Explore the northern part of Tuscany

LUNIGIANA

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Lerici (254)
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he far edge of Tuscany, the Lunigiana is a historic region between Liguria and Tuscany. Nestled between valleys that open at the foot of two mountain chains, the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines and the Apuan Alps, it’s long been a transit territory and a border, wild and full of ancient, unique settlements.

This land is drenched in history and a dash of mystery. Its famous stele statues are fascinating, enigmatic, human-shaped monoliths that likely symbolized the Mother Goddess, left here by the Apuani and today on display in a museum dedicated entirely to them.

The beautiful archeological site in Luni offers us a glimpse of what Antiquity was like in this area, undoubtedly the most interesting trace handed down from the period of Roman rule. The charm of the Middle Ages is still tangible in the Lunigiana, waiting to be admired in the former Malaspina castles, like the one in Fosdinovo, the Romanesque parish churches, the imposing walls of Caprigliola and in its elegant tower built by the bishops of Luni.

This is a border land and a melting pot of cultures: the language spoken here demonstrates this, which doesn’t sound like it does in the rest of Tuscany; indeed, this way of speaking is influenced by Ligurian and Emilian accents, embodying, just like the area’s cuisine, the encounters between various traditions. The Lunigiana has always been a crossing ground for troops and pilgrims, mavericks and merchants’ caravans; it was only natural that it became an “intersection of streets leading towards civilization”. It’s not a coincidence that crossing through the small stretch of land between the peaks of these mountains is the first stretch of the via Francigena in Tuscany. All around the medieval route, trails and mule tracks were recovered, today perfect for hiking, where you can walk surrounded by dozens of castles, isolated towers and fortresses that appear unannounced, nestled in the hills and hidden in the green valleys.

As you explore this land, you can also have the chance to discover excellent traditional dishes of the Lunigiana’s cuisine. Your mouth will water over a plate of pesto testaroli, torte d’erbi, small focaccia bread from Aulla, panigacci from Podenzana, castagnacci, cream amor and many other typical food products that originate in this wild land.

The area is chock-full of little hidden gems, like Fivizzano, Equi, with its caves and hot springs, Zeri, home to thrilling ski runs, elegant Pontremoli and many other sites waiting to be discovered at a slow pace.

Versilia

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Lerici (254)
Lerici (255)
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Lerici, it's incredibale that such a beautiful seaside town that is right next t the very famous Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera, has largely evaded the radar of foreign tourists. With easy access from all over the world l

On a recent sunny spring afternoon, Riccardo Morlini, owner of Gelateria Arcobaleno, a tiny gelato shop on Lerici’s main piazza, offered his explanation: marketing. “The Cinque Terre has been sold touristically everywhere for a long time,” he said. “People know Cinque Terre all over the world. But Lerici, it’s not so known.”

Not so known outside Italy, that is. Lerici (pronounced LEH-ree-chee) is a jumble of pastel buildings that jockey for attention with its beaches, crescent-shaped coves and rocky cliffs that melt into the sparkling sea. And in July and August, the town is bustling, the beaches filled with local residents, vacationing families from northern Italy and a loyal crowd of in-the-know Milanese.

Around town, young couples flirt at waterfront cafes, children kick soccer balls beneath palm trees, and groups of white-haired men stroll along the beachfront promenade. Very few are speaking English. In Lerici, unlike many other Riviera towns, the lingua franca is still poetic Italian.

Lerici is flanked by areas all too well-known to foreign travelers. To the south, the flashy Tuscan resort towns of Versilia boast miles of sandy beaches crammed with pasty northern Europeans and bronzed Italians alike. And a few miles to the north is the Cinque Terre, five cliff-clinging hamlets connected by narrow footpaths that are overrun with Americans.

In fact, Lerici holds much of the same appeal as its more popular neighbors, with beautiful swaths of beach and miles of hiking trails with photogenic vistas, minus the suffocating crowds. The imposing medieval castle that looms above Lerici’s main piazza is the town’s defining feature, but the scenic mile-and-a-half-long promenade that stretches along the waterfront is its most dazzling. After passing boats bobbing lazily in the harbor and tracts of enormous rocks where sunbathers lie like sea lions, the promenade winds past a string of beaches en route to a smaller stone castle that anchors the neighboring village of San Terenzo.

South of Lerici, a narrow serpentine road — convex mirrors at every turn — snakes above the coastline, past hillside olive groves and the tiny town of Fiascherino, before dead-ending in the charming village of Tellaro. The clifftop route is vaguely reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast, with stunning views of turquoise sea and rugged shoreline around each corner. Taken together, the four towns of Lerici, San Terenzo, Fiascherino and Tellaro — a Quattro Terre, if you must — form the eastern edge of the Gulf of La Spezia, also known as the Golfo dei Poeti, the Poets’ Gulf.

For centuries, this area has been a haven for Italian artists and authors seeking solitude and inspiration in the beautiful landscape. In the beginning of the 19th century, it also emerged as a destination for the European literati abroad — an enclave for poets and writers that, over the years, has included notables like Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and D. H. Lawrence. More recently, the Italian writers Mario Soldati and Attilio Bertolucci settled in the area, extending the literary tradition.

“We had a lot of painters, we had singers, we had a lot of artists who were looking for a spot to hide,” said Francesca Mozer, who, with her mother, Nicoletta, owns the exclusive Eco del Mare beach club in Lerici. The secluded property was just a modest strip of sand tucked between towering cliffs and the glittering sea when her father, François, bought it in 1952, but it eventually evolved into a glamorous retreat for wealthy Italians. For the past two years, however, the club has been closed as construction transforms it into a tiny, rustic resort with 19 cabanas, a beachside restaurant and a seven-room hotel, all scheduled to open this weekend.

The hotel will be the third in the area — Piccolo Hotel del Lido and Hotel San Terenzo are the others — to open within the last five years; all cater to an affluent clientele. Several new structures are under construction between Lerici and San Terenzo. But the prospect of more hotel rooms and short-stay apartments — and, inevitably, increased tourism — threatens the town’s subtle air of exclusivity, making some residents uneasy.

“In Lerici, they’ve been fighting not to have tourism,” Ms. Mozer said. Nevertheless, Lerici appears to be preparing itself for the coming crowds: modern benches now adorn the main piazza, and last year major renovations were completed on the waterfront promenade.

For now, though, Lerici remains a place that tourists must actively seek out. Transportation may be one barrier. Since Lerici has no train station — a challenge for the Nutella-and-hostel backpacker crowd — most tourists arrive by car, though this, too, has created an obstacle.

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