“Tra Lerice e Turbìa la più diserta, la più rotta ruina è una scala, verso di quella, agevole e aperta.”
(Dante Alighieri, vv.49-51, Cap. III, Purgatorio, La Divina Commedia)
Lerici, is a town in the province of La Spezia, located at the centre of a small natural cove, known as Seno di Lerici, on a promontory with a castle right on the top, that hosts at present a paleonthological museum.
Its territory is included in the Eastern Riviera, exactly on the west side of the Gulf of La Spezia: with its administrative seat and Portovenere, is one of the three municipalities facing the Gulf of Poets, a wider area of unique beauty, which has an essential bond with the great writers of twentieth and nineteenth century.
In the same area, there is the village of San Terenzo, which is almost opposite Lerici, the area of Venere Azzurra is in between the two, and Tellaro is further est of Lerici, it is an ancient fishermen village; just before you reach it, you will find Fiascherino, with its two beaches, all these places are well known for their particular landscapes.
Besides Tellaro has been included in the circuit of the most beautiful villages of Italy. Lerici, with its sunny summers and the beautiful sea that touches the coast, is mainly covered with Mediterranean maquis, in the past, famous writers spent some time here, such as Lord Byron, Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, David H. Lawrence, who wrote Lady Chatterley’s lover, and had a passionate love story in Tellaro; not to mention Mario Soldati, writer, journalist and film director; Tellaro was for all of them, a source of inspiration, a home and a safe nest.
The economy of the village of Lerici is based essentially on tourism, thanks to the wonders of the territory, and its sandy sea bottom – a rarity in this area – accessible to anyone. The area is part of the Natural Regional Park of Montemarcello-Magra, established to safeguard the flora and fauna, here it is possible to bump into one of the so called “cavanei”, a stone construction with a vaulted ceiling, of unspecified period, very rare and listed as minor monumental structures of Liguria.
Here the cuisine is excellent and consists mainly of the most delicious bluefish, then discover the hospitality of the characteristic hamlets located on the hills, enrich the landscapes of Lerici, for a perfect stay.
In Lerici there isn’t a train station, it can be visited easily on foot or by bike, after parking your car in the appropriate parking lots. The main place to reach the sea, as well as the hotels is Piazza Garibaldi, that was once the premises of a flourishing shipbuilding activity, and that reminds us of how important Lerici had been in history, as port.
From the square it is possible to admire the imposing castle of Lerici, that overlooks the sea, it is located right on the promontory that closes the cove. If on one side we can see that the open sea stretches along the whole horizon, when we turn our backs to it, we enter into the alleys surrounded by the typical tower houses, with wooden shutters and slate porticos, the most famous were in the past, part of the jewish ghetto of Lerici.
From here we can climb towards the castle, which is at present the premises of an interesting Geopaleontological Museum and Toy Museum. Going back to Piazza Garibaldi, we can stop at the small oratory of Saint Rocco, built in the thirteenth century and renovated in modern age, when there was the plague, then continuing along the road we reach the most modern part of Lerici and the parish church of Saint Francesco.
Leaving behind the square, we can finally use a bike and spend a sunny afternoon along the seafront, just next to the beaches and the breakwaters, reaching the areas of Venere Azzurra and San Terenzo.
A bit of history...
Lerici was probably a Phoenician port in ancient times, its roots sink in the Etruscan period, around the seventh centuty when a primitive village was built. As time passed, thanks to its particular geographic position it became of interest for the Romans and then for the Ligurians who exploited the area as a natural port.
As regards the origin of the name Lerici, many theories suggest valid options: it is believed that the name might come from Portus Illycis, from the greek word “Iliakos”, which means from Ilio, or from Mons Ilicis, which refers to a holm oak mountain; but also from Erice who was the son of Venus and Neptune, referring to the beauty of the waters in front of the town.
