Today in La Spezia, it's easy to realize what an enormous advantage the 11-day Mediterranean itinerary has over our port-packed 10-day one. On the longer voyage, the extra day is spent at sea, a break that's much-needed not only because it is midway through the itinerary, but also because it's placed between the two potentially longest days: Civitavecchia (for Rome) and La Spezia (for Florence and/or Pisa).
Because we did not have the luxury of a restful sea day after exploring Rome, we chose to forgo a second day of two-hour (each way) transfers and frantic sightseeing for a less popular tour called Lerici's Castle and Dinosaurs -- along with a mere five other families -- while most everyone else was headed for Florence and/or Pisa.
The tour we initially signed up for, Lucca Treasure Hunt, had been canceled due to lack of interest, along with Lucca by Bike and the Lerici Beach shore excursion (again, most passengers used our call at La Spezia as a jumping-off point for Florence and Pisa's piazzas and squares). Lerici's Castle was facing the same fate if it didn't maintain the minimum number of passengers. Thankfully none of us canceled, for we all ended our visit to this seaside town feeling as if we'd won the shore tour lottery.
But first, let me explain that while I desperately did not want to miss out on Florence and its artistic riches, I knew that the two hours in transit it would take to get there -- on the backside of a mind-numbing day touring Rome -- would greatly diminish the experience. We needed another option, any option really. In fact, we met a family on the ship that told us a story about another family they'd met, whose child had said, "Kill me now, just please don't take me on another day like Rome." (Here's my tip: Leave the kids in the children's center for the day, or, go as a family and cut your list of must-sees in half.)
Clearly back-to-back days of monuments and museums hold little appeal for children, which was one reason why, according to Disney management, they choose La Spezia (over the more typically used port of Livorno) as the access port for Florence.
The downside -- and there were plenty of disgruntled passengers lamenting this downside -- was it added an additional 20 minutes each way to Florence. The upside was the wonderful selection of lesser-known but close-by places to choose from, from La Spezia itself to Lucca, Cinque Terre (a collection of five villages located on the west coast of the Riviera, and a great tour from what I've heard), and also -- a brief tender ride away -- Lerici.
Lerici, which we learned by day's end, is a township that dates back to Roman times, with a medieval castle, and an 18th-century town that was fashionable among English poets and writers on account of its beauty.
Since this was our first tender port, the boat ride over was fun for the boys. They seated themselves near the front where they could feel the waves spray their faces and chat with a few other children on the excursion. As we got closer to town, we could see the castle looming over the sea to our right, small boats bobbing up and down in the harbor, and beautiful buildings painted in oranges, reds, and creamy yellows, some with green shutters and many with white wrought-iron balconies.
The first Lericians (if one calls them that) I saw as we exited the small dock were two female police officers, strolling along in their two-inch pumps. I took that to mean there must be very little crime here -- or at least nothing that would require a chase!
We walked a few feet from the dock to the village's central plaza -- Piazza Garibaldi -- where we learned from our guide Fausta (a Latin name meaning "fortune") that this area had been restored a few years ago to include the unadorned modern marble fountain at it's center and the young umbrella pines lining the waterfront promenade that is home to outdoor cafes, pizzerias, and a collection of shops selling books, toys, wines and perfumes. Everything else looked perfectly preserved.
She took us on a short walk (everything is within walking distance) through narrow alleyways to the heart of the town -- or really, the heart of most small Italian towns -- the church. On the way we couldn't help but notice that the sidewalks, alleys, stores and cafe tabletops were as immaculately kept as if this was Disney's Epcot version of Italy. Cameron dropped some Fruit Loops he had brought to snack on, and I made him pick them up lest he dirty their streets.
The church, Parrocchia Di Saint Francesco, seemed quite grand for a town this size: Neo-classical in style on the outside, thanks to several exterior restorations, Baroque on the inside with ornate ceilings in gold and frescoes, and a statue of St. Francis behind the marble alter.
After the church, Fausta shocked us with an option we didn't think was possible on an organized tour -- flexibility, and lots of it. She suggested we take half an hour on our own to wander before touring the castle that was home to the "dinosaur" part of the tour.
We spent the time along the waterfront promenade, the boys and I on a small playground with local children, and Tim taking a stroll further down to see if there was a beach we could go to later on. He found a great beach, just a block or so down in the opposite direction from the castle, with comfortable chairs on a terrace abutting the water and a wide swath of sand.
When we returned to meet our group at the appointed time, we were pleased to hear Fausta say that anyone who did not want to go to the castle or stay through the craft activity (making plaster seashells) could meet up with our group at the fountain again in time to take the tender back to the ship. Tim and I took one look at each other, and our boys, and knew we were cutting the castle tour short and heading for that beach. Who cares if it was overcast and in the mid-70's? We all wanted to go for a swim somewhere here in the Mediterranean, and this time, unlike Naples, we were prepared for the possibility, with bathing suits under our clothes.
The best part of the castle tour was that in addition to the dinosaur exhibits (which Fausta translated for us into English), there were stunning views from so many different vistas: of the town, our ship docked out in the harbor, and, on the backside of the castle, a hidden swimming area and dock. Living in Washington, DC, our kids have seen their share of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian, and they were ready for some swim time at the beach -- which was honestly the sentiment of many kids throughout the cruise.
So as soon as both parents and sons had seen enough, we made our way back down the staircases and through the hilly alleyways (passing laundry out to dry in the backs of houses) for a brief walk to the beach. Lido di Lerici is one of the most picture-postcard village beaches I've ever had the pleasure of lying on; the beach was a broad expanse of soft sand, not the case on much of the Amalfi Coast, dotted with terraces carved out of rock. For 3 euros each we were able to feel the cool sea, relax, and watch the boys play with the Little Tyke slide we had pulled forward to the water's edge.
If we knew a Lerici beach excursion could be like this we would have booked it months ago -- and perhaps prevented it from being canceled! Disney would do well to educate its passengers about the great alternative tours offered in keystone ports of call; we were one of the only families on that beach, and that's a shame.
We packed up after an hour, and -- cue up Tim's vacation wish -- went and had a beer at a cafe near the dock, with another family who was there from our tour. Here we all were on a half-day tour now wishing it was a full-day one.
In fact, I was hoping the ship would never leave. We fell in love with Lerici. Palermo was great for the kids, and while we loved Naples it was exhausting. Today, everyone was happy -- and I don't feel as if I missed a thing by skipping out on Florence and Pisa. If this trip through Europe is like sampling a box of chocolates, Lerici was one of the tastiest in the box.
Next stop: France, and the hustle and bustle of Marseille.
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):
Image of La Spezia courtesy of Christine Koubek