Exploring Ligurian Coast, Cinque Terre and the Alpi Apuane
Here’s where Tuscans and others come to play on long sandy beaches. These beaches towns are lively, bustling places in the summer, and some what quieter in the off-season.
• 20 km (13 mi) northwest of Pisa, 97 km (60mi) west of Florence
Tobias Smollet (1721-1771), an English novelist, wrote in the 1760s that Viareggio was “a kind of sea-port on the Mediterranean…The roads are indifferent and the accommodation is execrable”.
Much has changed in Viareggio since Smollet’s time: there are lots of accommodations ranging from five-star splendor to one-star simplicity, for this is a beach town that gets very crowded in the summer. It’s loud, brassy, and not the place to come to if you’re looking for some peace and quiet.
Viareggio also has numerous buildings decorated in the Liberty style and a wide promenade parallel to the sea that resembles, in some ways, American boardwalks where tourist and locals alike come out to stroll.
Lining the main drag are bars, cafés, and some very fine restautants.
It’s worth a stop or a detour if you like the beach and want to see how middle-class Italians spend their beach vacations.
If you can’t make it to Venice for Carnevale (Carnival), settle for Viareggio, which is nearly as much fan as Venice. The city is packed with revellers from all over Tuscany who come to join in the riot of coloured parades and festivities.
Try to book lodging in advance, but beware : Lots of people want to be here to celebrate Carnival, and hotels acknowledge this fact by charging high-season prices.
• 8 km (5 mi) north of Viareggio, 104 km (65 mi) northwest of Florence
Pietrasanta has a gorgeous rectangular Renaissance Piazza del Duomo that gives you a feel for how grandly 15th-century architects conceived. Both Donatello and later Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) used marble quarried nearby.
Piazza del Duomo is a nice square to enjoy a coffee at an outside café and people-watch. The Porta Pisana will be on your left, as wll as the remains of the Rocca Arringhina, a structure dating from the 1320s and rebuilt in the 1480s.
On the corner of Via Padre e Barsanti and Piazza del Duomo is a plaque recording that Michelangelo signed a contract in 1518 on this spot to do the façade of San Lorenzo in Florence.
The Duomo, dedicated to San Martino and begun in the mid-13th century, is undergoing a lengthy restoration and is at present closed to the public. Most of the art inside dates from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The church of Sant’ Agostino was built in the 14th century by the Augustinians. Some 15th-century frescoes and paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries are contained within. It’s no longer a church but is used for special exhibitions.
The Museo dei Bozzetti contains a collection of sculptural sketches and models made by contemporary Italian and foreign artists, including the most important sculptors of this century in the Versilian workshops.
The Civico Museo Archeologico has objects from the 3rd millennium BC as well as pottery dating from the Renaissance. The collection is housed in the 15th-century Palazzo Moroni.
The church of Sant’ Antonio Abate (also know as the church of San Biagio) dates from the 14th-century and is dedicated to San Biagio. Inside are two wood polychromed sculptures of San Biagio and Sant’Antonio Abate dating from the 16th century. Frescoes by Colombian artist Fernando Botero (born 1932) depicting La Porta del Paradiso (The Gates of Heaven) and La Porta dell’ Inferno (The Gates of Hell), dating from the 1990s, are in the side nave.
Forte dei Marmi
• 5 km (3 mi) north of Pietrasanta, 14 km (9 mi) north of Viareggio, 104 km (65 mi) west of Florence.
Forte Dei Marmi is a playground for wealthy Italians and equally wealthy tourists. Its wide sandy beaches–strands run for 6 km (4 mi)–have the Apuan Alps as a dramatic background. The town was, from Roman times, the port who which marble from Carrara was quarried and then transported. In the 1920s, it became a fashionable seaside resort and has so remained to this day. During the winter, the town’s population is about 10,000, in the summer, it swells seven to eight times that.
• 8 km (5 mi) north of Forte dei Marmi, 22 km (14 mi) north of Viareggio, 115 km (74 mi) northwest of Florence.
Massa itself is not all that interesting. Should you find yourself here, attempt to visit the Rocca, which was built between the 14th and 16th centuries. To get there it’s a steep climb.
The fortress is currently undergoing restoration, but you can at least peek at the exterior. Things are livelier in Marina di Massa, Massa’s port 5 km (3 mi) south, where you can go to the beach and eat well, too.
