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Seaside for All Seasons : Sun, food, history in the relaxed Riviera town of Rapallo

Cocchetti is a freelance writer who lives in Milan, Italy

I am not one who likes to lie on a beach basking in the sun. For me, the word “seaside” evokes thoughts of focaccia, crispy fried seafood, medieval alleys, shopping and cultural trekking. For these reasons, on holidays I often go to Rapallo, a lovely town near Portofino on the Gulf of Genova in the Liguria.

I also come here on weekends, especially in winter when I need to escape the gray sky of Milan, the city where I live. My love affair with Rapallo traces back to the ‘60s, when my dad bought an apartment near the bell tower of the cathedral for his “skinny little daughter” who suffered from tonsillitis. Thus Mum and I came to Rapallo to spend many winters.

What I like most about this place is that it has all the uncommercialized comforts of a small town, plus the Ligurian ingredients: salt air and a typical smell that’s a mixture of pistachio nuts, geraniums, fruit and fresh bread. Rapallo is not posh nor expensive like Portofino, nor is it isolated like the wonderful Cinque Terre.

Beginning in the middle of the 18th century, Rapallo became popular with the European aristocracy and middle classes for its perfect climate, which is mild in winter and windy in summer, thanks to the hills that embrace the town like an amphitheater. Among its famous guests was the Duke of Windsor, who would escape the northern fog for months at a time by taking up residence in the Grand Hotel Excelsior, renamed the Excelsior Palace Hotel in 1995.

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Since those days the town has grown, but fortunately the Lungomare (the promenade) and its bordering historical district have kept the glamour of the past. Traces of the aristocratic flavor still can be found in the many old-fashioned hotels facing the Lungomare Vittorio Veneto. Examples include the Rosabianca Hotel with its little round balconies and its ocher-colored facade near the 5th century Porta delle Saline, or the Hotel Europe, all pink and white like a cake, a former 17th century stately home with bedrooms furnished in neoclassical style.

My favorite area is the historic district--which lies between Via Milite Ignoto and Piazza Cavour, and between Piazza Nazioni and Piazza Martiri della Liberta. I love especially the narrow medieval alleys between Via alla Torre Civica and Via Venezia, where laundry hangs from house to house. Also the sepia-toned tower built in 1473, with the churchyard where the city council used to administer justice; the city hall; and the old villas facing on Via Magenta, such as the one at No. 42 with frescoes on the upper part of the facade. Ligurian facades are famous for their painted patterns and “perspective tricks” such as false windows or ornaments, a nice way to enlarge space in a narrow region.

I love to inhale the scent of Liguria, walking in the morning along Via Venezia and its square, where the air is filled with the fragrance and aromas of the daily local market and its displays of seasonal fruits and vegetables--tomatoes, peaches, basil, fish, flowers, and, during the last weeks of summer, the rare and expensive porcini mushroom, picked up in the woods of the hinterlands. The latter are great with tagliatelle and tomato sauce. To save the porcini’s aroma, I like to buy a handful of dried ones at the Casa del Parmigiano and put them in covered glass jars, where they keep for months.

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The market still has single vendors who offer daily products grown in their own gardens.

Staying in Rapallo means getting to know one major food: focaccia. Yes, this is the realm of hot, shiny, salty focaccia (a kind of pizza without cheese and tomatoes, once prepared for sailors). In recent years, the growing reputation of Liguria’s focaccia has sparked the opening of new focaccerie in the region. The Rapallesi, of course, know the few bakeries that make the best of the best. One of these is the panificio (bakery) Castruccio, in an old building with medieval porches at Piazza Garibaldi 5.

The place is known to locals as the vecchine (roughly, little old ladies), referring to the former proprietors, who owned it until the ‘70s. The little shop, now run by a son of the former owners, has been renovated through the years to better serve the insistent crowd of locals and visitors demanding just one thing: focaccia.

To taste the focaccia at its finest, it’s best to be around when it’s taken out of the oven, usually when the shop opens and every hour on the hour after that. I personally prefer the plain version, which comes out in a big rectangular shape, its soft holes filled with olive oil, which alone is worth the transatlantic air fare. And I strongly recommend you try the pizzas, with tomatoes and black olives, or the focaccia al formaggio, a thin layer filled with hot, dripping cheese. Stories still circulate about the “secret ingredient” that makes the focaccia of Ligurian bakeries so unique--a drop of white wine or the local oil or the yeast.

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You can have dinner by just munching focaccia along the streets, or pop into one of the delicatessens such as Casa del Parmigiano in Piazza Venezia, which sells the best ham; then take a seat on one of the numerous benches along the promenade. If service is your desire, you can always head to some of the old-fashioned bars and restaurants such as Monique or Grand’ltalia, which has a restaurant and piano bar near the castle.

Local folks usually go to U Bansin, a simple eating place whose name in Ligurian dialect means “little scales,” derived from the former owner’s fussiness about weighing the goods. Opened in 1907 by Amedeo Macchiavello, the place has always been a hangout for locals and tourists, including the famous: Ernest Hemingway, for one. Here, at lunchtime, you can see the clerk of the council or a team of bricklayers enjoying simple, traditional dishes such as farinata di ceci (“chick-pea cake”). In former days, a horn blast announced that the dish was done and ready to be eaten. Today, the big round pan it was made in still is displayed in the little shop window.

