In The Shadow Of Cinque Terre, Discovering The Treasures Of La Spezia

Will the loved-to-death, storm-martyred Cinque Terre ever see the light at the end of the tunnel?

Which tunnel? There are many, many tunnels between the wave-lashed coves and perched, pastel-painted villages of the over-subscribed, over-reported, and now brutally hobbled Cinque Terre.

Above all there’s a long, dark tunnel not of love but of disdain or disregard in the mind of the global public lying between the little-loved, unsung port city of La Spezia and the tourist mecca of the Cinque Terre 5 miles north.

The latest blow to the Riviera’s breathtakingly picturesque suspended villages came last September, with yet another flash flood and killer landslide.

While the world’s attention was focused on Sandy, smaller but similarly devastating storms hit the eastern Italian Riviera. Four people were seriously injured. Hillsides and hiking trails slid into the hungry Mediterranean’s waves. Since September, the authorities have closed not only the roller-coaster hiking trail #2 linking all five Cinque Terre villages, but also the celebrated Via dell’Amore seaside stroll between Riomaggiore and Manarola.Does this mean blissful silence and solitude as in the good old days? Sure, but there’s a price to pay.

The cafes, restaurants and hotels of Monterosso, Vernazza and the other three villages are empty for now. So too are the cash tills of the Cinque Terre National Park, where normally rangers sell tickets to mobs happy to pay to stride among the millions through the land of dreamy dreams.

Meanwhile, south in homely La Spezia, life doesn’t just go on – it’s positively hopping. After a morning of condolences in Monterosso and Vernazza, my wife and I de-trained famished at La Spezia Centrale and hoofed it down a long, wide, pedestrianized street of handsome buildings leading to the palm-lined port. Our nostrils twitched in the air. We were not being snobs: we were following the irresistible scent of fresh-baked farinata chickpea tart.

The scent wafted from La Pia, a cult, century-old, pizzeria-style place in the heart of old La Spezia’s tangled alleyways. Chickpea tart is a local culinary obsession. It’s blistered, yellow, soft and, in La Spezia, also creamy in texture.

Farinata is a favorite of the merchant marine and Italian navy crews that fill La Spezia year round. There aren’t many tourists at La Pia or anywhere else, unless they’re catching trains or ferry boats to the Cinque Terre, or maybe heading to Portovenere and Lerici to see where Shelley drowned.

Much about La Spezia is rough-and-ready. Seated in the centuries-old, raucous maw of La Pia, we wolfed our succulent farinata, devouring it off plastic plates. It was nutty tasting, redolent of olive oil, and it was divine.

Outside towering cranes swung over docklands. Ferries came and went. Fishermen unloaded everything from La Spezia’s famed mussels to flipping-fresh bass and slippery squid. One of the region’s biggest markets is here. It was teeming with humanity.

We’ve been to La Spezia many times; some of its restaurants and specialty food shops are among the favorites listed in my book “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa.”

But in all the times we’ve visited, we’d never climbed the hilly knob in the center of town. From below it seems to merge Genoa, San Francisco and Montmartre, pleated with staircases. A sign pointed to a castle and museum. We’d never heard of them.

Atop a lung-bursting rise we spotted stegosaur-crenellations and scary battlements of the kind seen on better castles. They led to a ramp and gaping gateway. Inside the castle was spot-lit, dust-free, high-tech and artfully filled with display cases. The cases were in turn filled with exquisite antiquities. The only thing that wasn’t filled was the castle itself. We had it to ourselves.

The lonely ticket-seller gave us brochures and told us how to navigate this vast pile built in part in the 1300s but added to again and again, then transformed in the early 2000s into the municipal museum. Our footsteps echoed on stone floors. Beckoning us were local archeological finds from nearby ancient Luni plus other Bronze Age or Iron Age sites.

A finely sculpted horse’s head 2,400 years old might have inspired an Art Deco artist. Delicate painted ceramics of equal antiquity showed wild boars and lions. A mosaic sea goddess rode a monstrous mosaic sea monster, its mouth agape.

Jewelry, weapons, tombstones, plates, jars and architectural motifs; the displays led from one cavernous room to another, up ramps and staircases, higher and higher. At each turn a more gorgeous view appeared through one of the castle’s cannon-hole windows.

My wife spotted a bronze spearhead from 1700 B.C. A bronze hammer next to it was even older.

The beauty of these objects haunted me. The thought that men and women had fashioned them in and around La Spezia and Luni – about 10 miles away – all those millennia ago made my head spin. But it was the half-moon-shaped tombstones that mesmerized me most. And they were 5,000 years old or more.

By the time we clambered onto the uppermost outdoor terrace we needed fresh air. Several things struck me. First, how could such a splendid museum be so utterly unknown? Second, how could neglect by the global mob have been the fate of such a seductive small city? It was homely only if you didn’t take time to look at it, walk through it and eat its divine foods.

The answer was clear. I gazed at the seafront, the huge port facilities, the heavy industry far off in the suburbs, the navy ships, the ungainly high-rise apartment towers. This was real and I liked it. Over the steep, olive-stippled hillsides due west of La Spezia, through that long, dark tunnel, lay the answer: the dreamy, unreal Cinque Terre villages were just 5 miles away. La Spezia was safe. Like Genoa it was a city for the intrepid, individual traveler. I sighed with satisfaction. Alone atop our castle, we wondered if we should tell anybody about our find.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are,, and, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photos Credits: Alison Harris or David Downie]