The Gulf of Poets
The Gulf of La Spezia has, for almost two centuries, also been known as the ‘Gulf of Poets’, having once been the elected home of the great English Romantic poets Byron and Shelley. This idyllic natural setting, where the warm turquoise waters of the Mediterranean lap up against the dramatically rugged cliffs that form the coastline, undoubtedly appealed to their ‘Romantic’ sensibilities and represented a constant source of creative inspiration. The many ancient multi-coloured fishing villages, nestling among steeply terraced vineyards and olive groves, as well as the wild, lush Mediterranean vegetation with its alluring, heady perfumes and seductive colours, must have seemed like a dream out of paradise to these natives of a colder, greyer, northern climate. Here they found perfect harmony between man and nature, on both land and sea. Indeed, the daredevil Lord Byron famously once swam from the rocky ledges of Grotta Arpaia in Portovenere right across the bay to Lerici. Literary history also tragically recalls that Shelley, who lived with his wife Mary at San Terenzo, lost his young life in these waters, when his boat sank in a storm on a return trip from Livorno (Leghorn) in 1822. Other celebrated poets who travelled through and wrote about this region are Petrarch, Dante and Montale.
This whole coastal strip of land, part of which is now under official protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, forms a unique natural microcosm, lying close enough for access from the habitual tourist trails, but still intact and unspoilt by them and far removed from the clamour of the world. Hikers who step into the protected nature reserve, characterized by its steep cliffs and shady pine woods, will marvel at the breath-taking hilltop views afforded both inland and out to sea, a timeless backdrop whose peaceful beauty has remained unaltered over centuries.
The harbour entrance to the Gulf of La Spezia is guarded by the two small islands – or large sea-rocks! – of Palmaria and Tino, thus forming a narrow strait with the rocky headland of Portovenere, through which shipping passes to and from the open waters. Viewed from the heights of Palmaria, the peninsula of Portovenere resembles the prow of a large ship sinking into the sea. Around the bay itself and extending westwards beyond it, the coast is dramatically steep and rocky, punctuated by sandy coves and the sandy beaches of the elegant seaside resorts that grace the shore. Rugged promontories contour the coastline, but are softened and shaded by heather, conifers and holm-oaks, and brightened by the warm greens and vibrant golds of the terraces of vineyards, olive and lemon groves that stretch far above.
Perched precariously on rocky ledges, looking majestically out to sea, ancient churches, castles and fortresses stand firm against the elements, an outstanding testimony to the audacious skills and enduring spirit of the men who built them. Bordering the Gulf of Poets runs an ancient route that connects Lerici at the eastern end to Portovenere on the western-most headland. It passes through wild countryside brimming with yellow-flowering broom and tall agaves, alongside farmers’ and fishermen’s houses, with gardens full of exotic palms and sweet-scented lemon trees. Historically, the two sea-faring settlements were long-standing rivals, opposed to each other across the bay and, as proof of this, their medieval fortresses and town defences stand guard to this day.
On a more harmonious note, a thrilling yacht race is held every year in the Gulf of Poets, in which some of the most magnificent sailing boats in the world compete. The lovely yachting marinas of Lerici, San Terenzo, Muggiano, Cadimare, Fezzano, Le Grazie and Portovenere are not only attractive stopping-off-points on a walk or a cruise, but are also home to historic shipyards, where the centuries-old craftsmanship of skilled carpenters and boat-builders is still put into practice. Even to this day, this ancient tradition is continued and the most beautiful of sea-going craft are constructed, restored and repaired.