By Ingrid K. Williams
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- June 16, 2010
HOW is it that Lerici, an undeniably beautiful seaside town just minutes from the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera, has largely evaded the radar of foreign tourists?
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.
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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.
“Parking is a problem,” said Laura Baroni, who together with her sisters, Simonetta and Alessia, owns Enoteca Baroni, a small shop and wine bar that has occupied the same storefront on a shady pedestrian alleyway in Lerici’s historic center since 1961. “There are just 500 spaces, and after that, there’s nowhere to go,” she added, alluding to the main pay parking lot near the Venere Azzurra public beach, a 15-minute stroll from the center of town.
Compounding the issue, nonresidents are prohibited from driving into the center of Lerici, which leaves visitors with few alternatives when the lot is full, as it often is during the summer. Though inconvenient, this restriction has limited the number of tourists and, in turn, has allowed Lerici to retain much of the authenticity that has captivated visitors for centuries.
Tucked behind the San Terenzo castle at the northern terminus of the seafront promenade, a cove of golden sand and sparkling, emerald water is hidden by the undulating coastline. Built into the rocky cliffs high above the beach is the equally secluded, treehouse-like Vertigo Bar, which opened three years ago. A serene hideaway for an afternoon aperitivo, it’s a spot that requires some effort to find, much like Lerici itself.
“It’s quiet, sometimes too quiet,” said the owner, Leandro Collini, as the static of waves echoed off the surrounding cliffs. “But,” he added, with a shrug and a smile, as he watched his children frolic with friends on the beach below, “I like it.”
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
The Piccolo Hotel del Lido (Via Biaggini 24, Lerici; 39-0187-968-159; locandadellido.it) opened in 2006 and is still the most luxurious option in town. The 12 minimalist rooms have terraces with sun loungers, huge showers and panoramic sea views. Doubles from 210 euros, or about $245 at $1.17 to the euro (with parking).
Insist on a sea-view room at the 14-room Hotel San Terenzo (Via Biaggini 42, San Terenzo; 39-0187-972-469; hotelsanterenzo.it), which opened in May 2009. The scene outside the floor-to-ceiling windows is so stunning that you won’t notice the ho-hum décor. Sea-view doubles start at 200 euros (parking included).
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Bontà Nascoste (Via Cavour 52, Lerici; 39-0187-965-500; www.bontanascoste.it) serves excellent Ligurian specialties like pesto, mussels and farinata, but has only eight tables inside, so reserve.
Skip the mediocre restaurants on Lerici’s main piazza and instead book a table on the terrace at Il Senatore (Via Byron 11, Fiascherino; 39-0187-967-236; locandailsenatore.com), a fantastic seafood restaurant overlooking the beach in Fiascherino.
Gelateria Arcobaleno (Piazza Garibaldi 20, Lerici; 39-348-755-3715) serves the best gelato in the area, hands down. The Lerici flavor — caramel gelato with toasted pine nuts and chocolate — is truly inspired.
For a glass of Vermentino in the shade or a bottle of 1978 Barolo to go, head to Enoteca Baroni (Via Cavour 18, Lerici; 39-0187-966-301).
Vertigo Bar (Spiaggia Marinella, San Terenzo; 39-366-500-9919) is the most atmospheric bar around and will host live music Thursday nights starting next month.A version of this article appears in print on June 20, 2010, Section TR, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: An Italian Beauty Without Foreign Suitors.