29 April – 1 May 2022
La Spezia – southernmost entry to the famed Cinque Terre: it has taken me three years and three tries but I have finally arrived. No rush, no stress, no problem. Hopefully. Covid has not chosen to disappear but I have chosen to take back control and live within the parameters of a world at war against both a deadly virus and a murdering Russian autocrat.
Masked, vaxed to the max, armed with my CDC record and the ability to exercise common sense, I am eager to explore and hike the Cinque Terre. Not for the usual “tourist day trip” but for the next two weeks. Italian scenery, food and la dolce vita!
I arrive in La Spezia after a short train ride from Pisa Centrale. This historic maritime port seems a perfect jumping-off point for my travels along the idyllic Ligurian coast. Not usually on the radar for many foreigners, La Spezia is beautiful, offers parks and a waterfront, museums to explore, and is surprisingly affordable when compared to the prices of the villages of Cinque Terre.
My immediate observation is La Spezia is ethnically vibrant, its squares and streets filled with exuberant children and relaxed parents. Cafes are numerous, albeit too many pizzerias, and menus are appetizing. I’ll pass on the Sushi Burrito but happy to see menus with pulpo (octopus)! The Friday market is in full glory – a place Jack Reacher would love to shop for his next change of clothes.
I first visit the beautiful Nostra Signora della Neve (Our Lady of the Snow) whose ornate façade brings to mind that of Florence’s cathedral, but on a smaller scale. The church was bult in 1595 and includes four bell towers, one for each corner. The frescoes, marble pillars, ornate ceiling, alter and peaceful ambiance are impressive. A musical practice is filling the church with delightful piano and flute.
It has already been a busy day so when I notice the steps up to the castle, a descriptive expletive escaped my mouth. Fortunately, I had my mask up. I determined to find the lift before tomorrow.
The Amedeo Lia Art Museum is in a restored 17th-century friar’s monastery. Its collection spans the 13th to 18th centuries and includes paintings by many renowned artists from Titian to Tintoretto. There are several nice Renaissance pieces and the rooms are well-lit and arranged. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to find this excellent museum in La Spezia. The museum is a maze of steps but there is a lift.
Next door is the Museo del Sigillo, or Museum of the Seals – stamps and iconography, not the mammal. I decided to take a pass. Instead, I visited the simple gray and white marble edifice of Santa Maria Assunta. Built first in 13th century but restored after WWII destruction, the church interior is one of simple lines, soaring Corinthian columns, and arches. On one wall hangs a glazed terracotta by Della Robbia. A rather dramatic organ practice sets a more somber mood.
La Spezia has a long history as a maritime and military power. Castello San Georgio was constructed in the 13th century as a part of the city’s defensive walls. The fortress, as it should be, is atop a formidable hill in the middle of La Spezia and affords excellent views. It’s a new day, I have renewed energy, I take the 220 steps to the top. (Yes, I passed on the lift.) Inside, I find a small but excellent archaeology museum with an exceptional collection of stelle. And of course, the view over the city, harbor and toward the white cliffs of nearby Carrara (think marble and Michaelangelo) and the distant Apennine Mountains is stunning. Meanwhile, noon bells ring out across the city; was one two minutes off, perhaps on purpose?
The Naval Museum displays cannons, guns, model ships and much more to highlight the story of this important port. Having a long and distinguished naval history, I should not have been surprised to find La Spezia’s naval museum one of the best I have visited. It is well organized with a self-tour and literature. And while the Italian navy may not have gotten the respect it may deserve, I did scratch my head in disbelief over the manned “explosive boats” and the two-manned “slow-running torpedo.” The display of diving suits gained my respect for anyone willing to submerge wearing a “pillsbury doughboy” suit. Also, there is an excellent display of carved wooden figureheads.
The Naval Museum, appropriately, is along the harbor which encourages me to stroll the busy port and the nearby public gardens with its monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi is a most honored patriot who was instrumental in the unification of Italy in 1871.
An interesting tidbit of history – Garibaldi volunteered his services to President Abraham Lincoln who invited him to serve as a major general during the American Civil War. Garibaldi required two things: that slavery would be abolished and he be given full command of the Union Army. Neither demand could be met so Garibaldi stayed home. The Americans got Ulysses S. Grant, a great general and pretty good President.
At the opposite end of the gardens is the Palazzo Contesso Vivaldi. The building is modern, by Italian standards, having been built as a hotel in the 1920s. However, it is quite ornate. The most-talked about feature is the corner lamppost with its wrought iron dragonfly. The balconies are lovely. For one who loves architecture, the Palazzo is worth a few minutes of admiration. In front of the palazzo is a modern plaza with a series of mirrored arches and fountains, an ideal spot to find a cafe and enjoy lunch. There are few people to be seen except for a local and her two dachshunds.
A stroll at the harbor includes the beautiful, modern Ponte Thaon di Revel. This white cable bridge reaches from the gardens across the harbor to Porto Mirabello. It spans clear blue waters, port activity, and offers nice views. The bridge is designed to rise in the middle to allow the taller ships to pass. Beneath are the fishermen nets and boats which bring in my pulpo fresh daily.
The lovely Passeggita Costantino Morin is a long stretch of park along the waterfront. This cobbled walkway is lined with palms, benches and affords beautiful views. It is a center of activity and perfect spot to relax and sample café life. Like the elderly couple with an exuberant puppy, we sit for hours watching life. The pidgins are pesky but I find discussing “pidgin pie” tends to move them on. I need that exuberant puppy.
Finding a cafe and relaxing over a Prosecco is beginning to be a habit in my afternoons. It gives me time to observe life and surroundings. Lots of people have dogs but I see few with bags for cleaning up after them tho the streets seem clean. I think the majority of dogs are male as there is a constant supply of walls to pee on. Everyone has a mask on their arm, chin or face. No one enters a building without a mask. My vax card is on a lanyard around my neck but no one has asked to see it. They did take my temperature before entry into the Naval Museum. I have been fascinated watching the Italian’s use of expressive gestures, including the morning tv newsman. Can’t imagine Brian Williams making a gesture-filled point. I was fortunate to watch a hearing challenged couple use sign language and must admit I irreverently wondered if Italian sign is more expressive than American; bet it is.
Sadly, have fist bumps replaced the Italian hugs?
Weather conditions permitting, tomorrow, I plan on riding the ferry to my next destination: Riomaggiore.