CHIAVARI, Italy – You won’t find the Riviera towns listed below featured in Travel and Leisure or Code Nast Traveler, or even talked about in the travel section of your local newspaper. These are the towns in Liguria that the Italians keep for themselves. And more often than not, they are the towns their grandparents came from. You see these towns strung along the rocky coast of the Mediterranean Sea, tiny borgos with tall, pastel colored houses and narrow winding streets. Everybody knows everybody else, and they know their families too. They all grew up together.
LEVANTO – Levanto isn’t one of the towns of the Cinque Terre that poets and literary types love so well, but it is part of the Cinque Terre National Park, which is probably a better thing. The town is on the Ligurian coast at the end of a valley that is thickly wooded with olive and pine trees. There have been a lot of changes in Levanto over the years, including its name. The town started life as small village called Ceula and after the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD), it became part of the Byzantine Empire. I won’t bore you with all the details, sufficient to say that by 1229 control of the town had passed to the Republic of Genoa. This was good because there were natural resources in and around Levanto that brought in a lot of money for the Republic, like Levanto’s red marble which is still sold today. Other things they still sell are olive oil and local wine, both of which are very good. About 5,000 people live here now and they don’t mind if you come to visit, but they are not going to break out the good dishes and the fancy silverware, you’ll have to take them as they are.
MONEGLIA – Moneglia is special. A few years ago it was added to the list of “borghi piu belli d’Italia”, the most beautiful villages in Italy. About 2,800 people live in Moneglia year ‘round, it’s the summer of course, it’s another story. The town sits on a large bay between Cape Moneglia to the west and Cape Rospo to the east. Cape Moneglia is completely wild and you can only get there on foot, but Cape Rospo is easier to explore. The town is almost too old to even date, going back to the days wandering tribes crossed the Alps in search of habitable land. Even though they were pushed back by the Etruscans, some did survive only to be pounded again by the Romans. And so it went for centuries until the Romans found other people to pound on and went north. The town is basically two streets wide. The main street, Corso Libero Longhi, is lined with palm trees and has a tropical air about it. There are a couple of hotels and a restaurant or two, a bar and a newsstand and that’s about it. That seems to be more than enough for the people who live there, and those who visit when the weather is nice, like me.
DEIVIA MARINA - Deiva Marina is a small town that started out in the hills of Liguria, probably sometime around the year 775. Records show that the first settlers were from Lombardy, which is interesting since most of the tourist who go there today are from Lombardy, specifically Milan. Some things never change. That hillside settlement was called Deiva and as the years past, centuries actually, the villagers moved closer and closer to the sea, building another village which they called Marina and eventually the two villages became one. At the time, Deiva was a fiefdom of the local Marquis, Marquis da Passano, who built a castle there as you could do things like that in the year 1144. The village thrived and by the 1500’s Deiva had a population of 100 men, women and children. But life in Liguria has never been simple and as the years passed so did control of the town. In the 1600’s it was under the Republic of Genoa, 100 years later it was Napoleon Bonaparte who ruled and the village became part of the First French Empire. Fast forward another hundred years and now it was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia quickly followed by the Kingdom of Italy. And through all this to and fro-ing and changing of governments, not much has changed in the town except the population has grown from 100 people to 1,461 people. And that is probably a very good thing.
FEZZANO - Fezzano, a tiny suburb of the town of La Spezia, is known for two things. The first is it is one of the thirteen townships that participates in the Palio del Golfo held every year on the first Sunday in August. That’s a big deal. There are only 950 people in Fezzano and at least six of them have to know how to row. It’s not really a problem though as the Fezzani are natural born sailors. In the 1700’s Fezzano had what was considered a huge fleet of sailboats, forty to be exact, and the bravura of its sailors was known far and wide. The second thing about Fezzano is that the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance, the one they called the living Venus, was born here. Her name was Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia Vespucci. When she was 16 years old she married Marco Vespucci, a cousin of the famous Amerigo Vespucci who gave his name to – well, America. The couple settled in Florence and there Simonetta met the painter Sandro Botticelli and she soon became his muse. It is Simonetta you see in Botticelli’s most famous work, The Birth of Venus. Needless to say that after the world saw her naked, she became very popular, but it was Guiliano de Medici, the youngest son of the powerful, and extremely rich, Lorenzo de Medici, who convinced her to become his mistress. Too bad they don’t make sugar daddies like that anymore.
BONASSOLA – The town of Bonassola is so small that the brochures published by the local tourist bureau only lists two things to do there. You’ll find the town just a few miles north of its more famous neighbors the Cinque Terre, wedged between the mountains and the sea, which doesn’t give its 940 inhabitants much room to expand. It’s a very old town, in fact some historians think it was settled by the Greeks some 800 years before Christ was born. Once upon a time it was an important trade and shipping center, but today its main draw is its beauty. When writer Ernest Hemingway visited Bonassola, he called the town “sweet and memorable”, and it still is. As other resort towns on the Italian Riviera attract more and more tourists and in return have become more touristy then typical, Bonassola is pretty much the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago.