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On Italy's Lovely Riviera

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Driving down from the Italian Alps to the Riviera, it was easy to see why Northern Italy was the industrial and agricultural powerhouse of this nation. The rich soil was intensively cultivated by farmers who supplied Europe with some of its finest fruits and vegetables. As we drove through the lush countryside, lovingly pruned orchards and vineyards, and fields of high-yield crops made it abundantly clear that the farming systems here were well-organized by people who knew just what they were doing.

The other thing that struck us was the way that manufacturing industries were also spread right across the countryside. Modern industrial plants seemed to be incongruously placed slap-bang in the middle of areas otherwise filled with fields, forests and farms. In spite of the fact that these factories were modern and that most were neat and efficient-looking, it seemed a tragedy that, as in many parts of Germany, they visually polluted the otherwise-lovely scenery. But as the factories employed much of the rural population, thus avoiding the drift to the cities, I guess it was a reasonable price to pay for progress.

But in spite of the frequent factories that studded the countryside, we thoroughly enjoyed the drive that took us from the area around Bergamo and Brescia, moving on to the Autostrada --- Italy’s freeway equivalent of Germany’s Autobahn and France’s pay-toll Autoroute --- skirted Milan and headed down towards the Ligurian coast.

The Northern Italian Autostrada was a masterpiece of construction, with dizzying elevated sections of roadway that crossed deep ravines, and others that went through more tunnels than a mole.

You have to keep very alert on these freeways because of the many Italian and other European car and truck drivers who imagined themselves to be competitors in the "Indy-500," consequently driving like accidents waiting to happen! To drive at 120 kmph and find huge trucks overtaking you was not exactly soothing on the nervous system. And then, a complete change as we turned off the Autostrada and on to a regional road that took us the few kilometers down to the Ligurian coast --- and into another, far more relaxed, world.

This was the section that lies roughly between Tuscany and the French border and is, to my mind, one of the most under-rated destinations in Europe. No vast expanse of sandy beaches there. This was a coast of wild, tree-studded, rocky promontories pounded by Mediterranean swells. In contrast, there were secret coves and bays which often contained tiny, secluded fishing villages. Alternating sheltered stretches revealed inky-blue water, shading to light azure which, crystal clear, indicated the deep and shallow sections.

As we drove along the single and at times narrow coastal road, it was like stepping back into the last century. No one rushed around, no one even hurried. This was the old rural Italy at its loveliest. And houses too, seemed to enter into the spirit of the late 1800s, with the painted faux-three-dimensional facades for which the people of Liguria are famous.

At the turn of the century their wealthier cousins in Milan and Rome could afford beautifully carved stone facades, but what the Ligurians lacked in money they made up for in enterprise. Building plain, flat-sided houses they painted them in pastel hues and then developed an uncanny skill of trompe l’oeil painting that created such a strong illusion of three-dimensionality that we often had to look twice before we realized that what we saw was not what we got.

The narrow road climbed and fell as it wound around the coast, almost down to water level at some points and then soaring back up to avoid cliff faces and other impassable stretches. Then, past Mediterranean pines and occasional palms, elegant mansions dotted the hillside. We were coming into Santa Margherita Ligure.

This somewhat hard-to-get-to waterfront township has always been one of our favorite watering holes --- one of the loveliest jewels of Italy’s Riviera. There we once again headed for my favorite hotel, the Hotel Miramare, an ageless, splendidly-proportioned gem of a hotel that an expensive and extensive renovation has restored to its true and traditional five-star status.

As always, the Hotel Miramare was a hard act to beat. Its front rooms overlooked the ocean, and the rooms and service were absolutely first-class. It has a large swimming pool that was surrounded by lawns -- quite the norm in places like America, Australia or Asia, but rare indeed in Europe -- and it has another feature that I really like every time I go there.

Though it was within an easy ten-minute stroll along the charming waterfront to the heart of Santa Margherita, it was nevertheless sufficiently away from the crowds not to get that hemmed-in feeling that more centrally located places often induce. There were two or three other five-star hotels in that town but I had to admit that the Miramare captured me the first time I went there many years ago, and has held me firm ever since.

No doubt the history of that hotel --- and that town --- was one of the reasons. It was at the Miramare that Guglielmo Marconi stayed while experimenting with long range wireless transmissions that were as revolutionary in their day as the Internet and cyberspace have become in our time. Marconi opened a new era of world communication in 1934 when, on board his floating-laboratory, the yacht "Elettra" (Electra in English), that was moored off-shore from the Miramare, he switched on the lights of Sydney in Australia by radio command.

And Santa Margherita, along with the nearby very small fishing village of Portofino, had seen some of the world’s most illustrious actors strutting across their stage of history.

While staying there in 1376, Pope Gregory XI decided to change the course of European history by ending the dual Papacy and returning to Rome from Avignon.

It was also there that, in 1574, Don Giovanni of Austria, the Admiral who defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto, stopped-over at Portofino and contemplated for a while the idea of governing nearby Genoa, the area’s main trading center. Maria De’ Medici visited there around the same time, and was followed by a host of other famous Europeans.

