It’s a rare and special act traveling off-season. Especially somewhere so geared to the summer where sun loungers are arranged in busy blocks to dissuade the casual visitor. Off-season, you meet only locals and don’t wait in line. In time you start to feel like a local. It’s all so much more immersive and rewarding.
I love arriving at Pisa as she, best of all the Tuscan cities, exemplifies the innocence of the early medieval era. She is really the true cradle of the Renaissance. It’s all to be seen within the walled area called ‘Il Campo dei Miracoli’ (Field of Miracles), which comprises The Leaning Tower, Duomo, Baptistry, and the Monumental Cemetery. It proved a great starting point for my coastal journey as I reached Viareggio, a Roman town set beneath the majestic and looming Apuan Alps and now an elegant seaside resort. It’s on the Tuscan Riviera, which is considerably flatter than its Ligurian counterpart.
It was on this glamorous beach-front promenade that I came to stay at the majestic Hotel Plaza e de Russie with rooms from Euro 250. This Relais & Chateaux property is the town’s oldest hotel, named after Russian expatriates fleeing the Tsarist Empire. From outside its pristine Belle Epoque white front, I took a brazing morning stroll along the long sandy beach. I walked past the outdoor pools of the beach pavilions, more Art Deco hotels, past cafés, shops, and fish restaurants offering their ‘cacciucco’ (hearty fish soup).
It’s a boutique hotel, thus giving a more personal experience, and the décor is reminiscent of the stillness and subdued hues of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. There’s lacquered furniture, leather pouf ottomans, circular mirrors, and locally sourced milky-white marble flooring. In the hotel’s Restaurant Lunasia, there’s a stunning long chartreuse banquette across the tables from teal and grey chairs. The 44 rooms look straight over the promenade to the open sea, some having their own small balconies. They’re furnished traditionally with fine marble bathrooms and parquet flooring. There’s a sophisticated harmony of warm, understated tones: all typical of top Italian design. This historic hotel has been home-from-home for the jet set for over 150 years. They include the conductor Toscanini, the poet Rilke, whose walks inspired him, and Puccini, who became romantically involved here. Artistic exploits are continued every February with the Carnivale and its famous themed floats.
I moved inland to visit Pietrasanta, a small local jewel of a village. It’s also known as the Little Athens, thanks to the concentration of artists who have decided to settle here. It’s set beside a string of villages devoted to the marble trade including Carrara which once supplied Michelangelo. The churches offered me a Tuscan purity, and the cobbled streets a romantic stroll. I then popped in on Lucca and came within her ancient ramparts. These encircle the town and along them, the locals, the ‘Lucchese,’ ride their bikes and walk their dogs, for it’s now a tree-lined promenade. I just love Lucca’s Pisan-Romanesque churches with their ornate facades of green, grey, and white marble. I also explored the grid of romantically cobbled streets of this classic, beautiful Tuscan town with its pine trees and neat stucco buildings.
Directly outside the ramparts, I had parked with ease beside Ristorante Celide to savor the best of Vetrina Toscana. This regional project promotes restaurants and food producers who share the same high standards of Tuscany’s gastronomy. At this fish restaurant, I enjoyed a tuna tataki on traditional bread marinated in tartare and friarelli (part of the mustard family). To follow, I had a berry cheesecake with white chocolate sauce. The few choice delights of each dish allowed their elegant presentation to take center stage. All within a simple, honest setting that was full of locals, which is always a good sign.
Through countless tree-coated tunnels, I drove north along the Ligurian coastline. Its distinctive features of churches with domed apses and pencil-like campaniles broke this narrow littoral landscape. Riviera in Italian simply means shore. In Liguria, it’s a rugged, rock-bound rainbow of coast with beautiful beaches. It links France to Tuscany. Beaches that aren’t large or sandy but are slender strands in magical settings beneath steep cliffs. They are backed by gorgeous old fishing villages. They are composed of warm hues with hot spicy colors such as yellow ochre, orange, burnt ombre, and terracotta. They reflect the colors in the water, which, at sunset, then resembles fire. What an extremely immersive experience. The silhouette of fir and cypress trees stands out like a Japanese print against a clear blue sky. Much of the Riviera is best seen from a boat. So inaccessible are the villages and so steep and mazy their littoral approaches by car. There’s something truly dramatic and romantic about these weathered pastels and ochres. I loved the fleets of fishing boats, sailing boats, and yachts.
This coastline is excellent for boat trips with famous nearby towns like Portofino, Rapallo, and Santa Margherita. Beyond is Portovenere and, finally, the Cinque Terre. The last is a cluster of five little fishing villages described by Lord Byron as “Paradise on Earth.” I liked Rapallo for her down-to-earth resort, her large beach, and her unpretentious hotels. I took a train to Santa Margherita and walked past ornate palazzos. They are perched precipitously with magnificent aspects across the gulf. They pass the divine cove that is Paraggi Beach to reach Portofino. This gorgeous and famous village has a small harbor with narrow alleyways. The houses are huddled together on top of each other, small and tall. One window at least overlooks the sea. It’s a true stage with jet-set appeal as luxury brands fight for an outlet. It’s a ‘picture-postcard’ romantic nook as boats dock in the deep green ‘calanque’ (inlet). From here I took a boat to the stunning abbey at San Fruttuoso. It’s an unspoiled idyll of a retreat set in a tiny cove. There are citrous trees and roaming, bell-ringing goats. All are suggestive of its monastic past.
