It was magical standing on deck as the port and town of Genoa came into view: the sun just peeked through the clouds to cast an enchanting glow on the pastel coloured buildings and the excitement of a new country with all its tastes, smells, architecture and history ran through me and swelled my heart. And at that point, I understood a truth: I had enjoyed our time in Spain, but I really LOVE Italy! In 2014 we were lucky enough to spend a month touring this wonderful country and it was fabulous to be back!
With romantic music playing in my head and dreams of delicious ice cream on my mind, we descended to the car deck where I got an unwelcome reality check. The noise and chaos of everyone rushing to get off the ferry and the difficulty of navigating our way out of the port soon brought me down to earth. It was rush hour in Genoa and the city’s population were out in great number, keen to get where they needed to be. I had forgotten how fast they drive here!
We are in Liguria, which is an extremely mountainous region in north west Italy and the road south from Genoa passes through tunnel after tunnel. We lost count of how many we had driven through and it was busy too, with a constant stream of traffic speeding past us in the outside lane. After spending so long in Spain, we were all struck by how lush it was and the peaks around us were forested in dark green, bordering towns squeezed into the deep ravines up the mountainsides or perched on top of hills.
Arriving at our campsite, we had another shock – we were given the location of the touring pitches and when we got down there, they had a strange covering on them. What is this green, textured carpet on the ground, we wondered? Where is the dusty, gravel-covered area called a ‘pitch’ that we had been used to for the past 5 months?! Actually, the was lovely to be pitched on grass again after such a long time and the girls set about making daisy chains with all the daisies surrounding us. The caravan looked beautiful draped in them all for a few days.
Our campsite (Camping River) is on the outskirts of the little town of Ameglia, on a narrow strip of land between the River Magra and the Gulf of Poets, just south of La Spezia. It is a perfect little place with a general store, a gelateria, a couple of restaurants, several bakeries and a fish shop. The old part of town is perched on the hill above the newer section and it is a stimulating climb up hundreds of steps to reach the top. Once again we have lucked out (or was it good planning?!) in finding a campsite that is walking distance from such a lovely, untouristy town. As I sit writing this, I can hear the bells of the church on the hill tolling and the sun is warming the muted colours of the buildings, making them glow orange, red and yellow.
The hub of the town seems to be the area just off the main road where the small supermarket sits opposite the Gelateria L’Incontro (The Meeting). The supermarket is open from early until late every day, whereas the ice cream shop keeps very simple hours – 3pm until 8pm daily. And there have been times when we have been down there where the area around it has been buzzing with locals sitting on the plastic garden chairs outside chatting and enjoying enormous cones of creamy gelato. I can particularly recommend the chocolate and the cheesecake flavours!
The walk up to the old town, as I said, is a stimulating climb, up never ending flights of steps, past garden terraces, finally arriving at the Piazza della Libertà. When we first walked up, there was live music in the square and the bar was busy with locals enjoying a late afternoon drink whilst the children played. The town’s castle has been here since about 900AD and the streets around it are narrow and crumbling in the charming way of old Italian towns.
We stood for quite a while at the top, taking in the view with the valley spread out below and the Apuan Alps in the distance. Then, as we wandered around the quiet streets and descended again to the campsite, our senses were filled with colour and perfume: bright azaleas, cyclamen, clivia and freesias all growing outdoors in pots or gardens and wisteria growing wild along hedgerows and clinging to fir trees.
Lerici and San Terenzo
One of the first places we went to explore was nearby Lerici. This beautiful seaside town is archetypal Liguria: tall four and five storey houses, painted in reds, oranges and yellows crammed together around a small harbour, overlooked by an imposing medieval castle and alongside two lovely beaches.
This area of coastline is known as the Gulf of Poets and it is somewhere that artists and writers have come for generations, seeking peace and inspiration from the dramatic coastline. Percy and Mary Shelley lived here for a time, as did Lord Byron and DH Lawrence. It is also part of the Italian Riviera and is a very affluent area: in season the beaches will have loungers and parasols and you will have to pay for your square inch of sand, but in early April, it was quiet and free.
