It’s a rare and special act travelling 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, you don’t queue and in time you start to feel a local. It’s all so much more immersive and rewarding.
I love arriving at Pisa at she best, of all the Tuscan cities, exemplifies the innocence of the early medieval era and 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) comprising 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 on the Tuscan Riviera. This is considerably flatter than its Ligurian counterpart.
It was on Viareggio’s glamorous beach-front promenade I came to stay at the majestic Hotel Plaza e de Russie with rooms from Euro 250). It’s a Relais & Châteaux property and the town’s oldest hotel named after Russian expatriates fleeing from the Tsarist Empire. From outside its pristine Belle Epoque white facade, I took a brazing morning stroll along the long sandy beach past the outdoor pools of the beach pavilions, more Art Deco hotels, past cafés, boutiques and fish restaurants offering their ‘cacciucco’ (hearty fish soup) and the machinery and plants where many mega-yachts are built.
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. Throughout there’s lacquered furniture and leather poofs and 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 and 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 including 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 whose churches offered me a Tuscan purity and whose cobbled streets a romantic stroll. It’s also known as the Little Athens, thanks to the concentration of artists who have decided to settle here, and It’s set beside a string of villages devoted to the marble trade including Carrara which once supplied Michelangelo. I then popped in on Lucca and came within her ancient ramparts that encircle the town and along which the locals, the ‘Lucchese’, ride their bikes and walk their dogs on what’s now a tree-lined promenade. I just love Lucca’s Pisan-Romanesque churches with their ornate facades of green, grey and white marble and I explored the grid of romantically cobbled streets of this classic beautiful Tuscan town with its pine trees and neat stucco buildings with their forest-green shutters best seen in the wondrous variety of heights and hues of the town’s amphitheatre.
Directly outside the ramparts I had parked with ease beside Ristorante Celide to savour the best of Vetrina Toscana which is a regional project promoting restaurants and food producers who share the same high standards of Tuscany’s gastronomic and are in line with responsible and sustainable tourism. At this fish restaurant I enjoyed a tuna tataki in traditional bread and marinated in tartare and friarelli (part of the mustard family) followed by a berry cheesecake with white chocolate sauce. The few choice delights of each dish allowed their elegant presentation to take centre stage 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 with its distinctive features of churches with their domed apses and pencil-like campaniles that break this narrow littoral landscape. Riviera in Italian simply means shore but in Liguria it’s a rugged, rock-bound rainbow of coast with beautiful beaches linking 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 composed of warm hues with hot spicy colours such as yellow ochre, orange, burnt ombre and terracotta that reflect the colours in the water which, at sunset, then resembles fire in what’s an extremely immersive experience. And it’s where the silhouette of fir and cypress trees stand 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, silvery olive groves and fleets of fishing boats, sailing boats and yachts.
This coastline is great for boat trips with famous nearby towns like Portofino, Rapallo and Santa Margherita and beyond to Portovenere and finally the Cinque Terre: 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 unpretentious hotels. I took a train to Santa Margherita and walked past ornate palazzos perched precipitously with magnificent aspects across the gulf and past the divine cove that is Paraggi beach to reach Portofino. This gorgeous and famous village has a small harbour with narrow alleyways between houses huddled together on top of each other, small and tall, with one window at least overlooking 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: an unspoilt idyll of a retreat set in a tiny cove with citrous trees and roaming, bell-ringing goats and carrying all the calm of its monastic past.
In the town of Camogli where I disembarked on the waterfront and beside its quaint little wooden office selling boat tickets is the three-generation old restaurant called Vento Ariel. With as many tables outside as in, I sat beneath bougainvillea and a typical pastel-coloured house. I watched the world go by with characters resembling the cast of ‘Under Milk Wood’ all garrulous and gesticulative with the men putting the world to rights while drinking coffee and the women hanging out their laundry from their bottle green windows that on opening resemble an advent calendar. The bobbing boats announced all their orchestra of tugged ropes and chinking masts and lapping water. The fish was all caught that very morning and, tempted though I was by the cuttlefish pate, I chose instead a delicious mussel, clam and calamari soup followed by some long trenette pasta with, of course, pesto sauce followed by apple sorbet and drunk with Riviera di Ponente Pigato (a white Italian wine grape planted primarily in Liguria).