By 1853 the area, though still commercially undeveloped, attracted giants of politics and the arts. That year, composer Richard Wagner visited during a short but fierce storm that inspired his "Ride of the Valkyrie". Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche fell in love with Portofino and wrote a major part of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" there, completing the work at Eze, across what is now the French border.

Others followed. King Umberto of Savoy, writer Guy de Maupassant, painter Vassily Kandinsky, philosopher Ernst Bloch, Argentine ruler Evita Peron, and in the 1950s, American writer Truman Capote, all left their marks on this part of the world.

Santa Margherita is still a fishing port, but as the catches have dwindled due to overfishing and pollution, tourism has fortunately compensated. And during our visit we found it balm for the soul to walk along the coast road, past the many boutiques and small restaurants, and cross the busy coastal road to watch fishermen repair their boats and industrialists come ashore from their multi-million-dollar cabin cruisers.

We then strolled through the waterfront park and saw the young mini-skirted women of Santa Margherita strutting by, the township’s young men seated on waterfront walls observing their every move. Old roue travel writers don’t miss much when it comes to these sights either!

It was in Santa Margherita that I also invariably stocked up on my favorite Italian wine. Some years ago I had visited the thousand-year-old winery and olive-oil producing property of Lorenza De’ Medici near Siena in Tuscany. Her large cookbook, Italy the Beautiful was both a culinary and coffee-table-top classic, and her television cooking series has been aired around the world. The wine from her property "Badia Coltibuono" has long been one of my top favorites and it was at Santa Margherita’s small wine and food store, "Seghezzo" at 1, Via Cavour that I again replenished my stocks before leaving Italy. If you live in USA and your local, up-market liquor store carries "Badia Coltibuono" buy yourself two bottles of this wine. If you are not happy with the first one when you drink it, send the other to me ! I love the stuff!

Back to the story. This small Santa Margherita food store was a revelation. It carried the most amazing inventory of superb Italian wines and gourmet foods, its deli section as good as anything I have seen in Rome. Even now just thinking about this place is enough to make me hungry.

A thirty-minute drive from Santa Margherita, following a road that snaked along the precarious cliff face of the Mediterranean, took us to Portofino, a tiny fishing village that, to me, has always been the most romantic hideaway along the Italian Riviera.

Picture-pretty Portofino, with its indigo-blue water and its colorful pastel-painted fishermen’s houses, started off as a fishing village that was only accessible from the sea. When the narrow road was hung onto the cliff-face to provide access by land, the industrial "Movers and Shakers" >from nearby Genoa and Milan bought up the gloriously wooded hillsides that surrounded the village and decided to keep all but their own rich and powerful friends at bay.

They did this by appointing Municipal elders who totally forbade subdivision or architectural modernization away from tradition. They only allowed buildings to be revamped on the inside but totally banned twentieth century glass boxes, and restricted hotel-construction. Access to Portofino was virtually reduced to those who could afford very classy and commensurately expensive hotels or the ownership of multi-million-dollar mansions.

And if you can afford it, there is no better place to stay than the aptly-named Hotel Splendido. If you don’t have a bottomless checkbook, you can still explore this hideaway of the ‘Rich and Famous’ by taking one of the frequent ferries or buses from Santa Margherita, and making a day of it.

The Hotel Splendido is owned by the prestigious Orient Express Group that also owns some of the world's finest hotels like the Cipriani in Venice and the Lodge at Vail.

We might easily have missed the turn-off that led up the wooded slope to this stunning property -- a grand hotel in every meaning of the word. The vine-covered terrace restaurant, the grand turn-of-the-century facade and the lovely pool were supplemented by the sort of rooms most people only dream about. Lavish in a conservative manner, yet with some featuring television sets that rise out of a hidden coffee table and bathrooms that are truly exquisite, it's no wonder that The Splendido continues to draw those who enjoy, can afford, but also demand the very best.

At the turn of the century, The Splendido was a favorite haunt of the British aristocracy when its members wanted a place for discreet trysts with partners that were other than their official spouses (I’ve always wondered why the plural of spouse isn’t spice).

After World War II, when Portofino became more accessible, The Splendido was ‘discovered’ by big-name Hollywood movie stars as well as Europe’s leading politicians and industrialists, the latter still being this hotel’s major clientele. But don’t miss the signed photographs of yesteryear’s movie stars that adorn the walls of the public rooms here. If you are a movie buff, these will totally enthrall you.

We lunched here, enjoying the heavenly combination of luxury, superb service, outstanding cuisine and a view down the wooded hillside to the yachts moored in the tiny bay. A friture of Ligurian cheese, spinach and prawns was followed by risotto with shelled scampi in seafood stock and sliced roast beef with mustard sauce on shredded lettuce. In the words of the old song, ‘Who could ask for anything more?’ I finished with a fresh fruit tart --- tiny, superbly aromatic wood strawberries, black figs and raspberries --- while my companion had coffee mousse in a chocolate cup with the best coffee ice-cream I’ve ever stolen off her plate. Mamma Mia! Then it was time to leave and head down to Portofino village.

