Swim with Lord Byron in the Bay of Poets

Bay of Poets
San Lorenzo Church near the Bay of Poets

“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.

Lord Byron
Lord Byron – Original artist unknown, photo from en.wikipedia

 

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.

Grotto Arpaia
Grotto Arpaia or Lord Byron’s Grotto

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.

*The Bay of Poets maps, photos and tourist information

Portovenere’s Cliffside Treasures

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San Pietro’s church withstands the ravages of time.

My road trip along the Ligurian coastline  brought me to Portovenere, where I explored its remarkable landmarks overlooking the sea. Panoramic vistas bordered by turquoise waters gave an exotic backdrop to this cliff-side paradise. Portovenere was a place where I longed to linger.

An old archway into the village began my walk through the medieval streets lined with several shops and cafes (see my post Illustrious Portovenere, from Pirates to Rainstorms). After passing through, I came upon the piazza L. Spallanzani. From there I could see the church of San Pietro, the remains of a castle fortress, and the surrounding Bay of La Spezia. I followed the winding pathway up to the top of a cliff that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, spread out majestically to the far distant horizon.

High up on a rocky spur stands the small but exquisite church of San Pietro. Built upon the ruins of a temple to the goddess Venus, San Pietro became a Christian church in the sixth century. Modified by the Genoese in the thirteenth century, the Romanesque church grew into Gothic dimensions.

Interior of San Pietro church.
Interior of San Pietro church.

As I stepped inside the old church through a single doorway, I was taken by its small but ornate interior. It consists of three naves, the largest in the center with a white marble altar. The gray and white Gothic stripes can be seen on the inside as well as out. It reminded me of the duomo in Siena. This striping effect was a popular Gothic addition to churches at the time.

San Pietro is a popular place for weddings. Any wonder?
San Pietro is a popular place for weddings. Any wonder? Piazza L. Spallanzani in the forefront

Historically, San Pietro survived a major fire from the Aragone bombardment in 1494, was ordered to be the battery for Gulf defense by Napoleon, sacked several times, and was occupied by Austrian-Russian troops. Yet there it remains, steadfast and unshakable. I felt captivated by its beauty.

Elegant Arches overlooking the Ocean
Elegant Arches overlooking the Ocean

This long row of arches is located right next to the church, adding a touch of elegance to the unique setting.

Rugged coastline
Rugged coastline just below 

Eugenio Montale, in his poem Portovenere, gives thought to its beginnings… “there comes Triton, from the waves that lap the threshold of a Christian temple, and every near hour is ancient…here, you are at the origins.” I kept looking for mermaids playing in the water, or Neptune with his trident! But, unfortunately, they must have been hiding on this cloudy day.

Lord Byron's Cave in the rock wall.
Lord Byron’s Cave in the rock wall at ocean level, where he spent time contemplating. Doria Castle rests above

Have you ever heard of the Bay of Poets? I had, many years ago, and thought it sounded so romantic. I was sure I would visit it one day. Well, here I am. It is just as beautiful as I envisioned.

Lord Byron and his good friend Shelley are responsible for the name. The Bay of Poets is actually the Gulf of La Spezia. Lord Byron lived in Portovenere for a time (see my previous post, “Swim with Lord Byron in the Bay of Poets” for more details). There is a plaque on the church that commemorates Lord Byron’s courage and strength.

Doria Castle
Doria Castle, a nice hike up from the church of San Pietro

The Doria Castle fortress above the town was built by the Genoese in 1161 and has been the area’s defense for centuries. The extremely wealthy Doria family were very involved in the political, military and economic life of the Genoese from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries.

The massive walls come outward toward the base, making the castle appear much larger than it actually is. Today the castle is available for special events, offering an amphitheater and a terrace overlooking the sea.

Castle Interior
Castle Interior-Hypostyle Hall built in 1458 with vaulted ceilings supported by 8 pillars
Long Covered Stairs leading up to the Castle Doria
 Arched Stairs leading up to the Castle
Panoramic View from Castle Doria parapet
Panoramic View from on top of the Castle  

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Below the castle on a cliff is the town cemetery. I passed by the beautiful graves so well-groomed and scattered with flowers.

Town of Portovenere below taken from Doria Castle
Town of Portovenere below taken from Doria Castle

Portovenere is a sensational experience. Lord Byron’s words from a poem of his brings visions of this lovely village to my mind. “Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.”

A Renaissance Castle Garden in Italy

The Castle of Este
The Castle of Este (Castello Carrera) surrounded by beautiful gardens

 Step into the magical medieval world of Carrera Castle in the village of Este. Born at the height of invading war lords and princes during the 13th century, its tall crenelated fortress walls stand stalwart even to this day. Once the “capital” of ancient Venetians, it is now an elegant garden of tranquil beauty.