On our second visit to Lerici, we opted to walk along the waterfront to the nearby town of San Terenzo. This was picturesque, just like Lerici, but what a difference a week makes! It was Good Friday and we had entered the Easter holiday season. All of a sudden the quiet beach was packed; the deserted promenade was congested and we got a glimpse of what it must be like here in the summer. We watched as some local teenagers dived and hurled themselves into the clear water from a small jetty and diggers and cleaners worked hard to prepare a private stretch of beach for the season, clearing the winter’s build up of sand from paths and decks.
Easter in Italy
Easter in Italy consists of Pasqua, which is Easter Sunday, and Pasquetta (Little Easter), which is Easter Monday. There is a saying here – “Natalie con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” – that means ‘Christmas with your family and Easter with whoever you please’ and apparently a favourite pastime is to head out to the country for a picnic with friends. Grilled lamb is also a favourite food to eat and Easter Monday is sometimes called Lunedi dell’Agnello (literally Lamb’s Monday).
Easter eggs were in abundance in shops and supermarkets, but nothing like as many as in the UK. And they were all wrapped in cellophane rather than the boxes we are used to. The other item on sale everywhere was the Colomba. This cake, in the shape of a dove, belongs with Easter here, just as Panettone belongs with Christmas. You can buy your Colomba with or without mixed peel and some non-traditional varieties have strawberry, vanilla or chocolate sauce within them, but all have whole almonds on the top and are like a giant brioche in texture.
Just like the beaches in Lerici and San Torenzo, our campsite went from virtually empty to being full of Italian families partying and barbecuing in big groups. One group of five motorhomes spent ages parking up so that their doors all faced inwards towards each other for maximum sociability!
We have also done some hiking and are all getting fitter as a result: everywhere seems to be up (or down) a steep hill and we have discovered that walks take twice as long as they are rarely on the flat. One such hike was to Montemarcello, a little town on the hill at the end of the peninsular. We climbed along ancient paths, through woods and past an old monastery to this quiet and quaint little town. We had planned a longer, circular route to get back down again, but Megan had developed some blisters on her heels (on account of wearing trainer socks with her walking boots!) and also a storm was heading our way. As we took the direct route back to the car, the wind was picking up and we could hear the thunder getting closer and closer. We just made it back before the heavens opened!
We are planning to stay in this area a while longer. We have been to Cinque Terre (about which I will do a separate blog post) but we also want to go up into the mountains to see the marble quarries at Carrara and there are a few more hikes we would like to do. So far we are loving it here and the weather has been especially nice, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it continues.
Remembering Loved Ones
And finally, this blog post is dedicated to my friend Lisa, who died recently. She was such a positive and open person, truly beautiful inside and out. And she loved travelling: she was very supportive of us making this trip and followed our progress on Facebook and the blog when she could. This part of Italy will for evermore remind me of her: as her family and friends gathered at her funeral in the UK to say goodbye, I sat quietly in the tiny chapel of San Rocco in the centre of Lerici to say my own farewell to her. It was the best way I could think of to feel close to them whilst not being able to physically be with them.
As well as being the day of Lisa’s funeral, it was also the 25th anniversary of my dad passing away, so it was rather an emotional day for me. I lit a candle for both of them and spent some time reflecting on the fragility of life and how quickly all that we think is permanent and secure can be taken away. My thoughts were very much with Lisa’s husband, Andy, and her two children, who will now have to pick themselves up and find a way to carry on without her: they were also with Lisa and how she must’ve felt to know she had to leave them so soon and how hard that must’ve been. It was a poignant reminder to me that we need to make the most of ALL the days that we are given. We have no idea how many we have ahead of us and sometimes forget how precious each and every one of them is.
RIP Lisa (23rd December 1969 – 25th March 2017)