What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet; (William Shakespear)
Italy has always had a special place in my heart. My first time there was to Milan. I did the regular tourist thing and visited the Duomo and queued up to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Since then I’ve visited Florence, Chianti, Bologna, Verona and have even been fortunate enough to roam the hills of Tuscany, pick my own olives and press my own olive oil.
I can say three things for certain about Italy – 1) You will eat the most incredible food. Not in fancy restaurants serving gourmet food cooked by top notch chefs. I’m talking run of the mill, regular food. You will eat the best pasta, the best ragu, the best ham, the best tomatoes, the best ice cream and you will sure as hell drink the best coffee. You see Italians, much like the French, don’t do bad food. They are more likely to spit it out than allow terrible food to violate their tastebuds. 2) It will be sunny. Even during winter months Italians enjoy clear blue skies which means there is eternal sunshine. If you happen to be there in the summer, well, it will be VERY hot. Hence why the entire month of August is a holiday and doing very little in August is scheduled in to everyone’s calendar. 3) People will be straight forward. If you ask for a pizza in a farm house they will kindly ask that you leave and look for a pizzeria. If you ask for an Americano Italians will think you are crazy and bring you an espresso to calm your nerves.
Now I’m no expert but I promise you these three things will be true pretty much anywhere you go. So with this in mind, I decided to visit a lesser trodden part of Italy at the end of this summer. A place where Italians themselves like to spend their holidays. I visited Resort La Francesca in Liguria which is set amidst one of the most astonishing coastlines in the world. This part of Italy is no longer the undiscovered heaven it once was but, honestly, it’s Italy. So, who cares?
Resort La Francesca is approximately seven miles from the UNESCO heritage site of Cinque Terre. I flew to Genova airport and took a train along the dazzling coast all the way to the village of Levanto (population 5,500). From here the only way to the resort is by pre-booked taxis of La Francesca’s nominated drivers.
My taxi driver went up the mountains expertly manoeuvring the car along hair pin curves. Cliff after steep cliff appeared then reappeared all the way until we arrived at the resort some 20 minutes later. The first thing I noticed, as I climbed out of the car, is that the trees here are tall. The second thing was that the sky is a shade of blue which I’m convinced is reserved only for the sky above Italy.
La Francesca’s occupies a natural woodland of 15 hectares on a hillside. Evergreens dominate the forest. I look up and I’m grateful for their canopy providing me a little relief from the unforgiving sun. This is in October. The green and brown of the trees are broken in places with deliberately bright bougainvillae. I imagine they must be even more conspicuous at the height of summer.
La Francesca is independently owned. An extract from the sale and purchase agreement of the land signed in 1957 reads (translated from Italian): “... Site named la Francesca, rocky, uncultivated and loose soil completely neglected, with rare pine trees and twigs, since the woods were destroyed during the war…».
Gloria Bortolotti De Poli, a poet, journalist and writer purchased the land with the intention of creating a commercial rose garden. However, with no drinking water, electricity, telephone or a road to transport flowers the project became increasingly challenging. The nearest drinking water source was a few miles away in the hamlet of Scernio and Gloria regularly carried water for herself and her family in a cloth bag.
In 1958, at long last, a road to the land was built through the villages and Gloria breathed life into a new idea. Amidst apprehension from the local villagers and onlookers, she set about unwittingly creating one of Italy’s first eco tourist resorts. (It would take the tourism industry another 60 years before it caught up with the idea).
She began the construction of 34 small cottages set in to the slope without harming the unique bio diversity and profile of this strip of the wild Ligurian coast. In the summer of 1961 La Francesca resort was completed and Gloria’s ambitious project turned in to reality. To those who questioned her motive, as a poet and writer, building a holiday resort she replied: because I want to build a house in the middle of the woods for those who need to find themselves; the same love and sensitivity went into creating La Francesca as for a beautiful poem.
