Typical Mediterranean seaport
100 km south east of Genoa. Italian sailors throng the steep streets of the old quarter, contributing to the rich warm humming life of a typical Mediterranean seaport. The naval barracks and dockyard are in the harbour area, with a first-class naval museum (www.marina.difesa.it/EN/history/museums/Pagine/museotecniconavale.aspx) in the old gun factory. Along a spacious promenade run terraces of pink and primrose mansions, set in extravagant layouts of palms, oleanders and rhododendrons. Here everything is post-1945 – La Spezia underwent a three-month wartime bombardment which left only stumps of palm-trees on her waterfront.
On the heights, from the Isolabella and Castellazzo gates in the city walls (you can drive to them), you have views of the soft blue Spezia gulf. You can see Lerici, where Shelley set up house with a complex menage and Byron swam over from Portovenere (5 km) to meet him. Shelley drowned in a sailing accident but other celebrities colonized Lerici, Fiascherino, Tellaro and San Terenzo: D.H. Lawrence wrote about the problems of getting Frieda’s piano down the cliffs. Excursion boats and buses from La Spezia visit every corner of this populous gulf of which the jewel is Portovenere.
Detour – Apuan Alps
16 km south east of La Spezia. Pure white marble, a freak of geology, they break above the Tuscan shore and make a foamy backdrop to the sunny resorts and pinewoods of Marina di Carrara, Marina di Massa, Forte dei Marmi and Pietrasanta. For 300 years Italy has exported these mountains all over the world, chiefly for prestigious public buildings. In Massa and Carrara, where dust settles like snow, homely items like bedsteads and babies’ teething rings are made of marble.
Drive to the quarries behind Massa and Carrara into a white world of crevices, dust-heaps and marble litter. Sounds are muffled except for the steady whirr of the saws. Souvenir marble is sold on site. Michelangelo spent seven years at Pietrasanta choosing one marble block. Some say it was a woman, not the marble, that kept him there.
Detour – Portovenere
12 km south of La Spezia, Gulf of Spezia (www.cinqueterre.eu.com/en/portovenere). Tightly-packed medieval houses and sea front ramparts which were part of Genoa’s defensive system resist the ravages of tourism. Coves, grottoes and the sea bed attract explorers. The minuscule Grotto Arpaia, or ‘Byron’s Grotto’, inspired the poet’s Corsair and a few years later Wagner wrote part of Das Rheingold on the same spot. Many boatloads of visitors from La Spezia (12 km) in summer, quiet at night and out of season.