Situated just south of Padua in the Veneto region, nestled against the feet of the Euganean hills, the castle’s imposing remains are the towns main attraction. Este was a Roman colony since the 2nd century BC. The Estense family erected a castle and fortified the town in the early medieval era. Later, in 1340, the Venetians, along with the Da Carrera family rebuilt some of the castle and enlarged the circle of walls.

Old Mythical Statues, Castle of Este, Italy
Old Statues hidden among the foliage

Several mythical statues appear among the greenery, old and mysterious, like figures out of a Greek play.

Courtly Love
Courtly Love

During the Renaissance years, troubadours gathered on the castle grounds from near and far to write and sing their poems of chivalry and courtly love. Art began to flourish, and the senses were reawakened. It was the dawning of a new age, a time for romantic interludes, a rebirth of thoughts and ideas.

Statues in the Castle of Este gardens

Row of mythical gods line the garden walkway as a flag waves atop the Castle Keep
statue in the Castle of Este, Italy
Statue fronts the crenelated castle walls
Centaur statue in the Castle of Este, Italy
A statue held together by strands of steel…but they have been standing here for 300 years!

Greenery against ancient stone seemed to transport me back to an earlier time. Wandering the grounds brought images of lords and ladies strolling side by side in their own gardens of delight. Troubadours wrote their poetry and sang at the castle banquets by firelight. 

Castle of Este gardens, Italy
Benches to rest on and take in the surrounding beauty
Castle of Este gardens, Italy
Pathway along the gardens
Garden entrance at the Castle of Este, Italy
Garden Gate

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English poets Lord Byron and Shelley walked the streets of Este more than a century ago, no doubt mentally composing their compelling verses of poetry while strolling through the castle gardens. Could it be they conversed with the old troubadours of the past, who whispered their inspiration to them among the little groves of blushing pink roses?

Hot Springs and Castles Among the Vineyards

Euganean Hill country from Arqua Petrarca
Euganean Hill country seen from the town of Arqua Petrarca

“I have built me a house, small, but pleasant and decent, in the midst of slopes clothed with vines and olives,” Petrarch

A volcanic range that dips and swells, spotted with medieval castles and sprawling vineyards, olive groves and ancient abbey’s among the towns of the Veneto plain are known as the Euganean Hills. Named after the ancient peoples that inhabited the area before the colonization of Rome, these hills have been celebrated for their picturesque beauty and nourishing hot springs for centuries. Just this last September I spent a few days in Padua, exploring the countryside and discovering several little towns nestled quietly among the hills.

The poet Petrarch lived his last four years in the small village of Arqua from 1370-1374. In 1870 the name Petrarch was added, making the new name of the town Arqua Petrarca. The house where he lived is now a museum.

Vineyards and villa of the Euganean Hills
Vineyards and villa of the Euganean Hills-this one advertises formaggio, vino and salumi for sale

Just south of Padua and running westward, the Euganean Hills contain many natural, historical and artistic treasures. A regional park offers over 200 walking and cycling paths and is the oldest and largest thermal basin in Europe. Fifteen towns and eighty-one hills are a part of the park. Numerous spas can be found throughout, providing cures and treatments. (Spas and hiking trails).

The Euganean Hills Wine Road extends through the natural area of the park with the idea of linking wineries, bed and breakfasts, farms and taverns together for easy touring options.

Cypress trees line the roads adding an old stately effect
Cypress trees line the roads adding an old stately effect
Abbazia Di Praglia-
Abbazia Di Praglia (Abbey of Padua), a Benedictine community who still follows the ancient Rule of St. Benedict

The Abbey of Puglia, an 11th century community of 32 Benedictine monks, sprawls out surrounded by vineyards on an old country road just south of Padua on the way to Este. They are a most industrious group of men, farming and cultivating wine and elixirs, beehives and honey products, skin care, herbal teas and medicinal potions in their on-site pharmacy. A tidy shop in the abbey displays many of their products for sale.

Castle ramparts circling the town of Este
Castle ramparts circling the town of Este

Several of the towns dotting the Euganean Hills have medieval walls still encircling them. Este and Montagnana have prime examples of well-kept ramparts that rise as majestically as they did centuries ago (see my post, Castles of the Italian Countryside).

A neighborhood in the town of Arqua Petrarca
A neighborhood in the town of Arqua Petrarca
Hills surrounding the neighborhood
Hills surrounding the neighborhood-lots of hiking paths up to the top of the hills.
Lovely brick villa in the neighborhood
Lovely brick villa set right up against the street
Monument on the side of the road
Monument on the side of the road
Walled beauty
Walled beauty in brick and iron

The romantic poets, Shelley and Byron, lived in Este from 1817-1818. Like many others, they were drawn to the Euganean Hills by a sort of inspiration and peace.

So, take up a walking stick and explore one of the most picturesque and path-friendly regions of Italy. Pathways are abundant and wind from town to town and throughout the hilly countryside, offering gorgeous vistas and natural surroundings far surpassing expectations.