Dock at Portofino and you would have to wait on long lines for lunch. You would have to find your dot of sand among the scantily clad already dotting the stretch of beach. And you would have to wrangle for space or your photos will have strangers against the landscape of trompe l’oeils. It is the place to see and be seen. But, except for men with draped sweaters and wives wearing huge sunglasses, I didn’t see anything there.
Enter the Italian Riviera’s best kept secret: Camogli. Tucked a mere twenty minutes from the rich and fabulous, I stumbled on my almost empty beach with trompe l-oeils. It had the same pastel stacked houses on a hilly outcrop into the cerulean blue sea. It also had a harbour with flapping sailboats. But what this sleepy fishing village lacked in refinement, it made up for in soul.
I wonder how it has escaped the radar of moneyed tourists but this tiny village of beach and harbour is exquisite, more than the postcard weary Cinque Terre. She’s got the curve of the Ligurian coast, a pebbled beach of flat round stones penciled with white swirls, and a cliff of washed out pastels probably seven storeys high. Look up and the town is crowned by a domed church. Look around and she’s got nearly empty Caruggis (alleys) where shafts of light fall in just the right places.
She’s got facades of washed out paintings of pedestals and shutters, even of cats and flowers on walls. There are muted pinks, yellows and terracotta houses climbing up against the hills, each balcony with a glorious view of the glistening sea. And like cherry on top, you behold the majestic façade of the Dragonard Castle and a basilica at the shore’s end. Like a dream.
Because if Portofino meant sipping Bellinis and forking arm-and-a-leg raviolis, Camogli meant a kick-ass Negroni on the rocks and layers of Genovese pesto lasagna. Unsophisticated, rough and absolutely stunning.
We arrived on a wet and rainy hour, allowing me empty streets and flawless light breaking into winding walkways. I found a café on the now empty pebble beach, and asked for the Ligurian drink of the house.
The Italian barista pronounces me incapable of handling their Negroni, a concoction of gin, vermouth and Campari. I gave him my best tourist smile, declared: “Bring it on!” and thus handled it like the girl from Negros, the Philippines’ island of rum. I perched myself by the bar. A lone man swam out to sea, buddies were having a tete-a-tete against the salt-sprayed walls of the Basilica, and 2 girls sashayed barefooted amongst the flat stones that made up Camogli’s pebbled beach. And let’s not forget dinner. Da Paolo** was tucked in a carrugi with just a dwarfish sign. We picked a good-sized Branzino from the day’s catch. The chef gutted, cleaned and scaled it, stuffed it with salt, garlic and rosemary, and then roasted it with olive oil, black olives, tomatoes and white wine. It was a banquet worth the Michelin stars on its door. One could taste the sea. If this was Camogli’s siren call, I would have gladly forgotten all other worlds.
I say Camogli’s enchantment is that it still is, like it’s name* a fishing town- a house of wives, more than a tourist destination. I strolled around a harbour reeking of fish and salt air. Along the quay, nets were strewn out to dry, there were still tubs of briny water and fishermen untangling hooks. In the morning, the locals hauled a square table to the shore and played cards. And perhaps there were a handful of (lucky) tourists but no lines or waiting for tables. You mingle and meld with real folks, sunbathe with both beet-red tourists in colorful ensembles and the olive-skinned locals who plunged back and forth to sea.
I could sink down and gape all day at its painstaking beauty, but there are things to do too. There’s a ferry, which takes you around the peninsula, docking at San Fruttuoso Bay and Portofino – so you can spend a day docking on and sailing away among Italy’s belle epoques of shore. San Fruttuoso is another enchanting borgo, with a façade of an Abbey by the beach. There’s also a picture-perfect trek up to San Rocco, a climb that takes thirty minutes, but worth the strides or sweating from the glaring Ligurian sun. Upon these trails is a 13th century church San Nicolo, olive and citrus trees, and the scent of rosemary.
So, there are things to do. But one can simply settle by the lighthouse and watch the sunlight shadow-play with a castle. One can take a load off her feet, collapse on the beach and then delight in the swell of the waves, the chatter of people, the feel of the round stones on her soles, get wet, sip Negronis and wolf down foccacias despite the bad breath. Or, just like the locals, behold the sun as it inches its way towards the brilliant-blue sea, painting the the vivid palazzis, a shimmering gold.
*Camogli or case delle mogli translates to “house of wives.” Folklore says it got its name from the women who watched over the town while their fishermen husbands were out sailing.
**Da Paolo, Via S. Fortunato, 14 39-0185-773595. Reserve or drop by early and ask to reserve seats. They only have 10 tables and It fills up fast.
How to Get There?
Camogli is one of the train stops from Florence to La Spezia. Take a train from Florence to Genoa, ask if there’s a stop at Camogli. Get off at Camogli.