A Rough Guide to Liguria in Italy. Things to do in Lavagna

A Rough Guide to Liguria in Italy. Things to do in Lavagna

When tourists travel to the Liguria region of Italy then normally there are one of two choices.

The home of Cristoforo Colombo, foccacia bread and pesto sauce or the romantic charm of a chain of historic coastal villages.

The former is the port city of Genoa and the latter are the celebrated Cinque Terre UNESCO sites.

In between are less well-known and infrequently visited resorts along the coast. This is not surprising as they cannot truly compete with these superstar sites.

Nevertheless for the curious traveller who wants to stray beyond the beaten track and the tourist traps, places like Lavagna have their own modest attractions and places of interest.

Let's take a virtual walk through the town.

Cool in the shade of an Italian arcade

The town planners of the historic centre of Lavagna must have been largely sympathetic to disdainers of the sun.

As in many other Italian towns the streets are narrow and the buildings are tall. But perhaps not through topographical necessity.

Unlike many other places on the coast the town is not crammed into a confined space surround by hills and rocks. So perhaps the town planners of old had consideration for the inhabitants and avoided too many wide open spaces.

The town has existed since Roman times under its original Latin name of 'Lavania'. The modern name also means 'blackboard' in Italian. It makes for unusual Google search results unless you add more keywords.

Everywhere in Lavagna the dim hue of cooling shade offers respite from the heat. The wisdom of that age also insisted on covered pavements enclosed in arcades lined by arches.

Lavagna is therefore an authentic slice of Italy devoid of the usual trappings of desperate commercialism and seasonal tourism. The excess of mass-produced, multi-coloured tat forged in Chinese plastic factories is not so prevalent here.

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Lavagna GE, Italia
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Old, new, borrowed and blue

In Lavagna you will find attractive Genoan-style facades borrowed from the style of its more famous counterpart and lining characteristic streets and alleys.

Walking along the busy via Dante, for example, you are captured by the aroma wafting from the shops of freshly-baked foccacia or recently caught sea fish and crustacaens.

TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN LAVAGNA
1. Bask in the sunshine or swim at the quality 'Blue Flag' beaches
2. Visit the centrepiece Basilico and other churches and museums.
3. Enjoy the streets, architecture and markets of the historic centre.
4. Eat great Italian cuisine and fine wines in the local restaurants
5. Join in the fun of the summer festivals or the Riviera disco scene.

On the waterfront are pleasant beaches with 'Blue Flag' status for those who prefer to embrace the rays and boost their Vitamin D intake.

Many square metres of the beach area are privately-owned with sunbeds and parasols for hire with bar and cafe facilities. Signs in bad English are also amusingly informative.

Toilet facilities may flag up red however, so don't expect gleaming silver taps or sparkling porcelain. But the cigarette butts may be of a more exclusive brand than on the public beaches. It's a higher class of litter.

But overall the beaches are comparable with most places in Europe. They have a mixture of pebbles and sand set in the beautiful setting of the Gulf of Tigullio.

The hills of Sestri Levante lie over to the east with the western coast of Liguria, including Genoa, arching out in the west.

Sun, sea, sand and Guinness

Looking over yonder towards the horizon you see yachts, speedboats and fishing vessels cruise past the shores. Further out you may see huge cruise ships or cargo boats passing on their way to and from the busy port of Genoa.

In history the view would have been even more interesting on occasion, although bringing a deep sense of foreboding. Pirates from Africa plied their trade in the 16th century on these waves.

Not to mention the infamous 'Dragut' a marauder from Turkey who led devastating attacks by his saracen hordes on the Ligurian coast in 1564.

Palm trees line the promenade and many locals take the 'passeggiata' or evening stroll along the seashore. Plenty of benches are available if you want to relax and watch the sun go down.

This is actually best in winter as it sets behind the horizon of the Meditteranean Sea. In summer it disappears behind the western hills.

On the rocky parts of the beaches you'll find locals fishing and in the harbours the sailing community set out for the waves or gather in the nautical club.

At the marina you'll also find some interesting shops, including a handicraft store, plus a pleasant cafe and even an Irish bar.

The last is hardly surprising as the diaspora of the 'Wild Geese' has long been exported from the Emerald Isle to all corners of the earth.

