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La Spezia. A vibrant, elegant and modern city with a glorious seafaring past 

Friday, 25 March 2022 18:34

La Spezia, which lies in the centre of the deep gulf to which it gives its name, is to all appearances an almost entirely modern city with wide avenues and perpendicular streets, solid 19th and 20th-century buildings, elegant gardens overlooking the sea, a port and a great military arsenal.

But actually La Spezia has an ancient history. The area it covers has in fact been inhabited since prehistoric days and its shores were once frequented by the Romans, who left the remains of fabulous villas along the coast, although the city itself, probably evolved in the early decades of the year 1000. 

The military arsenal was built in the 19th century

Capital of the ephemeral aristocratic power of Niccolò Fieschi, in the period between 1256 and 1273, in opposition to the pro-imperial politics exercised by Genoa, La Spezia came under the territorial and administrative system of the Serenissima Republic of Genoa, to which it remained closely tied up to the last century. Down the centuries the city expanded and changed, enjoying an  extraordinary development in the second half of the 19th century, when the great military arsenal was built, forever changing its form and face. In those years the walls that encircled the city were demolished - although some parts of the 14th, 15th and 17th-century walls can still be seen on the stretch that descends from the San Giorgio Castle to Via XX Settembre - and the city’s military functions led to many urban planning choices.

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Renaissance, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings 

These ancient walls have become part of the redevelopment called the Parco della Mura park, carried out under the Peracchini Administration that include the La Spezia Forte and part of the system of pathways surrounding the city. These are a network of spectacular trails connecting the Via Francigena, the Ligurian Trail, the Alta Via delle Cinque Terre, the Lunigiana and the Val di Vara.  In the early 20th century the city expanded as it became the provincial capital and the seat of the diocese. Today the visitor can admire its neoclassical rigor and its Art Nouveau architecture. Looking closer he will also find traces of those earlier times. These may be less conspicuous but are none the less evocative like the San Giorgio Castle dating back to the Middle Ages and home to the Civic Archaeological Museum, the Piazza Sant'Agostino square where the Augustinian Convent once stood and Via Prione with its Renaissance style. 

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The carrugi narrow streets are typical

The elegant Public Gardens connect the waterfront to the shadowy porticoes of Via Chiodo, which with Corso Cavour is the main axis of the 19th-century city. Here you will find the Giacomo Puccini Conservatory, the Civic Theatre and the Palazzo delle Poste, designed by Angiolo Mazzoni and decorated with futurist mosaics by Fillia and Prampolini. The Ligurian soul of the city is to be found in the carrugi of the historic center. These narrow streets, with houses tightly packed one next to the other and wider parts that are not quite squares, are the backbone of the urban city.

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From the station to Piazza Garibaldi

You can cross the center of the city from north to south through its historic core, starting from the 19th-century railway station. In the lobby you can see the ticket offices and the beautiful ceiling by Luigi Agretti with allegorical representations of Industry, Crafts and Trade, representing the sea and the gulf that takes its name from La Spezia. From the square in front of the station, where there is a sculpture of little red men that form a cone called Oplà by Giuliano Tomaino, you then walk along Via Paleocapa with its remarkable Liberty buildings like the beautiful Nespolo-Layolo Palace which has refined ceramic inserts. 

At the end of the street, in the middle of the traffic circle, there is the marble obelisk by Francesco Vaccarone, called Ray of the Sun, and then the Piazza Sanit Bon square, where the 20th-century city is once again revealed. In the centre of Garibaldi Square you can see the Fountain of the Diaologo by Viliano Taraballa, then Via Prione that cuts the historical center in half, up to the gardens and the sea. On the right there is Viale Garibaldi which is shaded by plane trees and was once a military road built by the Royal Navy in the 1870s. On 4 June 1882 it was named for the hero of the Two Worlds, and then on 7 April 1899 the square was also dedicated to Garibaldi, becoming an important junction between the historic city and the new military needs. Not far from the square, along the avenue on the right, stands the Church of Nostra Signora della Neve designed in 1901 by Giuseppe Ferrari d'Orsara.

The historical stairways

La Spezia’s historical stairways start in the city centre. The hilly nature of the site on which the city was built has conditioned its form. There were ascending paths to reach the Castle and the religious settlements located between the valley area and the top of the hill. They form a fan-like shape, and are referred to as the fan with the Castle at the top and then the stairways and descending paths branching off to reach the strategic points of the city corresponding to the "slats" of the fan. From this elevated part in the Park of the Walls the pathway starts on the hilly area of the city embracing the history of the 19th-century walls. From the Cathedral of Christ the King, just above Piazza Europa, you can continue along the pedestrian route in the historic center, the starting point of this wonderful panoramic walk around the entire perimeter of the walls built in defense of the city.

La Spezia’s new brand on the Visit La Spezia website

But La Spezia has much more has to offer, and it is about to re-launch its new tourism brand on the  Visit La Spezia website featuring the city’s history, anecdotes, stories and inventions. La Spezia is a destination that blends scenic beauty with history, culture, art and poetry. A stone's throw from the Cinque Terre and seaside resorts like Lerici and Portovenere, it has been an inspiration for artists like Botticelli and for great writers and is a city to be enjoyed leisurely in the open air, discovering its sea and its hills on foot or by mountain bike.

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