In Middle Ages the bay was used for commercial trades and as premises by several important families, first of all the bishops of Luni and after the Malaspina family; then Lerici became property of the Maritime Republic of Genoa, that bought the town in 1152 from the lords of Arcola and Vezzano; the village of Portovenere was also part of this republic, it was used as strategic position to control the Gulf; in that period Lerici gained an important role in the history of the Eastern riviera, as there was a constant traffic of travellers, pilgrims and merchants to or from Rome, the north of Europe and Santiago de Compostela.
After being part of the Republic of Genoa, the town became property of the Maritime Republic of Pisa, that fortified and built the castle; after a short and peaceful period between the two contending republics, it became again property of the Genoese, then of the French and after of the Florentine, under Alfonso of Aragona and finally back as Captaincy of Genoa. Its strategic importance was then consolidated and in 1479, the “Magnificent” Genoa finished the construction of the castle, as we can see it today.
A curious fact: during the fourteenth century, Dante Alighieri passed in the village as well as in Sarzana and Castelnuovo Magra, even if there are no historic documents that prove it; many historian support this theory as it is mentioned in the third Canto of the Purgatory; an event that increased its prestige and the relative presence of many people, well before the village started to expand beyond its walls, centuries later.
Under the new domination of Napoleon Bonaparte, Lerici became part of the Department of the Gulf of Venus from 2 December 1797, the town of La Spezia was the administrative seat, of the Ligurian Republic. From 28 April 1798, with the new Frech rule, the town was included in the fourth canton, as administrative centre of the jurisdiction of Lunigiana, and from 1803 as main centre of the second canton of Carpione in the jurisdiction of the Gulf of Venus.
In 1815 the town became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, as established by the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and from 1861 of the Italian Kingdom.
In the nineteenth century, Lerici had the looks that are so familiar to us, it was a tourist destination par excellence, especially for most of the poets who lived here such as Shelley and Byron, from which the Gulf of Poets inherited its name. In that period many villas were built, the roads were liven up by the nobles and bourgeoisie that came here from Europe, looking for a place under the sun in a slice of paradisiacal coast, in a priviledge position to move comfortably.
In the twentieth century the village of Tellaro became part of this area, it was previously part of the territory of Ameglia, while the latest adjuments of the area date back to 1960, when part of Lerici was added to the municipality of Ameglia.
To finish, for years Lerici has obtained prestigious awards such as the Blue Flag and Quattro Vele Legambiente.
In the most extreme part of the Eastern riviera, we find Lerici, it is not by chance that it’s called the Pearl of the Gulf, a happy bond of natural and different environments, scenarios rich in culture, typical Ligurian neighbourhood with their maritime personality, just a step forward and you plung into the steep slopes that decrease towards the sea.
To be more precise from the top of the Promontory of Carpione, that is on the south part of the Park of Montemarcello Magra, in Arcola going up towards Punta Bianca, we can find two parallel worlds that invite us to explore the surrounding areas, one facing the municipality, on the west, plunged into the mediterranean maquis, full of Aleppo pines and carsic rocks, the other part faces the plain of the River Magra, on the east, softened by chestnut woods and hilly surroundings.
In this side of the promontory in particular, close to the settlement of Luni, there is a wide fluvial area, alternated to crops. It is not rare to bump into the nesting areas of aquatic birds.
This beautiful protected area, is the result of two areas,the former fluvial park and the protected area of Montemarcello, and it is importance to stress its importance.
The park does not only have the aim of redevelopping the degradated areas, but it is also the home of several endemic species (miniature dwarft iris, some uncommon orchids) and is the premises of several historic settlements, castles as well as ancient water mills.
The Park of Montemarcello Magra is represented both by Carpione, which becomes its symbol, and Canarbino located on the hills of Arcola; the coast is mainly of pebbles, and is separated by woods clung to high cliffs overlooking the sea.
The Mediterranean maquis is enriched in colours by holm oaks, juniper, poppies and the white cistus, and on the terraces towards the Cinque Terre we find olive groves, scented vegetable gardens and vineyards weighed down by grapes. Good signs about the health of the park are the green lizards, rat snakes, non migratory species such as foxes, badgers and small dormouses.
Talking about avifauna, among the most common species of this area, we must mention larks, great tit, woodpeckers, as well as marine birds such as cormorants and great crested grebes.