• 26 km (16 mi) north of Viareggio, 7 km (4 mi) north of Massa, 126 km (79 mi) northwest of Florence
Carrara history dates to Roman times. In 963, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (912-973) donated the land that comprised Carrara to the bishops of Luni. The town faded into obscurity in the Middle Ages, and in the early 15th century it came under domination by the Malaspina family.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, it became a hotbed for anarchism, and during World War II, the town put up fierce resistance to the Nazis. The town is lively thanks to its art institute.
The Accademia di Belle Arti, founded by Maria Teresa Cybo Malaspina d’Este in 1769, draws studio art students from all over Italy. Their presence explains the funky atmosphere that’s found in some of the piazzas, and most likely explains why Carrara has a macrobiotic shop–something rare in Italy.
Marble has been quarried in the area for the past 2,000 years. Michelangelo, who is perhaps the most famous sculptor of all, quarried his marble here. The art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) records that Michelangelo came to Carrara with two apprentices to quarry the marble for his ill-fated tomb for Julius II (1443-1513).
According to Vasari, he spent eight months among the rocks conceiving fantastical ideas for future work. Carrara has a lot of still-active-quarries—well over a hundred at last count.
Most of them are not open to the public for safety reasons. However, it is possible to tour specific caves.
For the true gourmand, this is the time to sample lardo di colonnata, the sinfully delicious, cholesterol-be-damned cured pork fat. It hails from this area and can be eaten hot on crostini (grilled bread with a drizzle of olive oil and topping) or cold with other mixed meats.
Work begun on the Duomo in the 11th century and continued into the 14th. The cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew and is the first church of the Middle Ages constructed entirely of marble. Most of the marble comes from Carrara (the white, light blue-grey, black, and red).
The tremendous façade is a fascinating blend of Pisan Romanesque architecture and Gothic. Note the human figures and animals on Corinthian capitals.
The lovely Baroque church of San Francesco is worth looking at simply because of its understated elegance. It dates from the 1620s to 1660s, and even though it eas built during the peak years of the Baroque, the only excess can be found in the twisting, marble columns embellishing the altars.
• La Spezia 144 km (90 mi) west of Florence
The aura of isolation that has surrounded five almost inaccessible coastal villages known as Cinque Terre, together with their dramatic coastal scenery, has made them one of the eastern Riviera’s premier attraction.
Clinging haphazardly to steep cliffs, they are linked by footpaths, by train, and now by narrow, unasphalted and rather tortuous roads, a fairly recent development. The local train on the Genoa-La Spezia line stops at each town between Levanto and Riomaggiore. The westernmost village is Monterosso, but the easiest to reach by car is Riomaggiore, easternmost of the villages and closest to La Spezia and the A12 autostrada.
All five of the Cinque Terre and the tiny mountain settlements that are linked to them are connected by well-established hiking footpaths–for much of their history, these were the only way to get from town to town on land.
Although today the train, and to a certain extent the road, have surpassed the footpaths, they’re still well kept and showcase breathtaking ocean views as well as access to rugged, secluded beaches and grottoes that will never have a train station.
The largest of the five fishing towns is Monterosso, with a 12th-century church in the Ligurian style, lively markets, and small beaches.
To the east is Vernazza, a charming village of narrow streets, small squares and arcades, and the remain of forts dating from the Middle Ages.
The buildings, narrow lanes, and stairways of Corniglia, the middle village, are strung togheter on a hillside amid vineyards; excellent views of the entire coastal strip can be seen on a clear day.
The enchanting paste houses in Manarola are nestled into a steep hill, hugging the rocky shoreline.
At the eastern end of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore, hudled around a tiny harbor dotted with fishing boats and hemmed in by sheer cliffs.
Outdoor Activities and Sports
The most well-known and easiest hiking trail is the Via dell’ Amore (Lover’s Lane), which—going east to west—links Riomaggiore with Manarola (2 km/1 mi, 30 min) with a flat path cut into the cliffside.
The same trail continues to Corniglia (3 km/2 mi, 1 hr), the becomes more difficult between Corniglia and Vernazza (3 km/2 mi, 1,5 hrs).
Additionally, trails lead from Monterosso up the mountainside and back down to Vernazza, and into the mountains from Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, with historic churches and great views along the way.
Trail maps are available at the Monterosso tourist office.
Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and a hat, and bring a water bottle, as there is little shade.
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