It was no surprise that this place appears on so many travel posters. Whoever coined the phrase ‘picture-postcard pretty’ may well have been thinking of Portofino at the time. We strolled along the single main street, admiring the fabulous merchandise and gagging at the prices.

Some of the finest Italian designer jewelry was for sale here. We specially admired the selection at Cusi Gioielliere, a branch of the famous Milano boutique, and then people-watched the crowds in the restaurants. Looking like sets from a travel-promotion movie, these line the Square that open to the fishermen’s boat ramps.

The sheltered, boat-studded bay was ringed by a horseshoe of multi-colored pastel houses on one side, and on the other was adorned by cabin cruisers with flags from France, Germany, and even far away America as well as Italy. There were still a handful of fishing boats in Portofino but I couldn’t help suspecting that they were window dressing, and were owned by the local tourist board.

Don't come here by road on a summer weekend. The car park is modern but limited, and the police will only allow as many cars to enter the village as there are parking spaces. This can translate into a mile-plus long line of cars -- mainly BMWs, Mercedes, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Alfas and Audis, nearly all with Genoa or Milano number plates -- patiently waiting for an hour or two to enter the parking area. No such problem if you come by boat. And if the sea is calm and the sun is shining there is no lovelier trip that I can think of.

We could have stayed in this lovely area for weeks, but our schedule demanded that we move on. Car loaded we again climbed the road back to the Autostrada and headed west in the direction of France. On the way we planned to stop at another Italian gem, the charming La Meridiana in Garlenda just on the Italian side of the border near Monaco.

Perhaps I should start with the totally accurate quote from the Relais and Chateaux handbook to which I constantly refer when traveling around Europe. The description is actually an understatement but reads as follows. "Nestled between Monaco and Portofino, La Meridiana is a charming Italian stopover. The 18-hole Garlenda course is a golfer’s paradise. Gourmets flock to the Il Rosmarino restaurant where the aromas of garden herbs, fruits and vegetables and fresh fish from the coast are as memorable as the wine selection ! Stroll through the Roman village of Albenga or discover the beautiful beach of Alassio." I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For those who are keen golfers and others who have a little romance in their hearts, this place is perfection. While we were there, a local wedding was also being celebrated and the reception added extra color. We lunched at the poolside restaurant --- delicious --- and were joined by owner-manager Edmondo Segre, the sort of hands-on executive that one sadly sees less and less in these times of computerized, homogenized and sterilized impersonally corporate hotel chains. When one comes across a totally involved person who is as passionate and justifiably proud about his property as Segre is, it adds a huge extra-positive dimension to any visit.

Segre and his charming wife Alessandra live for La Meridiana. Alessandra decorated the property and Edmondo and his family were also involved in the developing of the nearby golf course and villas that make this a very laid-back and elegant Florida-style resort. We looked at some of the villas which cost between US$700,000 and US$2,000,000. Fabulous!

And no wonder. When they belong to families like the Agnellis, owners of Italy’s Fiat empire, or other top industrialists, there’s not much skimping on luxuries. Yet they are not ‘over-the-top’ and the whole thing is done in classic European good-taste.

I could rave on and on, but if you want to see more, check out La Meridiana’s website http://www.relaischateaux.com and you will see what I mean.

I’m always fascinated to discover how such developments come into existence and the story that Segre told us about this one is, I feel, worth repeating.

Segre’s father had been a partner in the famous Italian automotive bodyworks, Karman-Ghia, that set the trends for the international car industry after World War II and designed and made special car bodies, not only for the world’s ‘Rich and Famous’, but also the stylish and sporty VW Karman-Ghia and for the emerging Japanese car industry, and one-offs like the Batmobile used in ‘Batman’ movies over the decades.

When Segre was only six years old, his father died tragically after botched surgery, and his mother sold the business to Dominican dictator Trujilo. She then purchased the land for this development around 1960, subsequently building the hotel and golf course around 1965, eventually handing the whole operation over to her son.

The next day Alessandra took us to the little town of Albenga, the center of which dates back to Roman times. We explored the church of San Michele, built around 300 AD in the style that was a mix between Roman and Baroque and wandered around the tiny streets, exploring the small boutiques and shops. Our last visit was to the olive oil museum, a very interesting little section of a superb wine and gourmet-food shop that specialized in all kinds of olive oil and allied products. We came out laden with jars of wonderful pesto ingredients that greatly enhanced our salads and other dishes for months after returning home.

Then it was time to leave and head back for the two-hour freeway drive across the nearby border for another visit to Venice, our favorite European hideaway. But that’s another story...

Hotel Miramare
Santa Margherita Ligure
Phone: ++, Fax: ++

La Meridiana Resort
Via Ai Castell, 1-17033 Garlenda
Phone: ++, Fax: ++

Hotel Splendido
Salita Baratta, 16-16034 Portofino
Phone: ++, Fax: ++

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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