Conversation came to a low hush as Mishka pushed her way through the crowd. I watched her sashay down to the edge of the sea before turning back, impatient. It’s not unusual for Italians to take a sunset walk before dinner – that orange sky is why I had settled myself in prime position on a tiny rocky harbour. But Mishka is a tabby cat.
Every evening, Mishka takes a walk with her owners to watch the sunset. She lives in a pastel-hued stone house on the edge of Tellaro, a village in the commune of Lerici with a population of just 1,200. The stroll takes Mishka through the small cluster of tables outside Bar La Marina, where friends and locals stop to say hello.
Tellaro isn’t far from Italy’s most famous collection of towns, the Cinque Terre, where 2.4 million tourists descend each year. Even in shoulder season, the towns can feel a lot like Disneyland version of Italy, so it’s not surprising that holidaymakers are considering alternatives. I hadn’t expected to find one just an hour away.
The reasons that the Cinque Terre is so beloved – the colourful houses squished right up next to one another, those nippy little passageways and stone steps – are right here in the towns of Lerici, only without the crowds.
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With its tiny harbour hidden down steps around the back of its main square, Tellaro could easily rival the Instagram-famous town of Vernazza (the #Vernazza hashtag has over half a million tags on Instagram; Tellaro has a more humble 71,000). There’s no national park status or special train fare for this part of Liguria – there isn’t even a train station.
That lack of railway line has kept Lerici and its surrounding villages relatively off the radar, although one big plus point in Lerici’s favour is that you can drive around. In the Cinque Terre, trains or walking boots are your only options.
If you’d still rather go car-free, Italy’s public transport system is your friend. Lerici is an easy 40-minute bus ride from La Spezia. The onward bus to Tellaro is little more than a wobbly minivan, but the cliffside views more than make up for it.
Based on location and looks alone, Lerici – the area’s gateway town – could easily be compared to Monterosso, the largest of the five coastal settlements that make up the Cinque Terre. It’s an abundance of cute shops and waterfront restaurants capitalising on the Bay of Poets stretching out in front of the town; the most prominent options are best avoided for lunch, stick to drinks if you want to watch the boats.
And, where the Cinque Terre towns can feel a little homogenous, Lerici has created its own vibe and an enormous cultural calendar. I was sad to have missed the literary festival by just a few days, an event that sees author events and boat trips combine. There’s a summer music festival and – thanks in part to Keats, Shelley and Byron – several annual poetry gatherings, including a prestigious poetry prize.
Locals aren’t showing signs of tourism weariness, something that is evident in Cinque Terre. There was a welcoming cheeriness, even though it took me a while to realise that I’ve been saying “good evening” in Italian each morning. Shop owners were keen to tell me about their local designers – clothes, jewellery, ceramics. The creative scene is thriving. This pride extends to the food, too. In San Terenzo, an easy hour’s stroll around the bay (longer, if you pause at the poetry listening stations installed along the way), Osteria La Situa focuses on hyper-local craft beers and wines made in the region. It’s this town where you’ll find Villa Magni, the white stucco house that Percy and Mary Shelley rented until his tragic death in 1822.
Hotel il Nido was my home for the trip, in part because it’s the only hotel in Tellaro with beach access; go heavy on the insect repellent as the lush green trees are real midge magnets. I suspect I would have been just as happy in the tiny town of Fiascherino, a cove of hotels and small beach resorts near DH Lawrence’s house, about a 20-minute walk from Lerici’s more luxurious sunbathing options. You could go all day without speaking to anyone, save for a hello on the cliffside walk. After the crowds of Cinque Terre, the silence is a balm.
Still, if you insist, a small ferry travels between Lerici and the Cinque Terre. But after a couple of days on the Bay of Poets, you might just decide to stay exactly where you are. If you’re lucky, your aperitivo may even include a visit from Tellaro’s favourite cat.
You can fly to Genoa or Pisa from mainland UK airports with British Airways and easyJet. From either city, it’s around a 90-minute train journey to La Spezia, and a short bus ride along the coast to Lerici – all part of the adventure.
Not only does Hotel il Nido have its own (very tiny) beach, it also has a strong commitment to Italy’s love of breakfast pastries.
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