Camogli means home of wives (‘Casa Mogli’) as the men were always at sea and it was the colourful facades of the buildings made the town easy for seamen to identify from the water on their return. With her backdrop of green hills, it’s divided into two by a small promontory. There’s a little pebble beach, then a basilica and then the fishing port. The seafront is set for tourists and the back street for locals.
Down a small, cobbled walkway and over a bridge above water rolling down from the hills Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi 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 and 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 affording it the full view of the town along the seafront. Italians are so adept at utilising stylishly the steepest terrain to some advantage. And this hotel’s layered terrace comprised century-old pine trees, stone statues and pretty floral gardens with little nooks and crannies for secluded sunbathing.
The interior has chequered marble flooring, patterned area rugs, large classical paintings, a grand piano, a lovely crystal chandelier and homely modern paintings of populated beach scenes. It even has its own ornate chapel. The 100 rooms have charming sea views and beside the beds and their crisp linen are old cedar drawers on hardwood floors. Nothing too elaborate to prevent the sea view take centre stage.
The hotel’s Restaurant Il Doge has a long and chequered floor with foliage and a huge panoramic glass designed for views from every angle. I had grey snapper cooked carpaccio flavoured with orange, soncino salad, goji berries and pine nuts in black squid ink followed by a bresaola and then a durum wheat linguine sautéed with cherry tomatoes and tuna roe and finishing 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, heated to 28 degrees in winter has water jets in summer. For pummelling indoors, my massage at the Beauty Centre was tailored intuitively to what I needed. I didn’t have the Hot Stone treatment but let Gabriella roll bamboo on my shoulders and use almond oil so that my whole body was kneaded, and the experience was impressive in every sense.
Easy to find on the higher street and owned by the chef Catherina Aquino and her husband Riccardo is the reasonably-priced Cucù Camogli. I was transported in this intimate and homely environment by the jazz music and all the artefacts displaying Riccardo’s passions: figurines from Tintin, model ships, original signed documents from Kings and Presidents and landscapes of the Ligurian coastline. Dipping into the Duchess of Grosvenor’s olive oil that comes from nearby Portofino I simply had to have the catch of the day: some mussels with oil and garlic which acted also as a soup and then some fresh lasagne with pesto sauce which I drunk with the local Sassarini Cinque Terre. What a charming place and charismatic owner.
Liguria’s cuisine matches the criteria of the perfect Mediterranean diet: the ‘cucina povera’ of olive oil, lots of vegetables, a little cheese and wine and seafood. Liguria also gave the world pesto, that rich sauce of basil grown in the local hills, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and cheese, usually served with the local ‘trenette’ pasta. Since fishing is still active there are more fishing boats in the harbours than yachts and the catch of the day, served at most restaurants, comes from Camogli’s surrounding waters.
At the neighbouring village of Recco, it was time for some fine dining at Manuelina. The owner Cesare is now the fourth generation to be responsible for more than 125 years of Ligurian culinary history for it was Manuelina herself who created the famous recipe for Recco focaccia. Focaccia is to Liguria what bruschetta is to Umbria: an essential bread treat for breakfast or as an aperitivo. 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: a décor allowing a blank canvas to the artistry of the cooking. I adored the ‘focaccia col formaggio’ and my fillet of beef with foie gras and black truffles, but the highlight was the dangerously indulgent jivara chocolate mousse with maracujas (yellow passion fruit). A fitting end to my journey as I felt both culturally and literally nourished on this Italian Riviera’s so-called Golfo Paradiso (Gulf of Paradise).
Adam had support from Stansted Express and www.holidayextras.com (0800 316 5678) who offer airport lounges at all major UK airports and many international destinations). He was covered by online travel insurance specialist, CoverForYou (+44 (0)207 183 0885).
Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the first BBC television series QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. He wrote The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.