In the large dining room covered with white tiles, among pictures of old Rapallo and a big painting of the castle, you may be asked to share the table with someone else, as the atmosphere is very casual. I personally prefer to come on Fridays for the mixed fried fish, a medley of sardines, shrimps, small fish and rings of calamari. The menu offers a few other strictly local dishes such as the trenette al pesto. Avoid the spaghetti, which usually is overcooked, but don’t overlook the homemade desserts such as the cream caramel.

Another choice eating place is Mario, under the porches of the vecchine, near the Vico Dell’Olmo (literally, “Alley of the Elm”), which offers many fish dishes such as spaghetti or risotto alla marinara. A little farther on you can have coffee in the old patisserie Canepa, opened in 1862, with its specialty of cubeletti (cookies filled with marmalade) and jams made by the Sisters Carmelitane Scalze.

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Whatever you do, if you visit Rapallo, don’t neglect to fare la vasca (literally, “to swim a length”)--to stroll up and down the promenade facing the sea. The Lungomare (also called the passeggiata) is at its most festive at Easter, when sculptures made of hundreds of flowers are set along the way. It once was busy with horse-drawn carriages; now you must settle for a tourist ride in a carriage drawn by a white horse with a white lace hat. But there are many coffee bars and ice cream shops. One of the latter, the Frigidariaum, near the castle, offers cones of the best homemade Italian ice cream.

If you walk the promenade to its end, eventually you will pass the 16th century castle, and after a while the little fountain with green frogs spitting water, then head to Rapallo’s park. Here you have three choices. You can visit the garden for children with its wonderful toys. You can go to Villa Porticciolo, the big red house with green shutters, which has dancing, a piano bar and beach club. Or you can go straight, following the main path, climbing softly, then taking the little path on the right to Villa Tigullio, a big mansion in the middle of its ages-old park. Here you can stroll, sit and relax, enjoying the terrific view from its terrace facing the bay. The villa, which now houses the public library and the museum of lace, was donated 20 years ago to the town of Rapallo by the former owners, an old couple of noble lineage who also left two white swans swimming in a little pool. Now the empty pool is the only thing out of tune.

From the terrace of the park, you can see the opposite side of the Lungomare, where, dominating the hill, is the Excelsior Palace Hotel. The recent restoration has left only a few traces of its past, such as the superb portal. The hotel’s private beach club is open to non-guests who want to pay the $24 entry fee. It’s not a traditional beach; instead, many narrow terraces engraved in the rocks house hundreds of deck chairs and beach huts made of bricks.

For those who want to swim in the ocean without paying an entrance fee to one of the numerous beach clubs, there are a few free beaches. One is a narrow strip with clear waters east of the Excelsior, before you get to San Michele di Pagana. In Rapallo, the beach near the castle also is free, but usually packed.

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Rapallo is a great departure point for comfortable tours by bus, train or boat. I can go to a concert at Villa Durazzo in Santa Margherita. Or, at the end of a 10-minute bus ride or five-minute train ride, I can find myself in Chiavari, where the old medieval porches house hundreds of shops. There are many trips by boat, such as to the little village of San Fruttuoso, which surrounds its ancient abbey west of Rapallo, near Portofino. Or the one-day trip to Portovenere, east of Rapallo, near La Spezia, with its old footpath going upward amid colored houses.

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When I was a teenager, and probably more vigorous, I loved to walk to the villages and mountains north of Rapallo. Today I let my husband “explore.” Sometimes I do what I call “cultural trekking.” Recently I have discovered that there are arranged trips to the Ligurian hinterland. The guides often are archeologists or biologists such as Rita Rossi, a young woman fond of botany who took us along old routes used by salt and silk traders. Or one can visit Val (Valley) Fontanabuona, an area north of Rapallo where caves house slate quarries and workshops where this typical Ligurian stone is cut.

Another nice one-day side trip by bus, cable railway or on foot is Montallegro, the white neo-Gothic sanctuary on a hill about seven miles north of Rapallo. Following paths among olive trees and terraced vineyards, you reach the little village of San Maurizio before you climb to the 16th century shrine. It’s filled with gifts and offerings from sailors to the Madonna of Montallegro, and there’s a terrific view of the bay.

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And it would be a shame to miss the Abbey of Santa Maria in the Valle Christi, southwest of Rapallo, on the way to the village of San Massimo. Built about 1204 with funds donated by two noblewomen from Genoa, the abbey was run by nuns of the Cistercense order until 1535, when it was left to decay. Today, amid a lonely landscape dotted by sepia-toned cottages with sloping slate roofs, far from the colorful and bustling crowd of Rapallo, stand the impressive ruins of the abbey.

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GUIDEBOOK; Savoring Rapallo

Getting there: From LAX to Genoa, connecting service on Alitalia (through Rome) and Swissair (Zurich); round-trip fares begin at about $1,145 including tax.

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Where to stay: Excelsior Palace Hotel (Via San Michele di Pagana, 8; telephone 011-39-185-230-666); about $280 for a double with breakfast.

Hotel Europa (Via Milite Ignoto 2; tel. 011-39-185-669-521); 62 rooms in restored 17th century home; about $160 with buffet breakfast.

Grande Italia (Via Montebello 2; tel. 011-39-185-504-92); about $77 per room.

Bandoni (Via Marsala 24; tel. 011-39-185-504-23); about $53.

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Pensione Giardino (Via Venezia 103; tel. 011-39-185-507-86); about $30 per room without bathroom. Old building on old street; casual accommodation for young people.

II Grottino (Via Milite Ignoto 10; tel. 011-39-185-669-200); about $30 per room with breakfast.

Da Marco (Via Roma 22; tel. 011-39-185-545-18); about $45.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.

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--M.G.C.


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