Although we’ve made many trips to Italy over the years, for whatever reason, we’d never spent much time in Liguria. We decided to rectify that by spending a week there late last month.
Since Liguria is a long drive from here, we made a few stops along the way.
First was Gradara castle in the northern Marche. In the 13th C, Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, the lord of Rimini. Francesca found herself attracted to her husband’s younger, and much better looking, brother Paolo. As Dante imagined the scene, Paolo and Francesca were innocently reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, when suddenly, passion seized them; no more reading was done that day. Her husband discovered the affair and killed both of them. The tragic tale of Francesca da Rimini has inspired artists ever since — it is the subject of numerous paintings and several operas, and draws tourists like us to the castle to this day.
Next stop was the Abbey of Nonantola, outside Modena. Originally founded in the 8th C, the current church dates to the 12th C. It is one of the last and largest buildings in Romanesque style, and its brick barrel vaults are quite a contrast to the pointed stone arches of Notre Dame, which was built at around the same time. The museum next door has the original charter for the abbey, dated 752 — a document which carries the sigil of Charlemagne.
For our base in Liguria, we stayed in Imperia, about one hour west of Genoa on the coast (practically all of Liguria is on the coast). We had a spacious AirBnB apartment with wonderful views of the harbor, both from the rooms and from the outside dining table. We were blessed with spectacular weather — in late September, most of the summer tourists are gone, but the days were still sunny and warm. Despite its popularity with tourists, Imperia and nearby Porto Maurizio are real towns (Imperia is the county seat) which still has plenty of activity even in the off season. We had fun just exploring the towns, although since the mountains come almost down to the sea here most of the walking isup and down. There are several nice walks along the beach, as well as a stunning yacht harbor.
The food is quite good in Liguria, but also very simple. Here is the real home of the traditional “Mediterranean” diet, based on fish, vegetables, and olive oil — enriched, at this time of year, by some white truffles from nearby Piedmont.
We did a couple of touristy things when we could tear ourselves away from the town. In Albissola Marina, we visited the Villa Faraggiana, an 18th C country estate which, unusually, still retains much of the original 18th C and early 19th C furnishings — paintings, statues, flying body art, even the wallpaper. The ballroom had a 17th C mirror which predated the house, magnificent floors made of local tiles, and large wooden statues whose survival is especially miraculous given that they were originally used as candleholders.
We also visited the Hanbury Gardens, in Mortola, close to the French border. In the late 19th C, a couple of English gentlemen created a garden full of “exotic” plants. Although it was probably not the optimal time to visit — we were too late for the roses and too early for the citrus — but we enjoyed the vast collection of agave, aloe and cactus — very California-like.
On the way back, we visited Siena and spent several hours in its magnificent cathedral. The cathedral floors are decorated with an unusual series of about 60 “paintings”in inlaid marble, by various artists. Usually the floor paintings are hidden by brown paper covers, but for about 2 months a year the floors are uncovered. Visitors are able to walk through the paintings on special paths which avoid wearing down the most delicate designs.
We then took a roof tour which allowed you to go up in the rafters and see the floors from above, which was pretty cool.
We also visited the “crypt,” which is not a cemetery but actually the remains of an older church. The current church, built in the 13th C, was built right on top of the old one. Some of the frescoes of the earlier cathedral were buried and not rediscovered until renovation work in the 1990s fortuitously uncovered them. After years of seeing the faded colors of frescoes that have been open to the elements for hundreds of years, it was quite startling to see the bright original colors of these long-buried frescoes.