Italy's Ligurian coast with Elderhostel

This item appears on page 56 of the March 2008 issue.

One of the most beautiful parts of Italy, the Ligurian coast, was the setting for the 10-night “The Gulf of Poets and the Cinque Terre” program of Elderhostel (11 Ave. de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111; 800/454-5768, The land price for the tour, April 24-May 2, 2007, was $2,568 plus a single supplement of $330.

Lerici is a small resort town situated at the entrance to the Gulf of La Spezia. It has several beaches and many outdoor shopping opportunities along the palm-tree-lined walkway to the north.

For all 10 nights, our group of 27 and an Elderhostel tour coordinator were based at the charming Hotel Shelley e delle Palme (Hooray! No packing and unpacking). All of the rooms faced the sea and had a sweeping view of the curve of beautiful coastline, including the marina and the town’s magnificent fortress, magically lighted at night. Even the sixth-floor breakfast room had a view (along with wonderful coffees and a bountiful buffet).

Most dinners were taken at the hotel and several times held “al fresco” at its seaside restaurant. For each course we were offered three choices. A special touch — during the entire program, wine was included with both lunch and dinner. Wherever our almost-daily field trips took us, the lunches provided at unique, family-run restaurants were fabulous, with a variety of fresh seafood and often the signature dish of pesto pasta.

The program included the following excursions, most preceded by lectures regarding the day’s events: a ferry across to colorful Portovenere, where we wandered narrow, traffic-free streets continuing up to the blue coves of “Byron’s Grotto” and the 12th-century chapel set on the point; the port of La Spezia to visit the castle and Museum of San Giorgio, and Genoa for the Villa Andrea Doria, Doges Palace and Piazza Ferrari in the medieval quarter.

Two other days were exceptional. One took place at the foot of the Apuan Alps in Cararra, beginning with a fascinating stop at a larderia for an assaggino (taste). (A larderia cures and serves lardo, a regional specialty. Back fat from freshly slaughtered pork is cut into slabs and cured in marble tubs with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary and other herbs for six months. It is very mild in taste and never eaten in chunks but served paper thin on bread or with salad.)

This was followed by a visit to the Museum of Marble, watching sculptors at work, and a short bus trip up a winding, narrow road into active marble quarries.

On the last day, we drove to delightful Pontremoli, a pretty village of few tourists and with a museum of prehistoric menhir statues discovered in the area. Some of us climbed the hill to its fortress, which had a spectacular view of the river Magra and patchwork fields below.

At Pelliccia, on the picturesque square, we had one of our finest lunches, where we were surprised with course after course of local specialties. Afterward, another brief drive took us through the forested hills to 15th-century Malaspina Castle — complete with trap doors, torture chamber and dungeon — which in summer is still visited by descendants of the family.

We spent two full days in the Cinque Terre in order to see all five of the villages, traveling one day by ferry, the other by train. We walked along high terraced vineyards, visited a local wine producer and strolled the famous “Via dell’Amore” from Riomaggiore to Manarola, where we had another divine lunch at bustling Marina Piccola, sitting at long tables on an open terrace close to the sea.

Prices at Marina Piccola were about €10 (near $15) for antipasti and €20 for an assortment of hot and cold fish-based dishes which are meant to be shared. Prices at Pelliccia were slightly lower because it is an area less frequented by tourists.

I especially liked quaint and less-frequented (therefore peaceful) Corniglia, perched atop a rocky cliff affording expansive views of the vineyards and open sea. In order to reach it, you may take either a small bus (€0.50) or more than 300 wide steps, which I chose to do on the way down. There you can imagine what all of the Cinque Terre was like until about 20 years ago, when it was “discovered.”

During free time, some of us also walked to the tiny, multihued bays of Fiascherino and Tellaro, where D.H. Lawrence lived and wrote. On our free day, a boat trip to Portofino could be arranged for those interested.

Our two knowledgeable Italian and British tour coordinators live in the area so knew it well. One or both were with us constantly. Topics of lectures to help us better understand the nature of the area included wine making over the centuries on the terraced slopes of the Cinque Terre; the history of the Lunigiana (early occupants of a colony annexed in 177 B.C. in the area around Pontremoli); preparing and cooking local foods; learning basic Italian, and the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, who in the early 1800s stayed for many years and found it both stunning and inspirational.

This is not considered a “hiking” program, but one should be in good condition and prepared to walk uphill and down, often over uneven terrain. Keep in mind, however, that your perseverance will reward you with unforgettable sights!


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