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Entering another dimension

The authenticity of Lavagna however does have its limitations. A noticeable trait of many Ligurian towns are the fake designer adornments from the 'Coup d'Oieul' school of art.

Instead of carving and constructing pilasters and capitals on their walls and around their windows they simply paint them on.

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This three dimensional style of brushmongering is very convincing from a good, safe distance. It provides an effective, though whimsical, decoration on otherwise fairly banal features.

It does offer flexibility I suppose. With a few pots of paint you could easily convert your Renaissance homestead into neo-classical Roman or Greek, Tudor England or American Art Deco.

But somehow I doubt it. The Ligurians are particularly proud of their heritage and culture therefore preserving the style of the old Genoan Republic. An occasional touch-up, nip and tuck rather than a complete makeover is the order of the day.

However some outstanding examples of local buildings are the Palazzo Ravenna, the Palazzo Franzoni and the Villa Spinola-Grimaldi. Of course added to the architectural mix are several fine local churches.

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A sleeping giant needs awakening

However at the risk of commercial encroachment it's certainly true that Lavagna needs development. As with many interesting places in Italy it could do with investment and rejuvenation. If you arrive at the seafront train station you will see a good example.

The 'Chez-Vous' Cafe is a large and rotund Art Deco building with ample glazing. But what could be an inviting novelty and local landmark looks tired and worn. Rusty stains flowing down from the metal balcony around its circumference attest to the neglect.

It's not completely circular as it has a flat side facing the sea which would be perfect for evening drinks by the window. But it lacks the class that would attract the fashionable cocktail set.

Certainly there are many examples of fine architecture and charming design full of colour and vivacity.

But this tempered by the drab, the dreary and the dilapidated.

The paradox can be clear with the sight of overgrown grass verges combined with tidy and attractive flower beds sometimes with huge and beautiful roses of various colours.

Along the same streets the pastel shades of pleasant apartment buildings with handsome windows and balconies may sit cheek by jowl with nondescript housing or ramshackle allotments.

In the shadow of the historical but timeless magnificence of the classical and ornate lie breeze-block monstrosities that don't manage to carry off their age.

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The College of Hoteliery and the municipal indoor swimming pool are cases in point. Unpleasing eyesores bereft of colour or motif.

The latter, however, has good enough facilities inside which is helpful during inclement weather.

Good enough but not state of the art and if you are used to modern changing facilities you may be less than impressed.

Whatever the weather

The weather can be changeable in this part of Italy

This is an understatement where winter is concerned.

Dried up river beds in summer become angry torrents in the dark season.

Flash floods are an ever present danger for road, rail and residence.

But it does lie on the Mediterranean Coast with the hills behind.

So this part of the country enjoys fresh breezes and occasional summer rains to alleviate the baking heat.

Winter can bring mild weather and in our case great fortune as it was around 18°C on New Years Day on one of our visits. But such high temperatures for January are distinctly unseasonal.

And it's the sun that illuminates the charms of Lavagna. The buildings bask in reflected glory surrounding colourful piazzas among exotic trees and the radiant flowers. Pastel pink, cream and peach walls are punctuated by quaintly designed windows and shutters.

One of the most impressive is Piazza Cordieviola which is an open, fresh and welcoming square of exquisite charm.

That is, it was, until some architectural prankster rammed a 15-storey block of concrete with windows into the picture.

It completely ruins the pleasure and the integrity of the scene.

Nearby another post-war, high-rise dump masquerading as seaside accommodation vies in competition for the booby prize.

Wonderful views from the inside of both of these blots on the landscape I'm sure, but not reciprocal from the outside.

Two ugly sisters in this Cinderella town.

Time stands still in Lavagna

However the centrepiece of Lavagna is the old Basilico of San Stefano which lies at the top of a sloping driveway which is finished off with a grand stepped entrance.

On the left hand side of the entrance road stretches a classical parade of Doric pillars while on the other is the contrast of run-down business premises and modest domestic households.

The Basilico has two towers either side and each displaying a clock. However, only the right-hand clock is a genuine functional model whereas the other is a painted replica. Interestingly the hands are permanently set at 11.47.

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The Basilico is not quite central in loco as it's positioned slightly askew.

Therefore it's nearer the poor cousins on the right hand side of the street.

Perhaps the great theatre of worship is offering a reminder and reassurance,

In other words the parish church is displaying its affinity with the common people.

