At least twice a year I go back to Livorno, the city of my childhood. The first thing I do is head to the messy, noisy and colourful central food market to eat a frate (an orange-scented doughnut dipped in sugar), and then to the harbour to see if the sea urchin stands are still there, serving the spiky sea creatures cut in half, to be consumed raw with a drop of lemon juice.
Just 20km south of Pisa, Livorno checks all the boxes of the typical European port city: it’s chaotic and lively; it’s multicultural; and it’s strongly linked to the sea, both culturally and gastronomically. Plus, it’s in the middle of Tuscany, which should automatically make it popular.
Yet, with only 10% of Florence’s tourist numbers and a third of Pisa’s, Livorno is mostly ignored by visitors – and the few who do show up often look like they arrived by accident. Stop one on the street, if you can find one, and ask why they are here: they’ll likely say they are waiting to catch the ferry to Corsica or Sardinia, or are just driving through and looking for a place to eat.
But why is that? Firstly, Livorno is surrounded by world-famous Tuscan towns that, many locals say, steal the spotlight. Others believe that throughout the years, the city’s oil refineries, its port area and the US military base of Camp Darby have given Livorno an industrial, polluted image. But travellers who speed through don’t realise that they’re missing out on a culturally lively town with a breathtaking coastline and a uniquely liberal attitude that’s rooted in its very beginnings: when the Medicis founded the city in the 1500s, they instituted laws that guaranteed unprecedented freedom to all newcomers, drawing business, talent and a diverse population that made the city thrive.
By the 1700s and 1800s, Livorno had become an important stop on the Grand Tour. “Back then, Livorno was a popular summer destination for the Italian high society,” said local historian Giorgio Mandalis. He explained that in the 1800s and up until World War Two, the city was home to some of Italy’s first seaside resorts, which were regularly frequented by Italian royals, and had tourism facilities including hotels and spas. There was even a funfair with rollercoasters that featured an early version of a cinema, operated by an agent of motion-picture pioneers the Lumière brothers. A plaque on the wall of Villa Dupuoy in the Montenero neighbourhood commemorates Lord Byron’s six-week Livorno holiday in 1822. And one of Mozart’s operas, Lo Sposo Deluso, is set here too.