The pleasure of staying with “locals” during our visit to Italy was that we were given the opportunity to really experience authentic Italy. Yes, it’s amazing to see the main tourist sites (and Italy certainly has some of the best!), but it was also so lovely to explore some of the smaller towns and villages that hardly ever see a tourist!
Another bonus was that our trip was 3 weeks long so we didn’t have a crazy jam-packed schedule (although my husband might disagree) This meant we had more down time for lazy days by the pool, exploring the local hamlet and visiting villages “just because”
One such discovery was the town of Sarzana which is located in the Liguria region of northwestern Italy, 15 kilometres east of La Spezia. The second most populated municipality in the province of La Spezia, it is located a few kilometres away from the Ligurian Sea coast and from the borderline with Tuscany.
Thanks to its location, Sarzana has, and continues to be, an important crossroads of communication routes between the regions of Liguria, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Since antiquity in fact, the town has been an important agricultural, commercial and strategic nucleus, and in the Middle Ages it was also a significant religious and legal centre with an Episcopal see and a justice court.
We visited this historical town one day over siesta time… and as we were to discover on numerous midday visits to various villages, Italians take siesta seriously! Shops shut up their shutters, restaurants close up shop and people disappear for those few hours in the heat of the day. And I can’t blame them!
My lasting memory of Sarzana is the heat – and the sheer joy of finding out that the only shop open was the gelaterie on the main square. We all appreciated the cool, sweet cones under the shade of an orange tree.
During this trip we made it our personal mission to try ALL the gelateries of Italy and I can say that over the 3 weeks of our trip we didn’t skip a day of gelato once! In fact we worked out that our gelato bill alone for this trip was over R4000! Ooops, but not really! We loved every lick!!!
Sarzana is a well kept town with pedestrianised streets lined with shops and bedecked with tumbling star jasmine on every wall. My senses were entranced by this beautiful town.
Sarzana lies at the entrance to the valley of the Magra (ancient Macra), the boundary between Etruria and Liguria in Roman times which gave it military importance in the Middle Ages. According to the history books, the first mention of the city is found in 963 in a diploma of Otto I! Owing to its position, Sarzana changed masters more than once, belonging first to Pisa, then to Florence, then to the Banco di S. Giorgio of Genoa and from 1572 to dogal Genoa itself. These changes left in Sarzana a conspicuous fortress, which remains a focus of attraction for people interested in military history and specifically in the history of fortifications and we stumbled across this during our visit. This fortress is one of two in the town which are known as the Firmafede Fortresses or “Cittadella” and the Fortresses of Sarzanello, which have both been recently restored.
During our midday meanderings we enjoyed the quiet streets, the beautiful buildings in an array of colours, the picturesque monuments and the large squares surrounded by orange trees.
Sadly the tempting array of shops, workshops and boutiques were all closed during our visit, but we found respite from the heat inside the cool interior of the incredible Sarzana Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. This ancient cathedral is an imposing white marble Gothic-style church that was built between 1204 to 1474. The Cathedral is located in the historic heart of the town.
Sarzana’s cuisine follows the Ligurian and Lunigiana’s cuisines, especially the farinata, the focaccia and the testaroli, but it is most renowned for its typical sweet, the Spongata, a cake made up of puff pastry and stuffed with fruit.
In the hills surrounding Sarzana you can also find many small wineries producing high quality white wines, such as the famous Vermentino.
Sarzana is an easily walkable town to explore with kids and dogs (we had both) I would have loved to explore more of the little shops so I recommend rather visiting in the morning or after siesta, especially during the summer months!