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Levanto andthe Cinque Terre

You say Cinque Terre and what immediately comes to mind are the five villages, the names of which are always listed proceeding from west to east (who knows why): Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, Corniglia, and Riomaggiore. It is a unique “dream team” which UNESCO declared a “World Heritage Site” in 1997. The layout has set them one beside the other along the coast which from Genoa bends towards Tuscany. A stretch of coastline in which slopes and cliffs alternate, with dry stone walls, stairs and tiny vineyards defying gravity. It is a maze of trails that crosses maritime pine woods, olive groves, and Mediterranean brush like a roller coaster. But it does not end here. Just extend your gaze and discover other new marvels. Take Levanto, for example. It sits quietly over there at the threshold to welcome travellers heading towards the Cinque Terre or to say goodbye to those travelling the other way: it seems as if its destiny is to be contemporaneously an anticipation and a fulfilment, prologue and epilogue in one. And yet Levanto is not only “the gate to the Cinque Terre” as it is often called. It is also a real icon of “slow living,” rich in a thousand attractions, and really worth visiting and discovering. At least for ten reasons:

 

1. THE BIKE-PEDESTRIAN LANE FROM LEVANTO TO FRAMURA

To exercise your legs and lungs on the trails of the Cinque Terre, you can start from here, at the coastal trail that connects Levanto to Framura, on foot or by bike. A pleasant 30 minutes' walk will lead you to the charming village of Bonassola, through the tunnels of the former 19th century railway lines, all dug out of the rocks. Let your eyes rest on their typical “drop-shaped” structure with exposed bricks: a fascinating artefact. If you have a little more time (and still have energy!), go up to Framura, along a track alternating tunnels and enchanting views of the sea.

 

2. THE CASINO AND HISTORIC VILLAS

You cannot fail to see it: the massive red fascist-style structure with swimming pool. As its name says, it was once a casino. Converted into a restaurant in the 1960s, it became one of the hubs of the Italian jet set singers. Leaving behind the Casinò, walk along the promenade towards the “Pietra” (see point 4). Here you find elegant Liberty-style villas in various light hues that look out with aristocratic aplomb over the promenade that enlivens this stretch of the walkway.

 

3. VILLA AGNELLI

At the end of the promenade you find Villa Agnelli, one of the summer residences commissioned at the start of the 20th century by Giovanni Agnelli. Does the name Fiat mean anything to you? Beyond the gate the greens of the Italian garden peek out, with a broad stone staircase calmly leading up the hill slope. At the foot of the stairway, framed by a full arch in stone, is the statue of a young, half-dressed girl with generous curves who looks like she’s dancing. Voulez-vous danser?

 

4. LA PIETRA

“La Pietra” snuggles on the tip of rocks, sharpened like the bow of a boat heading straight towards the horizon. Most of coastline boat trips start here. When the sea is rough you may enjoy the show of surfers who come to Levanto from all over the world to ride the “Double Overhead”, waves that are at least double the height of a person, a thing that only specialists can do (if you are wondering why we still have not told you exactly what the “Pietra” is, it is simply because… you have to find out for yourself!).

 

5. THE GROTTESCHE

Via Guani unwinds like a snake connecting Via Dante to Piazza del Popolo. It dates back to the 12th century, when it was created as a roadway for the transport of goods, as testified to by the architectonic remains of warehouses and mercantile abodes at streets numbers 5 and 35. At the crossing with Via Vinzoni, next to Porta San Cristoforo, don’t be surprised if you feel observed. From high, behind a transparent pane, some funny gentlemen and a bosomy dame look out over the walkway: they are the “grottesche” (grotesque statues) depicting some regular clients of the tavern that was once in the building below. And who knows what that merchant with long hair and chubby cheeks is panting for?

 

6. THE MEDIEVAL LODGE

The lodge is a historical late-medieval building dating back to the 14th century. Endowed with five segmental arches in bricks, it once looked out over the old port-canal (later buried by materials brought down the valley by streams). An attractive place, in a few seconds it will make you go back in time to when it was a hub of maritime trade, with merchants intent in negotiating and doing the customs paperwork, and announcements and edicts were proclaimed. In 2007, UNESCO acknowledged it as a “Heritage for a Culture of Peace”.

 

7. SANT’ANDREA CHURCH

Climbing back up the lane of Via Toso, you get a glimpse of a building with black and white strips, just like a zebra. That is the Church of Sant’Andrea with the typical Siena Gothic facade, with alternating white Carrara marble and local green serpentine stone. Inside is a wooden crucifix it conserves particularly revered by the population: tradition says it was found on the western beach, which was therefore baptized “Vallesanta” (the "Holy Valley"). If you are lucky, up there you can have the chance to enjoy a concert of the Levanto Choir or the Amphitheatrof Festival: close your eyes and pamper your ears.

 

8. THE MEDIEVAL CASTLE AND CLOCK TOWER

To reach the castle, go beyond the Church of Sant’Andrea. From here you will immediately notice the century-old city walls with their gates and the ruins of the ancient watch towers. The only tower that survived the passing of time is the Clock Tower. The castle dates back to the 16th century but it seems that its core was built in 1165, for defence purposes. It is said that several underground passages branched off its foundation, going towards the beach, the Church of Santissima Annunziata and the convent (please, do not ask why...). It was used as a prison up to 1797, and today it is a private home.

 

9. PIAZZA DELLA COMPERA

It is easy to reach but most of the people only get there by chance. Take Via Toso, then turn left and follow the alley paved with pebbles and red bricks, up to the end, just after a sharp bend: you are now in Piazzetta della Compera. This is quite an unknown place, so charming in its simplicity. The old Liguria-style houses in pale red and salmon hues stand close to one another to draw a square that boasts perfect acoustics. Attending a piano concert here, by the light of the lanterns and cradled by the summer warmth, may turn out to be a magical experience.

 

10. THE HAMLETS

Levanto does not end here. If you wish to definitively become a disciple of “slow” living, then you are ready to head towards the hinterland valleys dotted with hamlets populating it. Immersed in a landscape of vineyards, orchards, olive and chestnut groves, each hamlet has a story to tell, with its churches, chapels and houses of various colours, like Lavaggiorosso, which clings to a steep rock with its narrow alleys, its vaults and houses with originally decorated doors (Lavaggiorosso is known as “The hamlet of painted doors”). The buildings of Legnaro gather around the delightful Church of San Pietro, then there are Fossato, Groppo, Dosso, Fontona, Montale, Lizza, Ridarolo... And when evening comes and you have returned to the sea, you will see from afar the hamlets fluctuating in the darkness like the little stars of a constellation which is no longer be a mystery to you.

 

11. “LAURA FILM FESTIVAL”

Created by the cinema reviewer Morando Morandini, and currently directed by Amedeo Fago, the Laura Film Festival has become an essential reference point for cinema lovers. This event is finally back (we hope!) after one year's sabbatical leave, and really deserves a “hors concours” recommendation, besides our personal encouragement. Among the numberless guests of excellence in the past editions, we remember with special pleasure Colin Firth who defined the Laura Film Festival as the best cinema festival of the world. Sorry to disappoint you, but he was not exaggerating.