Livorno: old sea dogs, fish stew and palm trees

Livorno: old sea dogs, fish stew and palm trees

Thu 02 Jul 2009 12:00 AM

‘Leghorn’: the name doesn’t exactly inspire a visit does it? Considering that the city of Livorno is blessed with a very pronounceable name in English, it’s not clear how it got lumped with an Anglicised name that conjures up images of a grotesque troll-like leg sprouting horns. Livorno is already considered a bit of a cultural black hole in Tuscany, and, let’s be honest, it’s not exactly Chiantishire. It’s a seaside town, but it lacks the acres of sandy beaches and the famous carnival parade of its snobby little sister, Viareggio, just up the coast.


Among the city’s few and little-known claims to fame is that it has a breed of chicken (Leghorn) and a Loony Tunes cartoon character named after it (‘Foghorn Leghorn’-you’d recognise him if you saw him, trust me). This does not, however, do much to recommend the city to visitors. Flattened by Allied bombs in WWII, Livorno doesn’t have a pretty face, but an increase in cruise ships docking here over the last few years means that the city has pulled up its socks for those tourists who choose to spend the day there rather than pile onto tour buses headed for Florence or Pisa.


Livorno’s most picturesque area has to be the Piccola Venezia district. Small fishing boats bob all along its winding canals and several trendy bars and trattorias have sprung up there recently, like the funky and friendly Sarza Verde (Scali del Ponte di Marmo, 10). The peeling palazzi of this district have a certain tatty appeal, made even prettier by climbing bougainvillaea and the soft clunking sound of the water jostling boats against their moorings.


For more fresh sea air, take a stroll along the lungomare (the seafront) from the port along to the Naval Academy and beyond all the way to the district of Ardenza. There are several places to pause for thought along the route, including the new bars and restaurants on the stretch before Piazza Mascagni, complete with imported swaying palm trees.


The trendiest bar on the entire lungomare is Baracchina Bianca. You can get coffee in the morning and be dazzled by the city’s bright young things drinking mojitos in the evening. The bar staff know they work in the coolest bar in Livorno, and you could go grey waiting to be served, so elbows out and don’t be shy.


As for the city itself, what Livorno lacks in culture and beauty it more than makes up for in excellent food. Livorno is a foodie heaven. A few restaurants pander to tourists, but most of them cook good Livornese food for Livornese people, who, incidentally, are among the most discerning seafood critics in the world. The classic Livornese dish is cacciucco, a hearty fish stew that contains just about every sea creature you’ve ever heard of and many others you haven’t, as well as crusty Tuscan bread oozing with garlic. Delicious, but not for the faint hearted.


An excellent and reasonably priced seafood restaurant is Cantina Senese (Borgo dei Cappuccini, 95) although there are many more. Apart from other classic seafood dishes such as spaghetti allo scoglio (with mussels, clams, garlic, a smudge of chilli and parsley, yum…), Livorno is also famous for la torta di ceci, a flat bread made from chickpea flour and oil, variously known as torta or cecina. It looks pretty insipid but is one of the most satisfying street-food snacks there is, especially when it’s sprinkled generously with pepper and eaten in a schiacciata bread roll. This is known locally as ‘cinque e cinque’, a throwback to when a slice of torta di ceci and a bread roll both cost 5 lire. It costs a bit more today but is still as delicious and as good in value. Forget MacDonald’s and instead look out for it in any place that sells pizza by the slice.


If you have room for an after-dinner digestivo, try Livorno’s famous ponce (allegedly a mispronunciation of the English word ‘punch’), a mix of coffee, rum and sugar with a piece of lemon peel balanced in the glass and known as la vela (the sail). Be warned though: it packs quite a punch (or ponce). The most famous place to find it is Bar Civili, on via del Vigna 55, which has an old Livornese sea-dog character stamped all over its picture-crammed walls.  


Food aside, Livorno is also known in Italy for Camp Darby, the much-disputed American military base just outside the town. In fact, the city boasts an American market in Piazza XX Settembre. Open every day, it is strange enough to be worth a visit. It was set up after WWII to serve the American soldiers based at the camp and while the selection of US food isn’t too impressive, there’s a fascinating amount of scary military equipment. (If you’re on the look-out for a huge machete then this is the place.) 


Those more into religion than weapons should visit the Sanctuary of Montenero, up on the hill behind Livorno. With great views of the city and the coast, the Sanctuary itself is open to visitors. A place of pilgrimage, its gallery contains hundreds of ex-votos giving thanks to Santa Maria delle Grazie and showing moments when people have been miraculously saved from certain death, from the crude drawing of a horse and cart running over a man’s legs to a century-old framed blood-stained undershirt. These offerings can seem quite creepy, so you’ll be forgiven for feeling relieved to emerge into the Sanctuary’s sunny courtyard. Nonetheless, to see the strength of so many people’s religious conviction depicted so graphically is impressive. To get there, take the funicular railway that runs and down the hill from Piazza delle Carrozze, easily reached by taking the number 2 bus from the centre.     


But, far and beyond Livorno’s biggest attraction is its people. The Communist Party was started here in 1921, and today most the local population are still redder than Mao’s underpants. Che Guevara t-shirts are a must for all ages, and while Florence has the mainstream and rather politically mild Festa Democratica, Livorno hosts the Festa Comunista. No hammer and sickle, no party. The city’s ultras, the soccer team’s most dedicated and often aggressive fans, are famously the most left-wing in the country and are notorious for their clashes with the extreme right-wing ultras who follow certain northern teams. Italy’s most famous satirical and scathingly anti-political news magazine, Il Vernacoliere, is written and published in Livorno. A recent headline read, ‘Ai bimbi Rom camere con acqua, luce e tanto gasse’ (‘Housing for Romanian children with running water, electricity and lots of gas’) with a picture of the minister for Home Affairs, Roberto Maroni, pointing to concentration camp-style gas showers. Subtle.


Despite the political fervour however, the Livornese are pretty much the most laid-back, sun-loving, friendly people you could hope to meet. People hold conversations from one end of the bus to the other. If you start talking to a barman over your cappuccino, he’ll ignore the people waiting and settle down for a chat with you. Ask for directions and you’ll immediately be surrounded by five or six passersby. Everyone is headed to the sea. South of the city the coast is rocky but the sea is crystal clear, and from April to October the Livornese lay in the sun, lizard-like, all over the rocky boulders. (There are sandy beaches just north of the city but the port with its greasy, smoky towers lurks in the background and the sea is murky). To best observe the city and its people, get yourself an aperitivo and a ringside seat in one of the bars on the main shopping drags, via Grande, Piazza Cavour or via Ricasoli during passeggiata (evening stroll) and watch the plucked, preened and very tanned Livornese strut their stuff.


One final note: don’t be alarmed if everyone you listen to in Livorno seems to be muttering, shouting and chatting about executioners. ‘Executioner’ or ‘boia’ in Italian is one of the most common Livornese expressions, used to show all kinds of emotions, from surprise to appreciation to shock and more more. In fact, the local population’s idiomatic expressions can be stronger than their political views, religious faith and desire to bask in the sun all rolled into one. Il Vernacoliere is written in the local dialect, good for a full-immersion crash course. Most expressions are utterly unprintable such as ‘non si piscia mica dai peli,’ meaning ‘we don’t mess around here.’ I’ll leave the literal translation to you.    



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