The interior may belie this first impression.

Inside you find a treasured cornucopia of paintings, frescoes, sculptures, stained-glass, gold leaf and sparkling chandeliers.

A cluttered, albeit colourful, display of religious excess and ostentation held up by corinthian pillars.

It's almost as if the whole town budget for a year was signed off on this gaudy temple of religious idolatory.

The place has been a site of worship since the 10th century with the present building being constructed in 1610 and the towers added in 1657. It can even take on a Las Vegas style appearance at night as LED lights illuminate the outlines of the facade.

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Behind the Basilico is the town cemetery sited on top of the hill. The dead look down on the living as a reminder of what is to come. Enjoy your hedonistic day down at the beach as the Grim Reaper hovers overhead.

Plus like many Italian cemeteries there is hardly a blade of grass in this garden of stone. It's a collection of monuments, tombs, headstones and statues which stoutly grace this urbanised rest home for the departed.

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A concrete oasis which is surrounded by irony being set in the green of nature.

Adjacent farmland with wild plants and the omnipresent olive trees abounding.

They continue to nurture the life cycle around the inanimate tombs.

Towering under the rooftops

For those interested in history there is also an old 16th century tower.

It's called the 'Torre del Borgo' and was built as a watch-tower to warn of those pirates of that era.

In modern days it has been dwarfed by taller housing and looks stunted and lost in a backcourt.

Passing up an alley smelling of fresh basil wafting from the kitchen back doors of local restaurants I entered the garden area.

You can relax on benches in the shade and maybe enjoy a snack or a picnic. The tower itself is now an interesting historical and archaeological museum. But a new one would be welcome down at the beach to help lifeguards warn of the stinging jellyfish that regularly pay a visit to the Ligurian shores.

Disco dancing in Cavi Lavagna

On the eastern side of town is 'Cavi di Lavagna' which was once an old fishing village. The older part is called 'Cavi Borgo' and the more modern section is 'Cavi Arenelle'.

It also has nice sandy beaches and can also offer a disco scene. The nightclub 'Cavi Arenelle' is popular and perhaps there you can enjoy a sophisticated cocktail.

Certainly it would attract more of the Riviera crowd rather than the tired old 'Chez Vous' along the road.

For the more traditional and less secular tastes the area has two fine historical churches that you can visit.

One in 'Cavi Borgo' called the 'Church of the Holy Conception' dating from 1757 and another the modern 'Church of the Risen Jesus' built in the 1980s.

Everyone gets a slice of the cake

Back in central Lavagna every August there is the medieval festival called 'Torte di Fieschi' which is named after a fuedal family who ruled the area from 1198. Lavagna was actually a fortified base from where they battled against the Genoan Republic.

But the festival only began in 1949 and is a colourful and exuberant event with music, dance, markets and lots of food and drink. The culmination is the huge illuminated crown in the square where hundreds of people gather.

The festival is based on a wedding from 1230 when Opizzo Fieschi, the Conte of Lavagna, married Bianca de' Bianchi of Siena. The modern tribute includes a cortege and a huge cake which is distributed among the crowd.

Hence the name 'torte' meaning 'cake'. I suppose the cortege through town might be a 'cakewalk' if you like.

Another family called 'Doria' ruled in the Middle Ages but then came the years of nationalistic and regional hegemony. The French Republic took control in the early 19th century followed by Sardinia until the eventual incorportaion into the new nation of Italy in 1861.

There are another two museums of note in Lavagna. One is the 'Casa Carbone' in via Riboli which houses paintings, furniture and other artefacts dating from the 17th to the 20th century. Its three floors are decorated in the Genoan style.

The other is the Rudolfo Allioso Collection which contains various archaelogical treasures including pottery and ceramics. These items date as far back as the Italian Renaissance.

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And so ends our internet trail around the town. Satisfying rather than spectacular, more interesting than exciting.

But still worth repeating for real and planting your feet on the old streets of Lavagna. Enjoy its fascinating highlights.

Once you've satiated yourself with its attractions then you can also pop over to check out its neighbour.

Crossing the Ponte Maddelena bridge on the River Entella will take you into Chiavari where more Ligurian heritage and history await you.

You will follow in the footsteps of Dante who indeed mentioned his river crossing in the 'Divine Comedy' of the 14th century.

But a connecting rainbow is not guaranteed.

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