Sunday, November 30, 2003

Camogli notes from a broad

In the fall of 2003 after visiting a friend in Paris and then traveling together to Antibes, I tripped on by train alone to the Ligurian town of Camogli. Like Villefranche, I based my burning desire to visit on a single photograph I'd seen somewhere online. I'd been curious about this entire region and thought that Camogli would be as good a town as any to call home for a week or so of riviera exploration. Happy to say I was right.

Camogli? How do you know about Camogli?
I have an adorable and wonderful friend whose family is Croatian-Italian with roots in Istria and Camogli. Nobody much talks about the town of Camogli so when I told this friend that I was going to be staying there she was shocked that I'd heard of (or remembered her mentioning) such a small and out of the way Italian town. She was even more surprised that based on a single photo I had decided to stay there for a string of nights. Part of her surprise was also concern, I think. From Genoa to La Spezia, the coast of Italy is dotted with small seaside fishing villages. Many of which are still small and minimally touristed. In recent years however the region has become an increasingly hot travel destination for Americans and Europeans other than the Milanese crowd that has always flocked here. Or at least flocked earlier than the others. Perhaps they were the trendsetters. Whoever started the Cinque Terre craze, Rick Steves has certainly perpetuated the excitement. As Steves has said on his show and in his guidebooks, Vernazza is his favorite of the five terre. And it's no surprise then that the town is hopping with hordes of Rick Steves cohorts, guidebook in hand. And of all the towns spread out over this stretch of coastline, Portofino is perhaps regarded as the biggest sellout to mass tourism. These towns are small. Tiny, really. And so any influx of outsiders completely alters the ambiance. I'm certain that in high season tourists outnumber the locals by a landslide. My friend's concern then is understandable. These are still living towns, if you will. Like Venice, they are populated with locals trying to strike a balance between the tourist industry and normal, daily life. Camogli definitely felt like an Italian village. There were few tourists and I got a lot of looks from the locals like, "Who are you? Why are you here? How do you know about Camogli?" Not in a bad or unwelcoming way. More like a, "Oh shit. First Portofino, then the Cinque Terre, now Camgoli. It's the beginning of the end." So long as everyone and their mother doesn't open up their homes like a hotel for rent the way they do in Vernazza, I think the people of Camogli can sleep easy and nearly overnight-tourist-free for the near term.

Day Trippers' Delight
It's easy to see why this area is so adored by outsiders. It's crazy cute and delightful. From Genoa to La Spezia you can hop on and off the train all day, day after day, checking out new towns and beaches. I absolutely adored each of the Cinque Terre, Camogli, Portofino, Portovenere, and Sestri Levante. The only town I didn't feel particularly warm and fuzzy about was Bonassola.

Bonassola Bitter
If you end up checking out the town of Bonassola, you'll probably find a little bakery-focacceria di (or is it da?) Marisa. Good food. Stank Marisa. I was so tickled to see my name on a shop and to meet the owner that I repeated several times for the focacceria Marisa, "Sonno Marisa anche. Mia nome e Marisa! Anche!!" She clearly wasn't as tickled as I was. She didn't even crack a smile. She did, however, give me several Euros worth of change in 10-cent or smaller pieces. I was pissed, but what was I to do? I decided to take the high road and show this manner-less Marisa that I was above her petty pennies. Being a woman of a color other than Lily White, I never know if the funkiness I sometimes encounter abroad has to do with a generic chip on someone's shoulder or if I'm on the receiving end of a little old-fashioned racism. It's not always clear. If I spoke more Italian, I would have asked the woman point blank. From one Marisa to another.

Walking Warning
It's been so long that I can no longer recall which guidebook misled me to believe that the walk from Santa Margherita to Portofino would be a short, sweet stroll. If I could unearth this info from memory, I'd write the authors a nasty note. It was flat. I'll give them that. Short and sweet it was not. Try long and sweaty. Longer and sweatier if you're mentally unprepared to trek alongside a winding two-lane road being navigated at unnervingly high speeds by stereotypically wild Italian drivers. I'm lucky I made it to Portofino in one piece. The walk itself was memorably scenic. To your right is the road and to your left is the water. Winding in and out along the coast, you can never quite see what's around the next bend, and you're constantly sure that beyond the next jut of land your final destination will be revealed in all its picturesque perfection. Nope. More trees on the hill ahead and a spattering of houses. But no Portofino. Not for a-ways. Without food or water to sustain me on this journey, I relied on anger to keep me going. Of the few fellow trekkers that I passed along the way, all reassured me that I was headed in the right direction. Well, that was at least something. Trudging along, I raced against the setting sun and stumbled into Portofino on the cusp of twilight. The light was wonderful and the beauty of the buildings aglow in the fading light was enough to quell my furor and quench my thirst for vengeance. I bought an overpriced San Benedetto Frizzante and a candy bar from one of the few shops still open, took a five-minute zip around the tiny harbor of a town, and caught the next bus back to Santa Margherita. Journey and giorno complete. I slept that night, I do recall and quite clearly, like a sack of sore and intermittently cramping bricks. Oh wait. I just Googled "walking to Portofino from Santa Margherita" and guess who I found touting the trail. Steves. Rick Steves. From and I quote: "Travel guru Rick Steves says that the trail between the two towns is one of the favorites of hikers. The distance is only about 3 miles, or 5 kilometers." Three miles doesn't sound like much for the physically fit, but try that walk and tell me if it doesn't feel more like five or six. Maybe if I hadn't started the walk starving it would have been faster and more enjoyable. I'm not so certain the distance was spelled out in exact miles. I swear the recommendation gave the impression the walk was a quick 20 to 30 minute saunter. Oh vell. At least I know now. And so do you.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.

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