The poets’ places
The La Spezia bay is known as the “Gulf of Poets. But what is the reason of this name? Which poets have spent their lives here and praised the beauty of the area?
If you want to follow a romantic itinerary to your journey in La Spezia, and visit the poets’ places, this is a short guide to the stops you shouldn’t miss. Probably, the two edges of the gulf are the hot spots of this theme journey, as they were two popular destinations for British romantic writers.
Probably the most popular one is the so told “Byron Grotto”, in Portovenere: the grotto name is also “Grotta Arpaia” a small bay located in a spectacular point, behind the San Pietro Church and underneath the spectacular high cliffs joining Portovenere to the Cinque Terre area. Traditionally, this breathtaking point was the departure point of the challenging swimming that Lord Byron undertook in 1822 to reach his friend Percy B. Shelley and his wife Mary, both poets too, who stayed at Villa Magni in San Terenzo. There is no evidence of this fact, yet to Byron is dedicated an international swimming competition, taking place every year at the end of August, when over fifty swimmers from all over the world, professionals and amateurs, compete in the eight kilometers and 800 meters of sea dividing Porto Venere to San Terenzo.
George Sand also spent part of her life in Portovenere, that inspired her romantic and dramatic writing:
The sea is a painting that changes in color and mood every minute, day and night. There are profundities here filled with a clangor whose dreadful variety is hard to imagine; all the cries of despair, all the curses of hell intermingle here, and under my little window I hear in the night voices from the abyss that sometimes roar in a nameless bacchanalia, at others, savage hymns fearsome even in the extent of the consolation they bring.
San Terenzo hosted Percy and Mary Shelley with his son Percy Florence, friends Jane and Edward Williams lived from April to September 1822 at Villa Magni, the white house decorated with arches overlooking the sea. And even today there are signs of this past. Hotels and restaurants dedicated to these characters are scattered throughout the area.
The English writer David H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterley, wrote to Edward Garnett on 6 October 1913:
If you want to know a place to rest in Italy, I say Lerici, but come and stay here with us in Fiascherino
Henry James, American writer who spent most of his life in England, in his “Italian Hours” in 1977 writes
The great merit of Spezia, to my eye, is that I engaged a boat there of a lovely October afternoon and had myself rowed across the gulf – it took about an hour and a half – to the little bay of Lerici, which opens out of it. This bay of Lerici is charming; the bosky grey-green hills close it in, and on either side of the entrance, perched on a bold headland, a wonderful old crumbling castle keeps ineffectual guard. The place is classic to all English travellers, for in the middle of the curving shore is the now desolate little villa in which Shelley spent the last months of his short life. He was living at lerici when he started on that short southern cruise from which he never returned. The house he occupied is strangely shabby and as sad as you may choose to find it. It stands directly upon the beach, with scarred and battered walls and a loggia of several arches opening to a little terrace with a rugged parapet, which, when the wind blows, must be drenched with the salt spray. The place is very lonely – all overwearied with sun and breeze and brine – very close to nature, as it was Shelley’s passion to be. I can fancy a great lyric poet sitting, on the terrace of a warm evening and feeling very far from England in the early years of century. In that place, and with his genius, he would as a matter of course have heard in the voice of nature a sweetness which only the lyric movement could translate. It is a place where an English-speaking pilgrim himself may very honestly think thoughts and feel moved to lyric utterance. But I must content myself with saying in halftoning prose that I remember few episodes of Italian travel more sympathetic, as they have it here, than that perfect autumn afternoon; the half-hour’s station on the little battered terrace of the villa; the climb to the singularly felicitous old castle that hangs above lerici; the meditative lounge, in the fading light, on the vine-decked platform that looked out toward the sunset and the darkening mountains and, far below, upon the quiet sea, beyond which the pale-faced magic villa stared up at the brightening moon.?
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