Sunday, June 26, 2016

Liguria, Rapallo, and Portofino Bay

Rapallo Castle Wikipedia photo
I was not too terribly sad to leave Turin after a good breakfast in the artsy Holiday Inn restaurant. I was excited to begin our journey to Portofino Bay, Liguria. I was not prepared for the ride, entering and emerging briefly out of endless tunnels which I failed to count accurately.

The narrow strip of land called Liguria is bordered by the sea, the Alps, and the Apennine mountains. It is home to one national reserve, six large parks, two smaller parks, and three nature reserves.  It is comprised of 65 percent mountains and 35 percent hills, extending to the highest summit of 2,201 m called Monte Saccarello.

There are very small beaches but no deep bays and natural harbors except for Genoa. The water plunges deeply along the 350-km coastline. The hills and the sea provide a mild climate with abundant rainfall.

What fascinated me was the fact that Neanderthals lived in the area and were discovered in Loano. Evidence of Cro Magnon habitation was found in the grotto of Balzi Rossi. My husband joked that he felt right at home surrounded by the land of his ancestors, the Neanderthals.

Ancient Ligurians once occupied larger territories as evidenced in the Greek colony of Massalia, the modern day Marseille. During Augustus’ reign, Liguria was a region of Italy (Regio IX Liguria). The Roman ruins of Albenga, Ventimiglia, and Luni prove that Roman roads such as Aurelia and Julia Augusta helped Liguria develop towns on the coast.

Boticelli's The Birth of Venus Wikipedia photo
One Ligurian, Simonetta Vespucci, is said to have been the beautiful model for Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, a masterpiece located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ships from Genoa ferried for hire knights and troops to the Middle East during the first crusade against the invading Muslims. One of the most famous citizens of Genoa is Christopher Columbus, who, on his quest to reach the East Indies for spice trade, managed to sail west and landed in 1492 in the Bahamas archipelago.

The ride from Piedmont to Liguria was one of the most interesting I’ve experienced and not for the faint of heart. From the Piedmont line into the state of Liguria, we passed through one tunnel after another, the shortest one, 150 meters long, to the longest, over two miles. I stopped counting them at thirty; there were way too many and my husband was driving fast. I was distracted by the gorgeous landscapes that emerged in-between the tunnels.
Some of the tunnels in Genoa were simply steel and plastic over sloped terrain; I could not understand their function; perhaps it prevented small rock slides onto the road. The rest were actually carved into the mountain.  One tunnel would end and, for fifty feet or more, light would blind us momentarily with a brief sight of metallic green olive groves, dizzying drops to the azure sea, and then another tunnel would start. Before these tunnels were carved, we wondered how people traveled across this treacherous and seemingly inaccessible terrain to the Italian Riviera which hugs the Ligurian Sea.
Eventually Rapallo, our destination for the day, came into view. Its first settlement dates back to 8th century B.C. The streets were so narrow in some places, it was almost claustrophobic because the buildings seemed disproportionately tall when compared to the narrow streets and sidewalks. Yet there was enough room to drive small cars and to even park or conduct business.

Cinque Terre, Liguria
Wikipedia photo
Many beautiful villas are built in the hills behind the city, offering them protection from the strong northern winds. The town itself has only a 10 ft. elevation from the sea.

As we made our way up the hill on the winding road, we reached our destination, the five-star Excelsior Palace Hotel, one of the top fifty best hotels in the world, perched on the hill overlooking both Portofino Bay and Rapallo Bay.

We settled in after the porter brought our luggage up to the room. The balcony opened to a spectacular view of the Portofino Bay, the infinity pools, the gym, the large indoor pool, and the lower gardens. The hotel stretched over four levels down the mountain through mysterious passageways, gardens, walkways, and stairways with beautiful potted plants and shrubs. Ornate turn of the century antique furniture in brocaded yellows, burgundy, and blue, and a large museum-quality collection of paintings were inviting and comfortable. Marbled floors and amenities that anybody can possibly want, completed the dreamy atmosphere. Dating back to 1901, the hotel hosted many famous people.

Domingo Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, was born in Rapallo in 1817 and died there during a visit in 1894. Ezra Pound, the famous poet, lived in Rapallo between 1924 and 1945 and wrote most of his Cantos there. Max Beerbohm, famous essayist and caricaturist, lived in Rapallo from 1910 until his death in 1956. Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have created the mental idea of Thus Spoke Zarathustra while walking on two roads surrounding Rapallo. Rapallo was even the setting of a crime novel, Elmore Leonard’s Pronto.

