Cover story: Insider's Italy

Explore three contrasting perspectives of Italy from writers in the know. Sarah Barrell embraces la dolce vita in Liguria, Katie Parla samples undiscovered rural fare in Campania, while Kate Simon goes on a cultural tour of Lecce.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 3 Apr 2014, 11:09 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 10:12 BST


On the move in Liguria, alternate views of Portofino and imbibing the vibe of La Dolce Vita.

The bike is uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff. The fact my brother-in-law, Bobby, is driving only adds to my all-round sense of edginess. More adept at piloting a pizza oven than a moped, this is nonetheless Bobby's one day off from cheffing, and he's damned if he's going to spend it stuck behind a queue of spluttering tour buses. I've talked him into taking me to Portofino — the pristine, craggy bay beloved of yachties, billionaires and Japanese tourists, shopping for overpriced designer linen. And the only way he's prepared to undertake this touristy outing is on a queue-dodging moped.

I love Portofino. This tiny jewel in Liguria's coastal crown is the one place most British travellers can name on the Italian Riviera; the switchback coastal stretch between the French and Tuscan borders is often overlooked in favour of southern beaches in Amalfi or Puglia. Yes, Portofino is packed to the pierside in summer months, and an espresso in one of its waterfront cafes costs as much as a modest yacht mooring elsewhere, but… those views. Its deep half-moon bay is jewelled with priceless palazzi, strung like chandeliers under knuckles of overhanging cliffs; its headland arcs into heady blues on a pine-fringed spit of land.

And those views don't have to come at a price. Bobby drops me at the edge of town and I skirt the bay before following a marked path onto the Portofino promontory for a hike towards the brightly painted harbour village of Camogli. Unlike the route to Cinque Terre — the string of coastal villages to Liguria's south — few walkers venture here, deterred by Portofino's ritzy atmosphere (and the steep climb out of its bay). Instead, I find a nature reserve thick with heavy-scented pines, wild thyme and holm oak, clifftop clearings revealing grotto-like coves and the occasional billionaire's balcony.

The morning's walk brings me, knees humming, to 'the wife's house' (the dialect meaning of Camogli), a village whose fishermen were at sea so often their wives were the only real residents. Wiped out by the descent, I flop onto the shingle and spend a happy half-hour selecting my favourite hue from the town's rainbow display of painted houses — each tone a navigational beacon for its fisherman owner. Legs recovered, it's off to the nearest tabacchi (bar/newsagent) to buy a train ticket, and down a fortifying glass of Sciacchetrà — the glorious, golden dessert wine of Cinque Terre — before heading for the station.

It's rare that a rail ride brings you as close to the coast as walking does, but the line that runs south from Genoa to the beach town of Sestri Levante is almost within paddling proximity at points. I manage the five-minute journey to Santa Margarita before I'm seduced by the sun-drenched blues and hop off for a swim. There are, arguably, better places for a dip but the turquoise waters of this smart seaside town have inspired everyone from Nietzsche and Pirandello to Clark Gable. I do a languid backstroke around a phalanx of shiny speedboats (most of which belong to moneyed Milanese city folk rather   than locals, hence the town's nickname, Port of Milan), hoping I might be invited on board.

In good weather, there's an hourly boat between the coastal towns of Rapallo, Santa Margherita and Portofino — a fun ferry jaunt rather than a speedboat but with perfect photo ops back to the bays. But my timing's out. So I hop back on the train south to Sestri Levante, where two sandy bays back a terracotta town on a narrow isthmus — one of my favourite places to swim in Italy. I plough into the water, looking back to the Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fairytales), named in honour of Hans Christian Andersen, who sojourned here in the early 1800s. With its black-and-white gothic church overlooking the bay, and pastel houses, it's the stuff of children's storybooks.

Later, washed and dressed, sand almost shaken from hair, I rejoin my in-laws under the vaulted shopping arcades in Chiavari, the neighbouring coastal town. It's time for the passegiata (evening stroll), to scout for salty slices of farinata (local chickpea bread) in the town's 19th-century pasticceria (pastry shop). Chiavari is little known to Brits but is one of Liguria's most quietly elegant, food-focused towns. Its cuisine centres on seafood but also features earthy produce from its vast interior. Pesto was born here, thanks to lush sea-front mountains that encourage the sweetest of basil — found on every menu — along with local rabbit, beef, dairy, chickpeas and myriad veggies from organic smallholdings.

But for now, those stone farmhouse hamlets, cliff paths and copses, where coastal kids often dance the night away at free parties, feel a world away. As the moon climbs above the coast, the beach is calling. At sandy-floored bars and then a nightclub set into the cliffs like a James Bond villain's lair, we'll dance and find more excuses to swim, until the sun comes up over the bay again. Words: Sarah Barrell

How to do it: Seven nights at Hotel Jolanda in Santa Margherita Ligure from £544 per person, including B&B and return flights from Gatwick to Genoa.

Sarah Barrell's Secret Six

01 The bike trip: bay-hop near the French border
Liguria has some very challenging terrain for serious cyclists and hikers. But if you just want to pedal peacefully along the coast, head to the seaside town of San Remo, near the French border, and hop onto a 13-mile greenway running along an old railway line just above the town. You can hop off at various bays along the way and bike hire is available in the town of San Lorenzo al Mare.
More info:

02 The restaurant: Latteria di San Marco, Milan
There are no reservations, barely any tables, the menu is miniscule and it's only open during the week. But this little 'nona's kitchen'-style restaurant, a former newspaper journalists' haunt, has delivered some of the best meals I've ever had in Italy. Expect simple Northern fare: stews and roasts, plenty of rosy veal, and if the endive and anchovy salad is on the menu, order it (and courier it to me if you don't like it).
More info: T 00 39 02 659 7653.

03 The wild beach: Parco Naturale della Maremma
It's one-in, one-out at the car park in summer (almost entirely full of Italian holidaymakers) but this is one of my favourite stretches of beach in Italy. There's not a lido or sun lounger in sight; instead, wild, dune-backed beaches, long sandy paths shaded by sweet-smelling pine, little kiosks selling cold drinks, and endless views of the Med. South of the park, the promontory of Monte Argentario has little fishing villages and superb snorkelling in crystal-clear waters.
More info:

04 The city break: the ancient town of Genoa
A port since before the days of Columbus (who's claimed as a native), Genoa is a gritty and gothic city against a mountain backdrop. Alleys and piazzas conceal medieval palazzo — many, former bank buildings that are now museums, galleries and hotels. Don't miss the dockside Maritime Museum, and check into the former HQ of Ilva, Italy's biggest iron and steel manufacturer — now the ritzy Meliá Genova.
More info:

05 The hotel: Alberghi Diffusi
If agriturismo was the accommodation choice of the 1990s, then today's Italian tourist address has to be the alberghi diffusi. These 'scattered lodgings' have saved some of Italy's deserted rural villages by converting crumbling houses and medieval palazzo into loosely formed resorts of hotels, villas and restaurants. There are around 40 dotted around Italy, but the best-known is Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, in the mountains of Abruzzo.
More info:

06 The music class: Opera in Florence
Stay at Florence's Hotel Savoy and you can book a one-to-one opera class. Take a day or weekend course, learning scales and arias with a professional, learn about the art in a lively lesson, tour the city's musical sights (opera was born here in the Medici courts) and then see an opera. The Opera Masterclass package costs from €1,011 (£815) per person, based on two people sharing, including two nights' B&B, accommodation.
More info:

Read more in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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