overlooks the whole town.
La Spezia has recently opened Mirabello Port, going towards Lerici we can bump into another port just as much sought after, Porto Lotti a big area which is not only a berth for yachts and catamarans but with its privileged position, from here you can reach every part of the coast, it attracts the attention and the culture of shipowners. The place often hosts exhibitions and events, and is equipped with all facilities.
Good to know: La Spezia is also festivals, sports and good music.
In July there is the Artsenal Festival which hosts theatre and dance celebrities one of the most famous of the contemporary scene, that attracts people of all ages from the North of Italy, the music events continue till late summer.
Every year on the first Sunday in August there is the Palio del Golfo, a century old rowing race between thirteen teams from the seaside villages of the gulf, it takes place in the stretch of sea in front of the promenade, the boats have all been handmade by local artisans.
Every year, on March 19 there is the celebration of the patron saint of La Spezia, Saint Giuseppe, with an incredible display of stalls, mainly located in the area of the Historic Gardens, where you can taste typical food specialties, or buy clothes and other types of items; another big event for true gourmands takes place in December at Centro Fieristico Spezia Expò, here you can taste and buy the best examples of the eastern Ligurian cuisine, you can reach Spezia Expò by shuttle bus.
The major Trade Fair of the town, takes place at Spezia Expò in March, there is always a wide range of products and activities, and the best brands of the town on display.
Around Christmas time, there are many evocative events in the province that remember the birth of Jesus Christ, chosen divers of the Navy enchant us with their initiatives.
In La Spezia you will appreciate the beautiful colours of the inland underbrush in autumn and especially in winter. Very close to the town, there are the ski slopes of Zeri, in Lunigiana (the only ski resort in Italy where you can ski and look at the sea at the same time ) and Cerreto Laghi, in the province of Reggio Emilia, an hour’s drive from the town centre.
Like other Ligurian towns, the cuisine in La Spezia uses simple ingredients, and aromatic herbs.
The main dressing is DOC olive oil, there are plenty of tasty wines, which are the symbol of the local microclimate: Cinque Terre Doc, Lievantu Doc, Vermentino Colli di Luni and Sciacchetrà from Riomagiore, a suitable wine for desserts. We suggest to taste it with a good trifle or in winter with a slice of delicious chestnut cake, castagnaccio.
Among the first courses the most famous is undoubtedly mesciua, a hot soup made of corn seeds served warm, we carry on with a Genoese minestrone, a vegetable soup, sometimes served adding small pasta; testaroli served with pesto sauce or tomato sauce and sometimes with walnut sauce; capponada, made with old bread dipped in vinegar, anchovies, onions, tomatoes, basil, capers and a little ‘chili .
Chestnut fritters from Villafranca and panigacci from Podenzana, to serve with cheese and salami, are the best starters.
What you will never find elsewhere, cooked with the same ability, is farinata made of chickpea flour, and sgabei, a fried dough served with local salami.
We don’t need to go down into details about the delicious fish dishes, first of all the mussels, stuffed or stewed, cooked with homemade tomato sauce, and whitebait fritters: any restaurant will be able to offer a taste, according to its personal recipe.
The prince of second courses is the cod, served with polenta, in La Spezia it is fried in a pan, adding chard and tomatoes.
Try to find the anchovies from Tramonti, at the market, and eat them with a sprinkle of lemon juice.
Cuttlefish, hakes broth, baked sea bass and sea bream, cooked with herbs, grilled or stewed crabs; stuffed squid, in Lerici they make some very good ones.
Many organic products come from its province, meat, rabbit and poultry, cooked with milk or wine, different types of homemade pasta, such asf trofie, trenette, bavette or cannolini served with broth, many local dishes use fish or use products that come from olive groves, vine yards, vegetable gardens, such as peaches and apricots put in syrup or artichokes, onions and peppers cooked and stored in olive oil.