13 August 2010

ON THE ROAD: Savory Savona

This is another in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

SAVONA, Italy - Savona isn’t your typical Italian Riviera hotspot. It’s an old, serious, seafaring kind of place, not glamorous, not slick and not particularly tourist friendly either.

Savona Harbor

A few years ago you wouldn’t have given this town of 78,000 inhabitants a second glance as you sped along to, or from, the south of France. But things are different now. Savona has become a major kick off point for Costa Cruises, which means thousands of people are passing through town every week. It doesn't make the town any more glamourous, but then again Vicki, my eight year old sidekick and I are not looking for anything glamorous. We are on a mission. Her plan is to take photographs of what we see today and then write about them in a journal. My plan is to keep this curious little person out of trouble and sneak in a few photos myself.

Cathedral of Savona

Daniele, Vicki’s father, gives us a ride into town and drops us off near Piazza Sixtus IV. Before we head for Vicki’s favorite Savona site, the Pancaldo tower, I want to see the nearby Baroque Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. It takes a little convincing to get Vicki to go in, but in the end she’s a pretty good sport about it, and she even manages to generate a little interest in the Renaissance wooden choir. But when I suggest visiting the Sistine chapel next door, she digs in her heels. The fact that two popes were born in nearby Albissola, Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Julius II (1503-1513), and that it was Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned both Sistine Chapels, the one in Rome and the one next to the Cathedral in Savona, means nothing to her. It is not a battle I’m going to win.
We head back to Savona’s main street, Via Paleocapa, a long, 18th century porticoed street that runs from the harbor right through the heart of town. Along the way Vicki is taking pictures of everything that catches her eye, the tall look-out towers in the historic center, the soaring cactus that decorate the fronts of buildings, the miniature bronze cast of the town so the blind can see what the town looks like, the many boats docked in the harbor and the Leon Pancaldo Tower.

Via Paleocapa

Vicki is fascinated with Leon Pancaldo. Leon was about her age when he set sail with Ferdinand Magellan on his now famous expedition around the world. Leon was also one of 18 surviving sailors out of a crew of more than 200 who lived to talk it.

His stories of seeing a ‘camel without a hump,’ and a ‘black goose’ that had to be skinned instead of plucked left the locals thinking the trip had really done the poor boy in. But now we know he wasn’t daft, just one of the first Europeans to see a llama and a penguin when Magellen’s ship reached the most southern tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire.

Trattoria Vino and Farinata

Later that evening Vicki, her parents and I head back into the old town for dinner at Farinata and Vino. It’s a hot summer night and we are lucky we don’t have to wait very long inside the trattoria entrance where overheated cooks are pulling and pushing large round pans of farinata in and out of the blazing open oven. Our reservations are for 7 PM, uncommonly early for Italy, and they tell us have to be out by 8:30, also uncommon for Italy. But this is a happening place and they are booked to the max.
It’s the farinata that draws the crowds. Farinata is a simple dish of chickpea flour, water and olive oil baked into a thin pancake, and along with pesto, it is one of the major components of Liguria’s famed cucina povera. Vicki’s father orders another Ligurian summer specialty, room temperature minestrone with pesto while Tracy, Vicki’s mother, and I order fish. After a plateful of farinata, Vicki can barely manage to eat a shrimp or two from her mother’s plate. As we sit there I realize I can’t even count how many times over the past 18 years we have sat together like this and shared a meal.

Crowd in Vino and Farinata

The one place Vicki and I didn’t get to was the Fortezza del Priamar, an imposing stone fortress at the edge of the historic center. I think she would have liked walking through the massive fort, especially if I could have come up with a swashbuckling tale or two about the pirates who were held prisoners here.

Back in the 16th century when the Fortezza was built the Mediterranean Sea was not the playground of the rich and richer it is today, but a watery nest of marauding pirates and armed ships from rival city states looking to attack Savona. The fort stood strong for two hundred years, never challenged until the mid 1700’s when it was attacked by troops of the French Dukes of Savoy. The invading army won the battle and Savona was absorbed into the territories controlled by the Savoy, who would later become the Italy’s first, and last, royal family.

There is a grittiness to Savona that may not appeal to everyone but if you’re the type of person who likes to explore less touristy places, it may be just the town for you. What I like best about it is that there are no pretenses here. What you see is what you get.

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