I hadn’t really thought of Livorno as more than a jumping off point to reach the island of Sardinia but, after spending a couple of days in and around the city, I find it has a lot of hidden charms beyond the cranes and the cruise ships of the port.
I start high in the village of Montenero where the main square offers superb views down to Livorno, the sea and the islands off the coast. It was here in 1345 that a local shepherd brought a picture of the Virgin Mary and was miraculously cured of an illness. Since then, a sanctuary has been built where people come to leave votive offerings in thanks to the Madonna for their miraculous escapes from illness and accidents. These offerings are usually in the form of paintings, some of which date to the early 1800s, but more recently photographs have been added.
It’s rather strange to see the childlike depiction of such varied accidents which include people being hit by horses, carriages and trees; house fires; war battles; shipwrecks; and a more recent attack of an Italian ship by Somali pirates. There are also two glass cases filled with pink and white baby clothes and walls filled with silver hearts. The sanctuary has a souvenir shop selling postcards, religious books and rosaries, plus a pharmacy where they sell creams, soaps and herbal teas produced by the nuns who live there.
The next day I take the no. 1 bus along the coast road from Antignano to the city centre. The route passes many art deco villas with castle-like towers, pine tree filled gardens, a huge chequered seafront promenade and the very impressive Naval Academy. I get off in the Piazza Grande where the architecture is sadly very grey and angular. This is due to the fact that Livorno was heavily bombed during WWII, destroying a lot of the older buildings. The cathedral, a rebuild of the original, is quite dull, but in a side chapel I find a poignant 15th century portrait of Christ Crowned with Thorns by Fra Angelico.
I leave the peace of the cathedral for the clamour of the Central Market where fresh fish, bread, fruit and vegetables are all available beneath the high roof of a Parisian inspired structure. It is situated next to one of the canals which encircle the city centre and I follow this waterway to the “New” Fort. It’s not really new, having been constructed in 1590, and I feel like I’m entering a Roman coliseum as I walk through a long tunnel to reach the interior, now a large park shaded with pine trees and surrounded by the thick, brick walls of the fort.
I discover the “Old” Fort (not much older than the new one and very similar in construction) down by the docks. There are huge cracks in the walls which are a souvenir from WWII. I enter via a modern pontoon bridge which slides back to allow the smaller fishing and pleasure craft out to sea. Inside the walls they are still trying to repair the damage but metals stairs and walkways allow access to the walls and it’s possible to climb the circular tower for fine views across the city and beyond to Montenero. On my way back down I hear the shrill noise of car horns and fishing boat sirens and realise that they are sending off a fallen comrade. Perhaps he is to be buried at sea.
Not far from the “Old Fort” is the statue of the Four Moors, a stark reminder of Livorno’s days as a slave trade port. These days the trade is in fresh fish and day trippers from the cruise ships who often bypass Livorno altogether in their rush to get to Florence, Pisa and the Tuscan villages.
There are not many restaurants open for lunch, but I find the small Osteria La Libecciata close to the Old Cistern. The interior is very orange, enhanced by the addition of Halloween decorations and while I eat I’m serenaded by Van Morrison. They have a few set menu options which allow a choice from the limited but delicious main menu. I choose the one for €19.90 which includes antipasti, secondi, dolce, bread, wine, water and coffee. My antipasto is Mista Toscana, a huge plate of cold meats. Next up is a surprise fish choice as my questioning of the waitress gets no further than a fish symbol scrawled on the back of her order pad. Orata turns out to be a grilled, whole sea bream with a side of french fries and a wedge of lemon. For dessert I have a ricotta and pear cheesecake which is a fab combination.
To finish, I have “ponce”, a liqueur coffee speciality of Livorno. It’s made by placing 3 sachets of sugar in a large shot glass, a generous shot of rum and another of cognac, a few small pieces of lemon peel and then heated using the steam from an expresso machine. Then the expresso coffee is dribbled down the side. The result is a tummy-warming, head-clearing, caffeine kick that sets me up for my ferry trip to Sardinia.