Luminous Liguria: a quick getaway on Italy’s Riviera di Levante

Leaving the smog of Milano , I was thrilled by the prospect of returning to Liguria after an eight year absence. Liguria is famous for pesto, world-class resort towns and a warm and welcoming populace. The region stretches from Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border to La Spezia on the southeast extreme, and skirts the regional borders of Toscana, Emilia-Romagna, and Piemonte. The seaside portion of Liguria is divided into two separate rivieras-the Fiore and the Levante. The Fiore starts north of Genova and finishes at Ventimiglia, but the more celebrated is the Levante, starting south of Genova and ending at the border of Toscana. The Levante is a string of impossibly gorgeous towns and villages hugging an undulating coastline full of hairpin turns and unbroken vistas. While urban Italy is a frenetic milieu of Vespa smoke, screaming telefonini and alta moda, the Riviera di Levante is a welcome break from quotidian stress.

Camogli (literally, “wives houses”) is the first stop, a town whose principal industries are fishing and tourism. Perched precipitously on the Meditteranean, her grand façades of crumbling peach –colored palazzi and labyrinthian alleys just below give a sense of a faded satellite town, whose prosperity peaked when a local boy named Cristoforo Colombo was learning how to sail.

The best time to visit Camogli is mid-May, when a festival known as the Sagra del Pesce takes place. A cast iron skillet twenty feet in diameter is set in a waterfront piazza, and piles of freshly caught fish are fried to oblivion. The Sagra lasts one week and is about maintaining the old seafaring culture that made Liguria famous. This way of life, of rising at dawn, casting nets in the hopes of corralling a catch of ultra fresh swordfish, is rapidly disappearing. The LegaAmbiente Nord, an environmental activist group, has contributed to the decline of the Ligurian fishing industry by winning a ban on the use of nets to catch fish. The ban is enforced with a lax manana approach, so some fisherman are still able to eke out a living. On the bright side, the LegaAmbiente rates the sea in the Riviera di Levante as among the cleanest in Italy.

The seaside promenade, Via Garibaldi, is where a visitor to Camogli will spend most of the day. The beach is wide and sandy, free of charge and consequently choc-a-bloc in Bain du Soleil- slathered torsos. Skip the beach and indulge your gastronomic urges at the many bakeries and sandwich shops lining Via Garibaldi. Step into La Focacceria for an authentic version of the oft-bastardized cousin of pizza. No fewer than twenty varieties of focaccia are sold here, with toppings ranging from tomato and basil to porcini mushroom and white truffle shavings. Coffee cognoscenti flock to Bar Primula, whose barista Renato is reputed by one food critic to make the best cappuccino in Italy. Now that your blood type is E for espresso, wander the long staircases between the seaside palazzi that leads to Via Piero Schiaffino, to Trattoria al Lama. Order the trofie al pesto, garnished with potatoes and haricots verts. It’s a great dining experience, if you can get a table. Reservations are essential at dinner. After dinner, take in the sunset from the promontory near the restaurant and make your way back to Via Garibaldi for the customary passegiatta, the traditional after-dinner stroll that passes for nightlife in most small Italian towns.

Lodging in Camogli can be quite scarce during the spring and summer as there are about a dozen hotels in town. Book a few weeks in advance and try not to get stuck with the hotel next to the train tracks.

Twenty minutes by train from Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure is the ideal base for a short trip to the Riviera di Levante. The lone concession to tourists are the pizzerie and trattorie lining the waterfront, otherwise Santa Margherita goes about its business quietly. The facades of the buildings lining the Piazza del Duomo have painted on faux windows and clotheslines, a surreal Disney-esque touch. The best lodging deal is the Hotel Fasce, in a residential area seven minutes by foot from the waterfront promenade. Run in a brisk manner by British expat Jane Fasce and her husband Alberto, it has large, bright and cheery rooms for around $90 a night for a single. My room looked over a lush garden, and the voyeur in me couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of local families gathering on their patios for supper.

The best dinner spot in Santa Margherita is Trattoria Pezzi, one block from Piazza Duomo towards Hotel Fasce. For 5 euro, enjoy the trenette al pesto and a glass of schiacchetra, a dry local white wine. The pesto cannot get any better: freshly picked and pungent basil, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, pecorino and pine nuts in perfect proportion.

From Santa Margherita, hike 2.5 miles along the flat coastal road to Portofino. Portofino is a stunningly beautiful town with a jewel of a harbor, filled with luxury yachts and the odd fishing boat. The waterfront piazza pays tribute to the mighty tourist dollar/euro/yen, and is filled with overpriced bars serving warm beer. Skip this area and wander some of the scenic back streets. A must see is the nearby village of San Fruttuoso, famous for its submerged statue of Jesus known as Christ of the Depths. The statue has its arms raised towards the surface, welcoming scuba divers paying 60 euro a pop for a fifteen minute dive.

A nice half day can be spent in Rapallo, Santa Margherita’s next door neighbor to the southeast, towards Cinque Terre. It has a palm tree lined promenade, a charming town center filled with artisanal food shops and craft stores, and noticeably few tourists. However, it was mobbed by bicycle racing enthusiasts cheering on the Italian riders of the Giro d’Italia, lending the town a carnival-like atmosphere.

With only a day to spare on the Riviera, I popped into Vernazza, the most picturesque of the Cinque Terre. I was enjoying a leisurely dinner when I remembered an item I heard on the morning news, that a twenty- four hour train strike was scheduled. I could not recall if it began that night at 9 p.m., while I was in Vernazza, or the next morning at 9 a.m. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong and was stuck in Vernazza and could not hike back to the main Cinque Terre town of Monterosso where I booked a hotel, because the footpaths are not lit at night. My only option was to find someone in Vernazza, a fisherman perhaps, who could take me back by boat. After a half hour search, I found someone who owned a rickety old rowboat and was more than happy to charge me 50 euro for a fifteen minute boat ride back to Monterosso. I forgot how much I was being extorted as soon as we left Vernazza’s harbor: surrounded by sheer cliffs and the indigo sea and its salt breezes, the magic of Liguria’s Riviera di Levante had cast its spell.

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