02 February 2014

LIFE: Italian Neighbors

CHIAVARI,  Italy – As those of you who follow me know, I talk a lot about the town I live in, Chiavari, and have barely uttered a word about  the other towns in this part of the Italian Riviera. Well that’s about to change. Today I would like you to meet some of my neighbors.

Fishing Boats on the Beach in Chiavari
There are some things all of these towns have in common, the first being that they have been here for a long time, a really long time. Most date as far back as the 13th/12th century B.C. (Late Bronze Age ). The newer ones were settled by the Etruscans who were followed by the Romans and so on and so on down through the centuries, until now.

The second thing they have in common is that not much has changed since those days of the Romans. Even the road, for there is only one, still follows the route of the original Roman road the Via Aurelia, that runs along the sea connecting one town with the other.  It still has the same name and it still goes to the same places – all the way to France. And the third thing is they are all on the sea.

If you stand in Chiavari facing the sea, turn left and go down that road, in 10 minutes or so you will be in a town called Sestri Levante. And that’s where this journey begins.

 Sestri Levante
Sestri Levante is actually more interesting that the travel brochures let on. They seem to concentrate on the beauty of the two bays – The Bay of Poets and the Bay of Silence that Sestri sits between. And while the bays are nice it must be said that Sestri is more than just a pretty face.  When the Romans conquered Sigestri, which is what it was called in 148 BC, they built the road that led to the development of the coastal towns of Portofino, Lavagna and Chiavari. Sestri has changed hands more than once since those long ago days, but it still sits between the two bays and everyone who comes here including Hans Christian Andersen and Lord Byron, who called it paradise on earth, thinks it is beautiful.

 Cavi di Lavagna
Between Chiavari and Sestri Levante is the little town of Lavagna. I once heard a young American start to laugh when his Italian friend told him the name of the town was “blackboard”. “How weird,” said the American, “to name a town after a blackboard.” But he had it wrong. The town wasn’t named after a blackboard, the town is where the slate came from that blackboards used to be made of. And boy did that cause a lot of problems over the years. The Fieschi were the ruling family of Lavagna and they made a lot of money selling slate, megabucks actually, but they needed it. They had two popes in the family, Innocent IV and Adrian V, 72 cardinals, a saint, Saint Caterina Fieschi Adorno , not to mention all the admirals , generals and scholars, and they do not come cheap.

The Castle/Fort of Rapallo
If you are still standing in Chiavari facing the sea and you turn right, in 10 minutes you will be in Rapallo. Poor Rapallo, it’s a lovely place but historians can’t seem to make up their minds if it was named after a turnip – a rape, or a swamp – a palluda. It doesn’t really matter though because throughout its history it’s been attacked so many times I think it is happy to just be left alone. In fact, there were so many attacks the Rapallese finally built a fort on the sea to protect their little city. If you look at it today and compare it to the mega-forts other towns have built to defend themselves, you might start to giggle for the fort in Rapallo is just a dinky little thing. But make no mistake, it served to fend off some of the fiercest pirates that ever sailed the Mediterranean Sea, including Dragut, the king of the Barbary pirates. 

Villa Durazzo, Santa Margherita Ligure
Just past Rapallo are the two towns of Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino. The towns are linked together because you can’t get to Portofino without going through Santa Margherita, unless of course you go by boat. Personally, I love Santa Margherita, or Santa as the locals call it. In 1813 when the area was controlled by Napoleon Bonaparte, Santa Margherita and Portofino were combined under the name  of Porto Napoleon. Two years later, in 1815, when Liguria was given to the king of Sardinia, the towns each got their own name back and Vittorio Emanuele II renamed the town Santa Margherita after his mother. Santa is one of my favorite places on the Riviera. My first year in Italy I took an Italian language course there through the University of Genoa’s summer program and the classes were held at the villa Durazzo in Santa, the villa you see in the photo. It was a dazzling summer is all I can say. 

A little further down the road, heading toward Genoa, is the town of Camogli. Some historians claim that the name Camogli comes from the Etruscan god Camulio or Camulo , also known as Mars. For others it comes from the people of Casmonati who inhabited the region before the Roman conquest. But my favorite name story is that is comes from Ligurian dialect which takes “Ca” which means home and “mogli” which means wives and puts them together to form the “house of the wives” which referred to the fact that the men of Camogli were never home. True. They were sailors and fishermen and that you can’t be a sailor or a fisherman if you stay home.

So there you are, now you’ve met some of my neighbors. There are actually many more, but there’s no point in going overboard with this idea, now is there.


  1. You've certainly perked my interest in seeing this area of Italy...good job, great article.

  2. The history of these towns is so interesting, and endlessly complex. In researching Michelangelo in Carrara, I found that he had to contract with boats from Lavagna to move his marble to Rome. Some tough sailors!