I could feel with intensity how the mild climate and the beautiful vistas were conducive to creative writing, painting, and music.

The luxurious vegetation and majestic palm trees shaded the spiral driveway and the stairs leading down the mountain to the Rapallo Marina, the beach, the castle ruins, and the boulevard facing the sea. Splendid yachts were docked in the Bay of Rapallo. Every morning charter boats took tourists on a day-tour of Cinque Terre.

House in Rapallo Photo: Ileana 2016
The bright sun warmed the pink, the white, and the ochre-painted villas, architectural jewels that only an artist with an eye for flair and beauty could create, the lush-green vegetation, and the white marble statues. It was a symphony of color unmatched by the previous slate grey and dark burgundy of castles and churches in areas where fog and rain dominated. We explored the beautiful surroundings and the breathtaking vistas.

We walked to the port down the rocky stairwell and to the Centro of Rapallo instead of taking the car down the winding road and to a possible parking headache. Locals were busy docking boats and yachts. A few girls were sunning themselves on the yellow sand and uncomfortable-looking rocky beach by the old Castello. Parallel to the sea promenade, a few streets behind the Castello was the train station dating back to 1868 and the pedestrian area downtown, with narrow streets reminiscent of Venice. All the gelaterias and pizzerias were clustered in the front of the Bay of Rapallo by the boulevard al Mare. Nettuno Ristorante offered us delicious pizza and pasta with a view.

To counter frequent pirate attacks, the Castello sul Mare (Castle-on-the-Sea) was built in 1551. It contains a small chapel built in 1688 and dedicated to St. Cajetan, a priest and religious reformer born in Vicenza, Italy.

Another famous castle, Castello di Punta Pagana, the seat of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, was completed in 1631. The order of Malta, established in 1099, has 13,500 Knights, Dames, and auxiliary members, and employs doctors, nurses, and paramedics in 120 countries, providing medical care to lepers, natural disaster victims, children, homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, and terminally ill.

Basilica of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, which was consecrated in 1118 and restored in the 17th century, had a leaning bell tower. We prayed and lit a few candles there in memory of my father, who died several months after the communists beat him severely.

Other historical points of interest included the Tower of the Fieschi, Torre Civica (1473), and Porta delle Saline, the remaining gate from the Roman fortification walls.

We slept like babies in the luxurious bed, with the balcony door open, the sound of the crashing waves and the occasional sea gull lulling us to sleep.

The hills of Rapallo Photo: Ileana 2016
After a wonderful breakfast fit for a king, we descended the steep hills, via cobbled roads with hairpin turns and stairs cut into the rock, to the port and to downtown. I was on a quest to take more pictures for my book and to visit more churches. We stopped at Porto Napoleone, a tiny costume jewelry shop with beautiful designs created locally. My 20 year-old earrings had broken that morning (how convenient, said my husband) and I had to replace them for the duration of the trip. The proprietor, Gabriella, was happy to see us, she liked talking to me in Italian and, we were, for the time being, the only American tourists in the tiny city of 30,700.

Shopping in Rapallo
After returning to the hotel, we mapped our next two stops in Pisa and Florence. My husband attempted to purchase tickets for the Leaning Tower of Pisa on line. Like everything else in Italy, technology works intermittently and people take long hours for lunch. Everything takes time to happen unless they are extracting money from credit cards – that happens with the speed of lightning. Italians give a new meaning to the phrase, “Hurry slowly.” But then everything they do create, lasts a long time, and it is always a work of art.

A luxurious spa massage later and a dip in three different pools made the 82 degrees F water feel divine. The infinity pool was 9 ft. deep around the edges, with a spectacular view of the Bay of Portofino. Supper was at Vesuvio, by far the best meal we’ve had in Italy on this trip. The lights were enchanting, casting sparkles on the dark water.

We climbed back to the hotel, careful to avoid the fast driving Italians who could appear out of nowhere. The many lounge areas in the hotel welcomed us back with comfortable chairs and couches; the antique furnishings were bathed in a glowing light, and the music was soothing. We sat on the balcony listening to the sounds of the bay and watching the lights on the few yachts anchored far out in the bay.

We were falling asleep in the comfortable balcony lounge chairs, no mosquitoes to worry about. The full moon cast a white glow on all surroundings.






  1. This story is right out of a fairy tale. What a fabulous adventure.

    1. It was, Chriss, just like a dream come true!