I disembarked at Camogli. It’s a town on the waterfront. Besides the quaint little wooden office where boat tickets are sold, there is a three-generation-old restaurant called Vento Ariel. With as many tables outside as in, I sat beneath bougainvillea and a typical pastel-colored house. I watched the world go by with characters resembling the cast of ‘Under Milk Wood.’ Garrulous and full of gesture, the men put the world to rights over coffee. The women hang out their laundry from their bottle-green windows. Windows that, on opening, resemble an advent calendar. The bobbing boats announced all their orchestral sounds: tugged ropes, chinking masts, and lapping water. The fish was all caught that very morning. Tempted though I was by the cuttlefish pate, I chose instead a delicious mussel, clam, and calamari soup. It was followed by some long trenette pasta with, of course, pesto sauce. Then came apple sorbet which I drank with Riviera di Ponente Pigato (a white Italian wine grape planted primarily in Liguria).
Camogli means home of wives (‘Casa Mogli.’ It’s because the men were always at sea. The colorful facades of the buildings on the water made them easily identifiable on the sailors’ return. With her backdrop of green hills, Camogli is bisected by a small promontory. There’s a little pebble beach, a basilica, and a fishing port. The seafront is set for tourists, and the back street is for locals.
Down a small, cobbled walkway is a bridge above water rolling down from the hills. Here is Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi. It is open all year round with prices from Euros 150 a night. Once a retreat for Genevieve (‘from Genoa’) aristocrats from the 16th century, it became a hotel in the 1950s. It has the intended feel of a private home by the sea. The setting is simply fabulous, right at the very southern end of its long promenade. It has a full view of the town along the seafront. Italians are so adept at stylishly utilizing the steepest terrain to some advantage. And this hotel’s layered terrace comprised century-old pine trees and stone statues. There were floral gardens with little nooks and crannies for secluded sunbathing.
The interior has chequered marble flooring, patterned area rugs, and large classical paintings. There was a grand piano and a lovely crystal chandelier. Homely modern paintings of populated beach scenes hung on the walls. It even has its own ornate chapel. The 100 rooms have charming sea views. Beside the beds and their crisp linen are old cedar drawers on hardwood floors. Nothing too elaborate to prevent the view of the sea from taking center stage.
The hotel’s Restaurant Il Doge has a long, chequered floor with foliage. The huge panoramic glass is designed for views from every angle. I had grey snapper cooked carpaccio. It was flavored with orange, Soncino salad, goji berries, and pine nuts in black squid ink. It was followed with a bresaola and then a durum wheat linguine sautéed with cherry tomatoes and tuna roe. I finished with some wild berries and deep chocolate gelato, all eaten with the local Vermentino, the light-skinned local wine grape to drink.
The new swimming pool is heated to 28 degrees in winter and has water jets in summer. My massage at the Beauty Center was tailored intuitively to what I needed for pummelling indoors. I didn’t have the Hot Stone treatment. But I let Gabriella roll bamboo on my shoulders and use almond oil. The experience was impressive in every sense.
Easy to find on the higher street is the reasonably-priced Cucù Camogli. It’s owned by the chef Catherina Aquino and her husband Riccardo. I was transported in this intimate and homely environment by jazz music. Not to mention all the artifacts displaying Riccardo’s passions. These included figurines from Tintin, model ships, and original signed documents from Kings and Presidents. I dipped into the Duchess of Grosvenor’s olive oil. It comes from nearby Portofino. I simply had to have the catch of the day. It comprised some mussels with oil and garlic, which also acted as a soup. I followed with fresh lasagne with pesto sauce which I drank with the local Sassarini Cinque Terre. What a charming place and charismatic owner.
Liguria’s cuisine matches the criteria of the perfect Mediterranean diet. It is based on the ‘Cucina povera’ of olive oil, lots of vegetables, a little cheese, wine, and seafood. Liguria also gave the world pesto, that rich sauce of basil grown in the local hills. It comes with pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and cheese. It is usually served with the local ‘trenette’ pasta. Since fishing is still active, there are more fishing boats in the harbors than yachts. As for the catch of the day, it’s served at most restaurants, coming from Camogli’s surrounding waters.
At the neighboring village of Recco, it was time for some fine dining at Manuelina. The owner Cesare is now the fourth generation to be responsible. More than 125 years of Ligurian culinary history were in evidence. It was Manuelina herself who created the famous recipe for Recco focaccia. Focaccia is to Liguria what bruschetta is to Umbria; an essential bread treats for breakfast or as an aperitif. Reached by a lit garden path, the restaurant comprises both a casual Focacceria and its formal gourmet counterpart. The latter has long dark wooden beams, round tables on a marble floor, and a wall displaying special wines. The decor allows a blank canvas to the artistry of the cooking. I adored the ‘focaccia col formaggio’ and my fillet of beef. It came with foie gras and black truffles. The highlight was the dangerously indulgent jivara chocolate mousse. It came with maracujas (yellow passion fruit). A fitting end to my journey. I felt both culturally and literally nourished here on this Italian Riviera’s so-called Golfo Paradiso (Gulf of Paradise).