Located inside the cove “La cala”, between punta Maramozza and Maralunga, we find The Archelogical Underwater Park “La Caletta”. On its seabeds the remains of a Roman ship and its cargo, a place of archeologiacal and natural interest, thanks to the high presence of gorgonia in the clear, clean waters.
The wildest landscape you may find, at least for the inhabitants and for those who love this place, is the big beach Punta Corvo, which its sandy areas and black pebbles. The footpath, that starts from the centre of Montemarcello reaches the beach, going through the thick mediterranean maquis, that covers this small promontory. There are almost three hundred metres from the centre of the small village to the beach, and it takes about half an hour to go down the slope, from Montemarcello right through the woods.
Over 700 steps, made of stone and wood, separate the path from the sandy shore, where you can sunbathe protected by the rocks, with Portovenere and Versilia that greet you from the distance.
In summer, if the sea conditions are good, there are ferries from Bocca di Magra, Lerici and Tellaro ready to take you to this corner of paradise.
Places of interest
When we mention the major valuable places of Lerici, we must talk about its majestic castle, which has become the symbol of the town; it overlooks the residential areas from above the cliff, and is considered as one of the most beautiful in Liguria.
It has a solid pentagonal tower with four orders of small hanging arches, strenghtened by strong bastions; it was built by the Pisans in mid thirteenth century, and then perfected by the Genoese. The external walls of the castle are still intact as well as the small chapel devoted to Santa Anastasia, that is inside;it dates back to the thirteenth century, and is in gothic Ligurian style.
The castle is completely renovated and is at present the premises of a Geopaleontological Museum, something unique in Europe, it was established after an interesting discovery during an excursion in 1987, some fossil prints were found on the rocks along the coast; the museum was then ready to be shown to the public, thanks also to the old geopaleontological tradition carried on by the scientist G. Cappellini from La Spezia, one of the founders of geology in Italy.
In the ancient village of Lerici, there is a roman period tower, which was used at first as sighting tower, and as bell tower during the sixteenth century. Inside the tower, devoted to Saint Rocco, we can find the Genoese coat of arms that indicated the port, it has a similar function to the “Lanter” in Genoa. The tower dates back to the thirtheenth century, while the oratory near the bell tower was built up in 1523 and devoted to Saint Rocco, saint protector of the infected, while there was the plague, it was built where there was the former hospital.
The parish church Saint Francesco D’Assisi, is right in the village centre, it is a seventeenth century reconstruction of the original church dating to the Middle Ages. It is characterized by a quite sober baroque style, there is one aisle, its facade is in pink stone, quite common in Liguria. Almost all altarpieces belong to the Genoese school. Inside the church, among the paintings, we can admire on the main altar a precious painting by Domenico Fiasella. The church also hosts “Madonna di Maralunga”, a wooden table dated fifteenth century, it was found, according to the tradition, by some fishermen, on the local rocks.
Next to the church we find the oratory of Saint Bernardino.
The church is closed to workship, the three altars are embellished by a Madonna with child by Domenico Fiasella and a marble tryptic dated sixteenth century of the Virgin between the Saints Sebastiano and Rocco. Villa Padula is located between Bellavista and Lerici, once this stunning villa belonged to the baroness and writer Emuska Orczy Borstow, who lived in the village in the 1930s.
At first Emuska was a guest at Villa Cochrane, then she decided to have her own house, the villa was built on a plot just next to the one, where the British Admiral Reginald Bacon had built Villa Primazzina.
It is located in a sheltered position, the dwelling was part of the most important colonies of the british pioneers, that decided to settle here.
In Fiascherino, we find Villa Lawrence, “a small pink cottage”, with four rooms, located in a small rocky bay, among vineyards and olive groves, clung to the rocks overlooking the sea, where once David Herbert Lawrence and Frieda von Richtofen Weekley, found a shelter from their local fogs and rumors; the villa then became the right place for other troubled poets such as Lasceller Abercrombie, Robert Trevelyan, just to mention a couple. In the 1960s, the villa became the premises of CNEN, the commitee for nuclear energy, then in 1980s the premises of ENEA, at present the villa is a private property.
