CHIAVARI, Italy – For a town that’s been around since 262 B.C., Santa Margherita Ligure is in pretty good shape. In fact you might say that Santa, which is what locals call it, looks better today than it ever did.
I’ve been waiting to take photos of Santa Margherita, but not the usual kind of photos full of sunshine and happy faces, I wanted photographs of Santa taken in a different light. But since this has been a summer of sunshine, it took until the middle of last week to get the right kind of day. No sun in the sky? It’s all cloudy and grey? Yippee! I was off to the train station for the ten-minute ride to Santa.
When I got there it was cloudier and a lot darker than it had been in Chiavari, but I wasn’t too worried. Weather here in Liguria has a multiple personality disorder. One minute it’s sunny, next minute it’s not, and strangely enough the weather is different from town to town even though the towns are only 10-15 minutes apart. And forget about the weather reports, they can’t keep up with what’s going on around here either.
At any rate I decided to wait and see if it would clear up a little, and it did. The really dark clouds passed and the sky was a beautiful shade of grey.
The first photo I wanted to take was of the town castle, the one that protected Santa from the fierce pirate raids that plagued the entire Mediterranean coast during the 1500’s. But from street level the best shot I could get was of the entrance to the town’s public toilet, which is built into the same stone wall that supports the castle. That would never do, so I downloaded the castle photo from Wikipedia.
The castle/fort was constructed in 1550 at the foot of the hill where the beautiful Villa Durazzo is located. The villa was built the same year by the Doge of Genoa, and backed by a resolution of the Senate of the Republic of Genoa, which in plain talk means it was paid for with public money.
Of course they really did need a castle/fort to defend against frequent pirate raids, but it might have been better if they built it closer to the residential part of town, but who am I to question the Senate of the Republic of Genoa.
Like it’s neighbors along the Ligurian coast, Santa was often attacked by the fierce Turkish pirate Dragut Rais. There are no records of how many Sammargheritesi Dragut and his men carried away and sold in the North African slave markets, but by all accounts it was a considerable number. In a way being shipped off to North Africa was probably the best outcome for a bad situation because the people who were not chosen to be sold as slaves by the pirates usually ended up having their heads chopped off.
But that was then, and this is now, and today Santa is a popular tourist destination. The day I was here there were a few tour groups in town. One of the stories I’m sure they were told is how Santa Margherita got its name.
It sort of started back in the 1700’s when Santa Margherita was not a town, but two small and separate fishing villages called Pescino and Corte. They were under the protection and jurisdiction of the Capitanato of Rapallo, which was a larger, more established town with an organized government. After about 100 years had passed, the two little villages gained their independence from Rapallo and lived happily on their own. But not for long because in1805 Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned King of Italy in Milan.
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One of the first things Napoleon did was to appoint one of Josephine’s relatives as Viceroy of Italy, and one of the first things the Viceroy did was change the name of the villages of Pescino and Corte to Porto Napoleone.
A few years later, when the French annexed the Region of Liguria to the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was ruled by the French House of Savoy, Duke Vittorio Emanuele III, whose full name was Vittorio Emanuele Ferdinando Maria Gennaro of Savoy, decided to name the town after his mother, Margherita. And that is how Pescino and Corte became Porto Napoleone, which then became Santa Margherita.
Even back then Santa Margherita was a very pretty and popular place favored by Italian royalty and wealthy Genovese. It was so popular that when they were building the first train line from Ventimiglia to Rome, the Tyrrhenian Railway, they built two train stations for Santa Margherita. The next major development was the advent of paved roads, and soon after that came the construction of fabulous villas and grand hotels. In a very short time Santa Margherita became the playground of the rich and richer, and in some ways it still is.
In the center of town there is a beautiful cream colored Basilica, the Basilica of Santa Margherita D’Antiochia, better known as the Santuario di Nostra Signora della Rosa, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rose. Like most of the old churches in Italy, it was built over a pagan temple and renovated over the centuries.
During restoration work in 1672, workers discovered a jar filled with rose scented water under the main altar. To this day, on the Sunday before the Holy Day of May 5th, the Ascension of Jesus, locals bring roses to the church to be blessed.
In front of the Basilica you’ll see one of the best examples of decorative stonework, called risseu in Genovese dialect. It is one of the specialties crafts of Liguria. But the decoration doesn't stop there. Looking around you'll see high and narrow row houses painted in sweet pastel colors and often decorated in the most ingenious trompe l’oeil. There are garlands and colored ribbons, balustrades, medallions and more, all painted on flat concrete building to dazzle and fool the eye into thinking they are real, when they are not.
But Santa Margherita is real enough, as all the towns along this stretch of Liguria are, each touched by the genius of the Genovese, each beautiful in its own unique way.