Whilst I’m no expert I know certain things to be true of Italy. Firstly that one will eat the most incredible food. You will eat the best pasta, ragu, ham, ice cream and you will sure as hell drink the best coffee. Italians, much like the French, don’t do bad food. Secondly, it will be sunny no matter which time of the year you visit. Even during winter months Italians enjoy clear blue skies which means there is eternal sunshine. Thirdly, everyone will be straight forward. If you ask for a pizza in a farm house they will simply direct you out of the door to a pizzeria.With all this in mind I decided to visit a lesser-trodden part this summer; a place where Italians themselves like to spend their holidays. I visited La Francesca Resort in Liguria set amidst one of the most astonishing coastlines in the world. Read on to see why I called it Italy’s rose by the sea.
La Francesca Resort
La Francesca Resort 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 Resort’s nominated drivers.
The taxi driver went up the mountains expertly manoeuvring the car along hair pin curves. Cliff after steep cliff appeared, disappeared and 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 Resort occupies a natural woodland of 15 hectares on a hillside. 55 self-serviced cottages set in to the cliff makes up this incredible place. Evergreens dominate the forest. I look up and I’m grateful for their canopy providing relief from the unforgiving sun. This is in October. The green and brown of the trees are broken in places with deliberately bright bougainvillea. I imagine they must be even more conspicuous at the height of summer.
The resort 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. In 1958 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.
Gloria began the construction of 34 small cottages set in to the slope without harming the unique bio diversity of the coast. In the summer of 1961 La Francesca Resort was completed. To those who questioned her motive as a poet and writer building a holiday resort Gloria 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”.
Cottages by the sea
There is an obvious 1960s aura to La Francesca Resort. 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. La Francesca Resort is a perfect balance of wilderness and tranquility. A haven for those who find strength in silence and solitude if they so wish.
As I already mentioned there are 55 cottages now. Each offers undisturbed and more importantly unique views over the cliff; no two cottages are the set same. Inside there is a bedroom, bathroom, living space and kitchen. After dinner I sat in the balcony listening to the stillness. Music from a nearby cottage drifted over. There was a family sat in their balcony too with a person strumming a guitar and others singing a familiar song. It’s that kind of place; no distractions except for the quiet murmur of crickets.
The Ligurian Sea Sanctuary
Early next morning I walked to the beach. Narrow steps lead down to three rocky coves. The sea shimmered like polished glass as far as I could see reminding me that the beauty we attach to far-flung places can be found right under our noses. Layer upon layer of sea grass in shades of green and yellow spread across the sea bed. I later learned that this provides a safe place for fish to lay eggs as dolphins and whales pass. This part of the ocean, within the boundary of La Francesca Resort (but not owned by it), is part of the Ligurian Sea Cetacean Sanctuary. It’s a Marine Protected Area covering the Mediterranean seas of France, Italy, and Monaco.
The quaint mini market on the resort is a throwback to its early days. It’s a low building with clay walls and friendly staff. The store sells everything you’d need for a short break. There’s bread, cheese, pasta, wine and fresh fruit: locally produced or sourced. Once inside the resort this is the only place to buy essentials unless you bring your own supplies.
A cafe attached to the mini market sits adjacent to the resort’s tennis courts. Outdoor seating set on chequered tiles amongst the tall pine trees gives the space a wonderful feeling of magic. I could think of worse places to sip my coffee. If you travel with children the soft play area is within your eyesight from here which makes for a rather convenient coffee break.
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 the sky. If you stop the game to stare at it you’d be forgiven. Rackets and balls are provided but you may also bring your own. During high season the courts will need to be booked in advance during check-in. Other times when they are empty you will need to collect the keys kept at the reception.
Of the two pools on the resort the main sits where Gloria initially dug a lake for watering the roses. The second is lower downhill towards the beach. Both were closed closed during my visit so I could only imagine dipping into the cool water in sweltering heat.
The upper pool is complete with deck chairs, snack bar and a children’s pool. The lower pool set with views of the sea is for the more adventurous. It has hammocks for relaxing and also a snack bar.
The restaurant too was closed in October. I was unable to sample any of the cuisine. However, it was not difficult to appreciate the enthralling terrace commanding a picture perfect view of Liguria.With both indoor and outdoor seating and the best Ligurian cuisine you can imagine I aim to return and sample the menu. So stay tuned.
Two things you must add to your Ligurian itinerary
If you do only one thing: hike. The trails are perfect and picturesque. 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 almost identical villages. 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. If you’re hiking in high season I suggest the obvious: sunscreen, hat and plenty of water. I did this in October when the weather was much milder and was still sunburnt at the end of the hike. I had no special footwear. The hike isn’t particularly difficult. My trainers did the job.
Bonassola, so sweet, unforgettable, inexahustible. Ernest Hemingway
West of La Francesca Resort sits Bonassola: a sleepy hamlet between the mountains and the sea. I got here through an old railway tunnel used by villagers. Only 962 people live here. Mass tourism hasn’t touched it’s shores mainly because there’s little to do. Also, most visitors come to nearby and far more famous Cinque Terre. What you will experience is an immersion in authentic everyday Italy. You’ll hear very little English, see old ladies hanging washing over balconies and children running around freely. It’s the Italy romanticised by old Hollywood. It still exists. If you’re willing to travel.
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 other tourists. If you are visiting Cinque Terre and need a little respite from the crowds I suggest Bonassola. There’s a boat service connecting the village from Cinque Terre which goes all the way to Portofino.
At a time when Italy’s big cities are struggling to cope with the unmanageable inflow of tourists the key is not to avoid the country altogether but to discover other places. La Francesca Resort and these coastal villages does just that. They are for those who like their travel slow. Count me in.
For more information visit: lafrancescaresort.it This article has been updated with the latest prices for 2019. Costs start from £110 per night for a one bedroom self-service cottage with kitchen, living area, bathroom and balcony. There is free parking for the duration of your stay if you travel by car.