Villa Pernigotti, is located in Venere Azzura, at the beginning tha villa was one of the most evocative hotels of late 1800s, in the territory of Lerici. It has a characteristic small tower, its name probably comes from its owner, it was built after the carriage way was extended to reach the promontory.
The most admirable English “nest” is Villa Magni in San Terenzo, a romantic, white historical building, with a particular wide terrace above the portico, with five arcs; at the beginning it was not separated by the road, that at present connects San Terenzo to Lerici. The villa was built by the Barbabiti Fathers, who were researchers and educators it then changed hands many times till it was purchased by the Magni family, from which it inherited its name. The villa kept on attracting poets and writers who visited the place and stayed here. At present the villa is a private property, but it can be visited on certain occasions.
There is another beautiful villa in this area, Villa Marigola, which was built on the top of the promontory of Venere Azzurra, an area between San Terenzo and Lerici, bears the comparison.
It is completely surrounded by a sunny woods, part of it has been turned into an English garden.
The villa was built up in the eighteenth century and used as summer residence by the marquees Ollandini from Sarzana, then it became a property of a nobel English family the Pearce .
The writer Sem Benelli spent some time here, the quiet enviroment and the nature, helped him to finish his works and poems.
At present the villa is a congress and conference centre, part of the park is used as golf course, well known at national level.
One of the main attractions of Lerici are its beaches, that attracts tourists and commutes from the near town of La Spezia, the beach is well appreciate by young people. Visitors can enjoy the free beaches or the well equipped and hire sun umbrellas, deck chairs, sun loungers and pedalos. We can enjoy the rocky landscapes of Falconara slope and the shade of an old war blockhouse, built right on top Punta Teresa.
San Terenzo crowns its offer with a shore suitable for everyone, thanks to the beaches Marinella, a small cove located just after the promenade in San Terenzo, right under its castle; there is also another long sandy beach just in front of the village, under the rocks.
For those who prefer a siesta, far from elite gatherings, we recommend a trip to Fiascherino, just a stone’s throw from the village of Tellaro.
Behind the cliff and the coves, we find the pebble beaches of Fiascherino, popular places to the well known poets Byron, Shelley and Lawrence, who could not do without these sparkling and lively landscapes. Both beaches are free of charge, in the smallest one there is a military bunker dating to WW2 placed on one corner, while the second beach is located among rocks and pine groves, where you can hear the cicadas chirping all day long, the place is of great environmental interest and has one of the most amazing views of the Gulf of Poets, perhaps the best.
Accommodation, tourism and events
The territory of Lerici is strongly based on tourism, with top class accomodation, and overnight stays affordable for everyone; the marina offers moorings for pleasure boats, with a wide range of services that attract tourists from all over the world.
Tourism is enriched not only by bathing services, but also by its archeological sites and experience paths, that will tell you about old time jobs linked to wine cellars and olive oil mills.
In the foreground the hamlets spread along the hills behind Lerici, the major hamlets are La Serra, from which you can enjoy a wonderful landscape of the whole territory, it is characterised by small alleys, archivolts and steep staircases; Pugliola, small and quiet, built around the church of Saints Nicolò and Lucia; we have already mentioned Tellaro, located on the eastern side of the Gulf of Poets, with its ancient fortifications, and the houses surrounded by walls on the north west side. Its origins are linked to the village of Barbazzano, at present there only some ruins left, the village depopulated due to the great plague in 1348, helping the development of the nearby village.
Talking about festivals and events, on 25 March there is the celebration of Madonna di Maralunga, the patron saint of the village; there is a fair and a religious procession. A legend tells that some fishermen from Lerici found this wooden table depicting a Madonna on the far end of the rocks of Maralunga, they kept it for good luck and this seems to have worked. Apart from the religious ceremony, on 25 and 26 March, there is a traditional fair, you will see dozens of stalls on the marina and in Garibaldi square.