This remains true six decades later. True to its founder’s vision this is a perfect offering of wilderness and tranquility. The place is a haven for those who find strength in silence and solitude if they so wish. Today, La Francesca is managed and run by Gloria’s son Marco (pictured far left in the featured image) and continues to prosper in his hands.
Cottages by the Sea
Thanks to its beginnings there is an obvious 1960s aura to La Francesca. It’s in the architecture, the furniture and decor. Candy stripe awnings sit over every balcony. The buildings are painted in shades of terracotta and mustard with contrasting deep green windows framing everything you see out of them.
There are 55 cottages now and each offers undisturbed views over the cliff. Inside each cottage there is a bedroom, bathroom, living space and kitchen. After dinner as I sat in the balcony listening to the stillness. Music from a nearby cottage drifted over. There was a family sat in their balcony with one person strumming a guitar and others singing a familiar song. It’s that kind of place – a place where there are no distractions except for the quiet murmur of crickets.
The Ligurian Sea Sanctuary
The next morning I walked down the slope from my cottage to the beach. Narrow steps lead down to three rocky coves and the sea shimmered like glass as far as I could see. There was layer upon layer of sea grass (posidonia oceanica) spread across the sea bed. Naturally this provides a safe place for fish to lay eggs and for dolphins and whales to pass. I was informed that this area of the ocean within the boundary of La Francesca (but not owned by it) is part of the Ligurian Sea Cetacean Sanctuary – A Marine Protected Area covering the Mediterranean seas of France, Italy, and Monaco.
The quaint mini market on the resort is an evident throwback to its early days and provides everything you’d need for a short break. There’s bread, cheese, wine and fruit amongst other things. Everything here is locally produced or sourced. So you’d be missing out on little by buying basics inside the resort.
There is also a cafe attached to the mini market. It’s adjacent to the tennis courts with outdoor seating amongst the trees – a great place to sip a cup of coffee while you watch a game.
Two tennis courts sit on a slightly elevated level in the woods. They are surrounded by pine trees with the sea on one side glistening against your eye line. If you stop the game to stare at it you’d would be forgiven.
There are two pools on the resort. The main pool sits where Gloria initially dug a lake for watering the roses. The second is lower down the hill towards the beach. Both were closed closed during my visit so I could only imagine dipping into the cool water in sweltering heat.
The restaurant was also closed out of season and I was unable to sample any of the cuisine. However, it was not difficult to appreciate the enthralling terrace commanding a picture perfect landscape of Liguria.
Two Things you Must do Around Resort La Francesca
The natural trails are made for relaxed walks and the scenery is astounding. This stretch of coast has allegedly remained unchanged since 1722. I walked through quaint medieval villages paved with cobblestone, train tunnels which are no longer in use but connect one village to another and olive groves with their tiny leaves shimmying in the sea breeze.
You could hike east or west of the resort and arrive at identical picturesque villages. The village of Levanto sits to the east. It is an old port with a maritime history. The train service from here will take you to Cinque Terre within five minutes.
Bonassola, so sweet, unforgettable, inexahustible. (Ernest Hemingway)
I hiked west of La Francesca and arrived at the nearby village of Bonassola through an old railway tunnel. It’s a sleepy seaside village wedged between mountains and the sea with a population of just 962 people. Mass tourism hasn’t arrived here yet mainly because there’s little to do. Also, most tourists come to visit nearby Cinque Terre. So what you get as a result is an immersion in to authentic Italy. You will hear lots of Italian, see old ladies hanging washing over balconies and there will be families and children running around freely.
The black sand beach in Bonassola is a place used by local families for sunbathing, teenagers for cliff jumping and old people for sitting in the sun enjoying card games and dominoes. I saw no tourists here except me. So if you are visiting Cinque Terre and need a little respite I suggest a visit to Bonassola. If you don’t fancy hiking in the heat of high season there’s a boat service connecting the village from Cinque Terre and it goes all the way to Portofino. So, now you have every good reason to visit.
Resort La Francesca is located at Località La Francesca, 19011 Bonassola SP. You can find more information at lafrancescaresort.it