We left Lyon in France on Tuesday morning to drive to Rapallo on Italy’s Ligurian coast. Because of the length of the trip we opted for motorways, which took us on a zig-zag route to the Fréjus Tunnel and on to Asti for lunch. For a change of scene we spent most of the afternoon avoiding motorways, until the approaching spaghetti around Genova made them the prudent option.
Rapallo became my favourite European town on my first trip to Italy, and I’m pleased to say it’s just as appealing on a second visit. While the area near the sea front does cater to tourists, you don’t have to walk far to find typical urban neighbourhoods. We stayed in an Albergo which I thought must be perilously close to losing its one star rating. It was three floors up from a busy side street, hidden in a maze of interconnecting ante rooms. It didn’t appear to have been redecorated since it was built in 1939. The building did have a lift, the smallest I’ve ever seen: we squeezed two people and two suitcases into it only by stacking the suitcases and holding our breath.
The Albergo was run by the family which managed the highly rated restaurant on the ground floor. On our second day in Rapallo we thought we’d try the optional sweet Italian breakfast as a change from our usual croissants or brioche. Although the Albergo was not empty, we were the only breakfast customers, and the sweet Italian breakfast turned out to be half a dozen large tarts created by the restaurant’s pastry chef, alongside baskets of pre-toasted bread slices sealed in plastic. The tarts were delicious, but neither my brain nor my stomach would accept these as breakfast dishes, and we returned to croissants and brioche the next morning with relief. We did, however, eat at the restaurant one evening and it was fantastic.
We took the ferry to Santa Margherita. It’s only a 3km walk from Rapallo, but arriving by sea gives you a different perspective. In many ways the town is similar, with tourist hotels and shopping near the waterfront, and the work-a-day town further up the valley. We explored the town before buying a magnificent lunch of freshly-baked bread, local cheese and large succulent peaches, and eating in the grounds of the Villa Durazzo – realising only afterwards that picnics are explicitly forbidden.
Thursday dawned windy with the prospect of rain. We intended to visit Montallegro on a hilltop behind Rapallo, where the Virgin Mary had evidently appeared to a peasant girl in the sixteenth century. This appearance was honoured by the creation of a monastery, the erection of a large ornate church and, latterly, the construction of a cable car. Unfortunately the day’s wind was too much for the cable car, so we took a local bus, and we’re thankful for this, as it introduced us to a new and exciting way to explore. For €1.80 a rattly bus with apparently only one gear took us up twisty mountain roads barely wide enough for two motor scooters to pass each other, through small villages we didn’t know existed, picking up and dropping off locals as they went shopping or returned home. Eventually it deposited us at Montallegro, the site of the miracle.
We explored what little there was to see at Montallegro and started our descent to Rapallo. The route started as a path with concrete steps, but soon became a work of wonder: a road carved out of the mountainside, paved with small stones on edge. It’s fraying a little in places, but this construction has carried materials and pilgrims up the mountain for hundreds of years and looks to be good for hundreds more.
Encouraged by our bus trip to Montallegro, we made a further bus excursion to Camogli that afternoon. We were unaware we needed to change buses at Ruso, but the lady behind me tapped me on the shoulder and gave us instructions. Camogli isn’t as pretty as Rapallo or Santa Margherita, although it’s similarly structured. It does have an atttractive boat harbour with an intact fort, and the bar near the railway station does serve hot chocolate sufficiently thick and strong to help weary travellers remember to change buses at Ruso on the way home.
Once again we’ve eaten well in Rapallo. Typical Italian breakfasts are available from any bar or cafe: coffee and a croissant filled with jam, custard or chocolate. One bright modern cafe near the railway station became a favourite. Lunch can be freshly baked bread with some local cheese, or a slice of focaccia and a piece of fruit. In the early evening, buying a drink at most bars or cafes will present you with a selection of nibbles to keep you going until dinner – the locals eat no earlier than 8.00pm and tables are still filling at 9.00pm.
On our first night in Rapallo we returned to the small cafe where, four years ago, I had the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. That pizza was notable for being topped with only a modicum of cheese and a sprinkling of other ingredients, ensuring the base remained crispy. Sadly, on this visit my pizza was slathered with so much mozzarella the base was soggy. Looking at nearby tables, however, I saw that this was not the case with pizza served to the locals. My hypothesis is yet to be tested, but I blame my soggy experience on tourists who believe cheese is the whole point of pizza.
We left Rapallo on Saturday morning. For me, it’s a magic spot, and I hope I have the opportunity to visit it again.