During the Easter period, the town hots Lerici in bloom, a three day celebration, during which the town centre is crowded by flower stalls and local artisans, the coloured houses are filled with scents and spring atmospheres.
In Tellaro, in summer, there is the celebration of the Enchanted Hamlet, masks and typical products on display, the whole village is dressed up as wizards, fairies, witches, princes, queens and other fairy tale characters.
In Tellaro, in August, there is the octopus fair, a must for lovers of good cuisine.
The fair offers gatherings to rememeber the legend according to which the village was saved from the raids of the Saracen pirates,by a huge octopus, that clung to the rope of the bell tower and woke up the inhabitants of the village. Octopus dishes are made, following local recipes.
The first weekend in July, there is the fair of Saint Erasmo in Lerici.
You can take part to the procession, and see the statue of the Saint carried along the town centre, then some small floating candles are placed on sea, the event ends with fireworks and best fish offered by fishermen from Lerici.
The last sunday in August there is the famous historic swimming contest, Byron cup, a 8 kilometre race from Portovenere to San Terenzo.
Lerici is also one of the sea hamlets, that takes place to Palio del Golfo, a boat race held every year, on the first sunday in August in the Gulf of La Spezia.
To conclude, we must remember the poetry competition “Lerici Pea”, held since 1954, to promote and enhance poetry in Italy and in the world. The prize is divided into four sections, Poetry, Published works, Unpublished works and Lerici Pea Mosca prize.
Of the same importance and interest is the literary-scientific prize “Castello di Lerici” , for the best scientific book of the year.
The typical cuisine in Lerici is based on simple ingredients, linked to the traditions of sea and land, but this does not mean that they are less tasty, as they really well mixed with the products of the season.
The dishes follow local recipes, jelously kept by each village, and all enriched with fresh ingredients from the daily catch and the vegetable gardens.
Olive oil has a great value and is the perfect dressing of the majority of the recipes, as well as a rich, scented choice of red and white wines.
Among the main courses, fish rules the roost: a dinner with spaghetti and sea food, ravioli stuffed with seabass, gilthead bream, or the simple “Tordei” from the traditions of Arcola, a mix with Genoese pesto sauce, perfect with “Trenette” , “Pansotti” or “Tagliolini” made with chestnut flour.
The characteristic, delicious”Caponata”, made of dry bread dipped in water and vinegar and seasoned with anchovies, onions, tomatoes, capers and chilli pepper.
If we talk about main courses, a dish par excellence is “Mesciua”, a soup of cereals and legumes (hulled wheat, barley, grass peas, lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans, buckwheat), seasoned with salt, pepper and a bit of extra vergin olive oil, and rosemary as much as you want.
“Preboggion”, made with mixed wild herbs, is another typical dish of the area of La Spezia, it is well appreciated as it enhances the scents of the first sprouts, wild radicchio, chard and anchovy, it has a particular salty taste, place the vegetables on a dish, with the usual olive oil dressing.
Another good dish is “Fainà”, farinata, made with chickpeas, this is a timeless Ligurian dish, that has just few ingredients, chickpea flour, water, salt, pepper and extra vergin olive oil.
As regards second courses, we can find stuffed muscles, that’s how mussels are called in this area, they are stuffed with bread dipped in milk, grated parmigiano cheese, eggs, salt and pepper. Mussels often come from low environment fish farms, located in the most quiet and smooth seas.
We can’t miss excellent mixed barbecues or fried fish, to season with the most scented lemons you have ever imagined, which are often hand picked just before you are served.
Stockfish with potatoes, is another dish par excellence, or boiled octopus often served with potatoes, celebrated in the whole area of Lerici on the second sunday in August, in the village of Tellaro, with the famous octopus fair; or bass with a green sauce, made of parsley and garlic; date mussel and mussel soup, we must point out that date mussels catch is forbidden; whitebait fritters (the so called “Gianchetti), complete the menu, just before a well deserved dessert.
“Liguria di Levante IGP“ wine and “Colli di Luni DOP” wine, obtained from Vermentino or Trebbiano grapes, will keep you company while you are eating in one of the restaurants in Lerici.