A Ligurian Adventure:
What is there to do in Liguria and the Italian Riveria in March? The week we stayed there, the forecast was for rain all week, so we planned and packed for all eventualities, but were incredibly lucky.
We only saw rain on our final day in France, and managed to be inside a restaurant when it started. March is clearly not yet sea and sand time, although we did spot one brave soul in the sea at Sanremo (at this point I had taken off my jacket as it was warm, but for me, far from warm enough to brave the water):
We had hired a car from Nice airport, and using the guide books left by Rachel in our Pigna house, we planned some days out and about that wouldn’t involve too much driving. After all, the whole point of a getaway (for me at least) isn’t to sit in a car; it’s to meet the locals, soak up the history, see some art, and savour the local produce. One of the many wonderful things about Italy, is the freshness of the ingredients. Those artichokes looked fabulous, and were!
On our first full day in Liguria we drove about 10 -15 minutes to a nearby Medieval town called Isolabona. This shop had been open in Isolabona since 1887, selling bread, the freshest of mozzarella, pancetta, local wine, local olive oil, and locally grown fruit and vegetables. We happily stocked up the car for our evening meal and breakfast. Breakfast was a simple combination of toasted bread drizzled with the local olive oil, mozzarella and ripe Italian tomatoes with just a twist of salt and pepper.
Isolabona is painted in soft terracotta hues, and was very pretty. There is a 15th century fountain near the entrance, and a rather imposing church. Wandering the streets was relaxing, and we could feel ourselves starting to unwind.
After our leisurely stroll we jumped back into the car and drove to nearby Dolceaqua with its rather beautiful 15th century humped bridge leading to the town and it’s hilltop castle (6 euros entrance fee).
We stopped for a drink at a little bar just on the other side of this bridge, a spritz at 3.5 Euros for me, and a beer at 3 Euros for Alex came accompanied by some focaccia baked with olives and rosemary (slightly bizarrely the olives were Greek). There were snippets of fascinating history around the village; it seemed that Prima Nocta was practised until an angry groom entered the castle with a dagger to demand that it stop (his bride had already been thrown into a pit to starve to death as she wouldn’t submit to the nobleman). We didn’t witness any such drama on our visit but did see plenty of truly awful art churned out for tourists. We managed to have a little chat with one of the street vendors; my Italian is extremely rusty and he didn’t speak English, but somehow we seemed to understand each other.
For lunch we enjoyed more local cuisine; roast veal and goat with beans. Both rustic dishes done well.
On our third day, we thought that we’d have a little change from Medieval towns and go to the seaside. We headed to Sanremo taking the scenic route up and over Isolabona. I’m so glad that it wasn’t me driving; the roads were full of hair pin bends and it’s mostly only wide enough for one vehicle, and as you can see from the photo above, some of the road had slid down the hillside. My heart was in my mouth most of the way, especially when we needed to reverse for a lorry coming in the opposite direction. The scenery was lovely; plenty of olive groves, wild primroses, with little yellow birds darting about. There are walking routes signposted with clear indications of how long each route takes.It was rather a relief to arrive in Sanremo and find somewhere to lunch. We walked towards the sea front hoping to find somewhere with seafood, and we weren’t disappointed. We dined at a place called Tipico Osteria, which was decorated in ‘Shoreditch trendy’ style; exposed brick walls, vintage non-matching furniture, you know the type of place I mean. We opted for the menu of the day; catch of the day for me, a very fresh piece of white fish served with a delicious ratatouille with pine nuts, and spaghetti with mussels and pesto for Alex.
We enjoyed a glass of wine and finished with a pannacotta each. This came to 30 Euros. We were the only tourists, everyone else was clearly local which I usually take to be a good sign. After lunch we needed a stroll and walked along the front, there were many nods to the love of music in Sanremo, such as these giant chairs and music stands outside the old fort.
The stroll along the front I think epitomised for me what I expected the Italian Riveria to look like; a long promenade, palm trees, just one brave soul in the water, sunshine and blue skies.
Of course, it also boasts a good array of shops (we found a particularly good wine shop where we bought some Franciacorta and a Grappa made with Brunello grapes) and a rather impressive looking casino. We resisted the impulse to go in and place our bets, and instead sat and people watched from the cafe opposite.
The following day we drove through Castagna, the countryside filled with sweet chestnut trees, and we went in search of witches at Troia, a beautiful medieval citadel. The year 1587 saw a lengthy and harsh famine in Troia, causing desperate locals to became convinced that the town’s resident “witches” were to blame, having allegedly practised black magic that made crops fail and cows milkless. Charged with crimes such as doing deals with the devil and murdering children, some thirty women were rounded up, interrogated, tortured, and some eventually sentenced to death by burning.
Despite the rather grisly history, I think that this was my favourite place in Liguria; the views were stunning and the place atmospheric as if the horrors of yesteryear had permeated the place. The day we went it was very quiet and we were able to wander the streets, admire the buildings, view the witches houses, visit the small quaint rather dusty museum, clamber through the castle, and wonder at Italian parking ability (I can’t imagine how many scrapes my car would have if I had to park here!).
We had lunch here at L’Erba Gatta, at this time of year it was the only restaurant open (there was a cafe as you drive into the village). I opted for Ligurian rabbit, something I’ve made at home from a Jamie Oliver recipe, but this was far superior, the rabbit cooked to perfection. Alex opted for pork ribs with honey, which were declared delicious and to get better with each mouthful. We’ve both become addicted to potatoes roasted with rosemary. I then sampled the local sweet chestnuts in a liquor form served with biscotti, whilst Alex enjoyed a rich chocolate cake. Rather handily the place mats in the restaurant are a map of the town, so we were able to ask directions to the witches houses.
For our final day in Liguria, we opted for another seaside excursion. This time to Alessio. We arrived just in time for lunch, this is a place where you are spoilt for choice by the array of fish restaurants. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we wanted to sit outside to look at and hear the sea whilst we ate and so chose the Gallega which had a set lunch for 23 euros, and, rather handily, a good selection of wine by the half bottle.
Our lunch consisted of lemon juice ‘cooked’ salmon served with red peppercorns, gnocchi with mussels and clams with lots of olive oil and parsley, Frito Misto, followed by a creme caramel. The whole time we ate we were watched by a hungry gull. It was all delicious and I was very very full!
After all that food a walk was in order; we started with a wander through the streets of Alessio, which were filled with boutiques selling clothes, shoes and bags – some of which were handmade. We then made out way back to the seafront and walked about 2 and a half miles to the next seaside town of Laigueglia. The beaches along the way were being prepared for the summer season, and it was notable how many trees had been washed ashore and were being burnt. Laigueglia was very pretty, and a stop for a Spritz was called for before the walk back to the car.
For our last day, we drove into France to Menton, to fill up the petrol tank (it’s cheaper in France than in Italy) and for a French lunch and then onto Nice airport.
This is a picturesque and lovely part of Italy, one that I’m keen to revisit soon, perhaps taking in Genoa and Cinq Terre next time.