The storm that hit the Gulf of La Spezia on 8th July, 1822 was sudden and fateful. Percy Bysshe Shelley, en route from Livorno in his boat, Aerial, to his home in the village of San Terenzo, was tragically drowned.
I have always been a great fan of the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. At school, the nuns encouraged us to learn quite a lot of their poems off by heart and I can still remember large chunks of wonderful odes and sonnets. But the poem I loved most was ‘Ode to the West Wind’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley and I developed a great curiosity about his life and his early death by drowning off the coast of Liguria.
The Gulf of La Spezia, named after the main town on this deep bay in the Ligurian Sea, became widely known as the Gulf of Poets due to the incredible number of poets and artists who settled there over the centuries. As the bay is only 4.5 kilometres in length, it is extraordinary how many of them frequented this magical area. Quite apart from Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, regular visitors and residents included George Gordon Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Gabriele D’Annunzio, William Turner, George Sand, Dante, Petrarch and many more.
After Shelley was drowned at the tender age of 29, his wife Mary – the writer of ‘Frankenstein’ – had been anxiously pacing, awaiting his arrival at their rented home, Villa Magni, a sixteenth century converted monastery on the shore at San Terenzo. Having just suffered a miscarriage, she was unwell and, quite possibly, depressed.
I have seen old photographs of Villa Magni from the late 19th century when it was situated in splendid isolation on the seashore between the village of San Terenzo and the larger town of Lerici, where Shelley used to moor his boat. It is now surrounded by houses that look out over the Gulf of Poets.
When Shelley moved into Villa Magni, the ground floor was used as a boathouse and the sea came right up to the door. The first floor was where the Shelleys lived, with their son Percy Florence, Mary’s sister Claire and other relatives and friends. From what I have read about their time there, Percy Bysshe loved the villa while Mary found its atmosphere unsettling.
Apparently, the wild behaviour of this merry group of poets and artists caused quite a stir in the locality. Free love and outdoor nudity were looked on as scandalous and even their atheism and vegetarianism caused raised eyebrows.
Being a great friend of the Shelleys, Lord Byron regularly swam from Portovenere to visit them. He is still revered in the town and has a grotto named after him.
In fact, on arriving there, the first thing I noticed was a Lord Byron Pizzeria!
Livorno – known then as Leghorn – was where Shelley’s final trip had begun. He had been to visit Lord Byron in Pisa and to greet another poet and close friend, Leigh Hunt, who had just arrived from England with his large family. The sea finally gave up Shelley’s corpse at Viareggio, a seaside town on the Tuscan coast, approximately half way between Livorno and San Terenzo, where he was cremated on the shore on a large pyre, as required by law at the time.
San Terenzo is a pretty village with a long lungomare (promenade). With its castle situated on a cliff and the bay spread in front, it is easy to see why so many poets and artists loved this little village. Just 3 kilometres walk along the lungomare from Lerici, it is mainly a fishing village full of colourful houses, with a relaxed atmosphere.
My own visit was spent mainly in Lerici, ‘Pearl of the Gulf of Poets’, where I stayed at the Hotel Shelley with its wonderful view of the gulf.
Situated on the Italian Riviera in the province of La Spezia in Liguria, Lerici is conveniently located for ferries to the Cinque Terre and Portovenere.
Overlooked by a 12th century castle, Lerici is the largest village along the bay and is directly opposite far more touristy Portovenere. The views from the castle are wonderful.
And a stroll at sundown is magical.
During my winter visit to Lerici a few years ago heavy rains had caused several landslides. As a result, the road from Lerici to Tellaro had been blocked by a landslide, as had the lungomare between Lerici and San Terenzo.
A ferry had been provided to transport people, both visitors and locals, to Tellaro and I decided to pay a visit.
Tellaro is consistently ranked in the top ten most beautiful villages in Italy. I was certainly not disappointed. Just 5 kilometres from Lerici, it is a small colourful village with narrow streets and wonderful views across the bay.
Getting there: Fly to Pisa and take the train to La Spezia where there are regular buses to take you to any of these three beautiful villages.