CHIAVARI, Italy Poor little Lavagna, it’s kind of like the runt in a litter of adorable puppies. When you live in a neighborhood that includes towns like posh Santa Margherita, the much touted Cinque Terre, and that grand dame of all grand dames Portofino, it’s kind of hard to get anyone to pay any attention to you. To make matters even worse, it is stuck between snooty Chiavari and that belle of the bays – Sestri Levante.
But Lavagna is definitely worth taking a second look at, for the town has more going for it than you might think. After all it does have pastel peach and pink buildings, great food shops, a pretty impressive cathedral, a nice seaside park and beach area like all the other “pretty” towns on this side of the Italian Riviera. But while the other towns rely on their beauty to keep them in the game, Lavagna has always had other interests besides attracting tourists. One of them was, and still is, ardesia, also known as slate.
The people of Lavagna have been mining slate from the mountains behind Lavagna for so long, it’s hard to remember a time when they didn’t. In the past, and I don’t mean a mere 1,000 years ago, I’m talking serious past, the Bronze Age, 3,000 BC, when the original Ligurians lived here, there is evidence that they used slate to make object that they used in their everyday life. In more modern times, let’s say in the days of the Roman Empire, the slate that came from the mountains above Lavagna was used in a variety of ways, and you don’t have to look any further than right here in Chiavari for proof.
|Slate and Marble Facade of Genoa's Cathedral of San Lorenzo|
Between 1959 and 1969 a cemetery that pre-dated the Roman Empire, was discovered under one of the main streets of Chiavari. The cemetery contained one hundred and twenty-six tombs surrounded by a fence made of slate slabs. In each tomb they found slate cassettes characteristic of cassettes used in pre-Roman cremation burials and in some of the cassettes they found jewelry and other metal objects. The archeologists could tell by the type of slate used in that cemetery that it came from the hills behind Lavagna, as the slate found in Chiavari was of a different quality.
Starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, Lavagna became a major center for slate and the town’s port developed into a major shipping hub on the sea. From the hills above the town where the slate quarries were, women would carry the heavy pieces of slate on their heads, down the “slate road” to the port of Lavagna. From there the slate was loaded onto single sail boats called leudi, and transported to Genoa and sold.
|Cavi di Lavagna - The End of the Slate Road|
Over the centuries the slate of Lavagna has been used for small things like table tops, pool tables and blackboards and big things like roofs and sidewalks and as a building material. Many of the black ardesia and white striped marble buildings of Liguria, like the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, are considered among the most beautiful in Italy. The slate industry sustained this small community for centuries, and even though there isn’t as much call for slate these days, it’s still considered a local industry.
The harbor seems to play a bigger role now than it did the past. With slots for 1,500 boats, it’s one of the biggest harbors in the area, and along with it a multitude of connected industries have sprung up. You’ll find most anything and everything that has to do with boats in Lavagna, from renting and buying them to repairing them and building them, hardware and fabric for interior design and all the other bits and bobs that are part of that world.
|Hanging Out in Lavagna|
What’s funny is when you are walking around town, you really don’t see much of that nautical world, but it’s all there if you want to take the time to look for it. Liguria is like that. Nothing is obvious. Not that it’s hidden, it just takes forever to understand all that goes on, or has gone on, here.
Sometimes, when I’m sitting out at a local café having a coffee, or maybe just hanging around down by the harbor taking some photos, I pick up bits of conversation, the shooshy sounds of Genovese dialect that rolls off the tongues of the locals like, well like water off a duck’s back. I like the sound of it even if I don’t understand a single word. There is an old Genovese saying that strikes me as being only partially true - Son zeneize, rizo ræo, strenzo i denti e parlo ciæo. = "I'm Genoese, I seldom laugh, I grind my teeth, and I say what I mean".
I don’t know about the grinding their teeth part, but they are serious and it’s been my experience that they do say what they mean, even if they don’t always say everything that they mean. But maybe if I had grown up in a place that has been invaded, occupied, burned to the ground, rebuilt and invaded, occupied and burned to the ground again and again, if `i would say everything I meant, or thought, either.