Italy’s Lerici could be nicknamed a Poet’s Place given its popularity with the British Romantic Poets. As the public ferry crosses the bay from Portovenere to Lerici, which is located on Italy’s Ligurian coast, I think of an impetuous Lord Byron swimming in these crystal blue waters.
Portovenere venerates the poet’s presence in their village with a grotto adorned with the sign—Lord Byron was here. If you want to risk the swirling water crashing on the shoals, you can copy his escapades by swimming to Italy’s Lerici. Most Italians prefer to sun their bronze backs on the boulders that festoon this grotto at Costa Lerici. They look like turtles with shells raised in the sun. I choose instead to catch the morning ferry so I can spend the day in Lerici. I have been admiring Lerici’s skyline from my port side terrace in Portovenere. At night the lights of Leirici shimmer like jewels. I feel like I am looking at diamonds, sapphires, and gold, resting on a midnight-blue blanket.
My first impression of Lerici is a stacked box of Crayola with a few lone crayons crookedly sticking out. The seaside town boasts pastel-painted homes—lemon, blueberry, peach, and cherry—that frame the wide swath of the beach. White pleasure boats bob in the sparkling sapphire water. The flapping sail as a boat eases out of the harbor reminds me of laundry left out to dry, the linen sheet slapping the air. The hulking castle built in the 1200s built by invaders from Pisa stands sentinel on the horizon. It is so Italianesque that it feels like a Disney World hoax.
What is even more startling is this pearl on the necklace connecting little towns comprising the Italian Riveria is not overrun by the walkers, hikers, and camping crowd drawn to Cinque Terre (less than a short boat ride away). Restrictions on parking, lack of a train station, and a reluctance to cash in on tourism keep Italy’s Lerici unmolested by the mobs.
I came to this charming Italian beach town on a quest. Like novelist Henry James, I want to do homage to one of the greatest poets in English literature. Instead of a rowboat, I will traverse the Gulf of La Spezzi (which is known as the Bay of Poets).
And it was here that Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned while sailing his boat (christened the Don Juan) from Livorno to Lerici during a wild storm.
But Shelley describes this bay in more favorable terms in a poem penned before his untimely death.
“And the wind that wing’d their flight
From the land came fresh and light,
And the scent of winged flowers,
And the coolness of the hours
Of dew, and sweet warmth left by day,
Were scatter’d o’er the twinkling bay.”—Percy Bysshe Shelley
I am in the thrall of Lerici’s wide harbor, the sandy beaches that stretch around the cove, and the brilliant blue sea. So the second I step on the dock, I head out to stroll the promenade at Italy’s Lerici. I visit Lerici in July, so the beaches are covered with sun worshipers.
My plan is to read sections from Henry James’ travelogue—Italian Hours. I will time travel back to 1909 and see Italy through his writings. I meander along the promenade until I find an Osteria where I can order a glass of wine and a frizzante aqua.
From this vantage point, I can observe Italy’s Leirici with my literary binoculars. In the chapter “Italy Revisited,” James describes this quaint seaside town: “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.”
And so James sketches without canvas or oils his Portrait of A Sea Village. He travels to Lerici on a sentimental pilgrimage. It is well-trod ground for the British. Henry James writes:
“The place is classic to all English travellers, for in the middle of the curbing 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 in that short southern cruise from which he never returned.”—Henry James
James describes the house as “strangely shabby and sad,” which summons of an image of a weather-worn old man shambling along a beach path. He humps over as the wind pursues him. Shelley’s residence faced the sea. Its walls are scarred and battered. But the poet’s muse is this idyllic setting on the sea. James writes of a loggia with several arches opening to a little terrace; a rugged parapet must take the brunt of salt spray when the wind blows: “The place is classic to all English travellers, for in the middle of the curbing 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 in that short southern cruise from which he never returned.”
And so like James, I can hardly remember a more bittersweet moment than to sit here now in a perfect summer afternoon in Lerici and think back nearly two centuries when Shelley wrote here. His lodestar was Nature. He prized the forests and their occupants. He esteemed the skylark in its namesake poem.
I devote another two hours during my visit to Lerici to climb the twisting streets to reach the city’s summit. I want to visit Lerici’s 12th-century castle. Castillo di Lerici hunkers down, a stony bull ready to do siege with any Mediterranean invaders. You can also take a lift from the town to reach the castle but then you will miss the moments of turning back toward the sea to get the panoramic views during your ascent. I prefer to walk like the villagers, smell a waft of lemon as I pass the fruit tree, and admire the profusion of geraniums and rose beds.
I also see ample examples of the “bosky” landscape noted by James (meaning covered with or consisting of bushes or thickets). I finally reach the terrace of the polygonal-shaped castle. There is a charge to tour the interior. But it is free to walk around the fortification and gaze at the panoramic views.
But the poet’s muse is this idyllic setting on the sea. James writes of a loggia with several arches opening to a little terrace; a rugged parapet must take the brunt of salt spray when the wind blows: “The place is classic to all English travellers, for in the middle of the curbing 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 in that short southern cruise from which he never returned.”
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