Surfing Levanto and the Ligurian Sea, in Italy

Imagine a small beach town blessed with a beautiful half-moon shaped bay with crystal-clear water, framed on each side by lush headlands with a backdrop of green wooded cliffs of olive and pine trees.

The numerous hiking trails here are sometimes steep but offer stunning views of the sea at nearly 2,000 feet elevation.

There’s a medieval castle in town and two grand city-center piazzas, one of which is recognized by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

In summertime the water temperature here is perfect: 77 degrees. The laid-back locals stay up past midnight eating the tastiest Gelato this side of Bubbie’s (in Encinitas’ Lumberyard), with their young night-owl children often playing with little to light supervision in the piazzas or bayside city park.

Sound like paradise?

Consider that this town also can get good, uncrowded overhead surf.

Hooked yet?

The town is called Levanto. Part of the Italian Riviera, Levanto is the first beach city north of the famous Cinque Terre, the five towns connected only by train or hiking trails, each with charming, compact village centers with richly-colored houses impossibly terraced in the steep cliffs.

Unlike the Cinque Terre towns, which lack sandy beaches, Levanto’s bay offers a black-sand beach with a sandy bottom that works on both lefts and rights.

Many people don’t realize that there are legitimate surfing waves in the Mediterranean. More accurately, Levanto technically faces the Ligurian Sea. Italy has the largest ‘fetch’ in the Mediterranean, meaning that waves travel the farthest in Italy than any other country in southern Europe or northern Africa.

Professional surf contests have been held here, such as an ASP Men’s World Longboarding Tour event.

A beautiful 20-minute bike ride north of Levanto, on a designated bike path that alternates between rocky, pristine surf views and long dank tunnel passages (a welcome respite from the searing summer Mediterranean heat) takes you to the equally laid-back town of Bonassola, the Leucadia to Levanto’s Encinitas.

The tourist information center in Bonassola has poster-board pictures facing out its windows showing scary double-overhead slabby wave faces. Other photos show sailing vessels swallowed by winter storm surf. A couple photos even show surfers dropping in on attractive head-high, well-groomed waves.

It’s the last thing that you expect to see when you’re on vacation in Italy, to see picture-perfect surf in this part of the world (though Bonassola doesn’t get big waves).

Back in Levanto, at least a couple of the cafés have blown- up photos of surfers trimming offshore, perfect peelers in the bay.

Unlike Rome, where it’s very rare to see a local Roman wear board shorts or shorts of any kind and a surf tank top, Levanto’s dress code is more coastal Southern California. And unlike L.A.’s or San Diego’s beach cities, Levanto has managed to keep its laid-back vibe in check without any growing pains. Reposos, like the Mexican siesta, is observed by most shopkeepers, from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00.

The food, though it’s not quite on par with the culinary Mecca that is Tuscany, is nonetheless delicious in its own right. Surfers on a tight budget can find generous portions of stellar pizza. For the health conscious pizza lover, opt for the ‘rocket pizza,’ which is topped with arugula.

You can stay here in a nice bed and breakfast for 70 euros. (Currently, 1 EUR = $1.23 U.S.; the Euro has been inching very close to the same value as our dollar, which is great for travelling Yanks.)

Just make sure you bring your 4/3 wetsuit if you surf here in the winter, when water temps can plunge to a So Cal-similar 57 degrees.

Levanto Bay

Big Surf in Levanto

Surf poster Levanto

All photos: Judd Handler

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