“I’m glad I am a woman who once danced naked in the Mediterranean Sea at midnight.” -Mercedes McCambridge
Did you know that English poet Lord Byron swam across the bay of Portovenere to visit his fellow English muse, Shelley, who was residing in the village of San Terenzo? Hence comes the name of the cove, The Bay of Poets. Byron’s Grotto, called Grotta Arpaia, now collapsed, bears a plaque honoring Byron’s courage and strength in tackling the often tempestuous waters. Byron’s Grotto is located at the end of a promontory in Portovenere, below the 13th century Church of San Pietro. Ironically, it was in the bay that Shelley died when his boat overturned in a storm.
Dante and Petrarch were dazzled by the natural beauty of the gulf as well. The Bay of Poets and Byron’s Grotto highlight the shimmering Mediterranean beauty stretched out to the horizon from Portovenere, located just below Cinque Terre and on the promontory tip from La Spezia. A longtime playground for celebrities and the notably wealthy, Portovenere has no lack of boating excursions, unique archaeological sites, neighborhoods of pastel-hued houses that tower above narrow winding streets, and swimming in Lord Byron’s Bay. The best beaches are at San Terenzo, now famous with beachside bathers and swimmers.
From the old district of town, you can walk the length of the road and onto a path which meanders down to the Church of San Pietro. From there a foot-path takes you down to the rocky edge of the bay. Swimming is a popular sport in the Bay of Poets, but the rocks underneath water can be sharp so some caution is advised.
The Byron Cup swimming challenge has traditionally been held in August, commemorating Lord Byron’s legendary swim across the Bay of Poets in 1822. A large number of swimmers register to swim the 7.5 km between Portovenere and Lerici.
Byron had many water escapades during his lifetime. A sportsman at heart, he was born with a club foot, which only inspired him to be more proficient in the water. He was the first person to swim across the Hellespont in 1810, known as the Dardanelles, the stretch of water that separates Europe from Asia. Later, after a night of revelry in the Lido, he swam across the Venice lagoon and down the entire length of the Grand Canal in three and three-quarters hours. Daring, dashing and bold, he proved himself unhindered by his physical lameness.
The Church of San Pietro stands majestically on the cliff overlooking the sea just above Byron’s Grotto. Fashioned in Gothic style with external markings of black and white stripes, it was built over a 5th century Palaeo-Christian church. The Church of San Pietro offers stunning views of the Cinque Terre coastline and has become a desirable place for weddings.
When next you arrive in Portovenere, saunter on down to Byron’s Bay and poke a foot in the water for the old poet. Chances are you will be compelled to slide on into the comforting warmth of the blue-green Mediterranean Sea.
For more information on The Bay of Poets and Portovenere, please click on the link below.