A Rough Guide to Liguria in Italy : Things to Do in Chiavari
The Mediterranean sands are always a huge attraction for the hot summer days. Thousands will flock to resorts in places like France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and North Africa. But you could do worse than try out the imperfect shores of eastern Liguria in North West Italy.
Not on a par with the South of France or the Amalfi Coast but it still has little jewels that sparkle. It might interest those who like to stray from the tourist trail and find something more authentic and untouched. Here are the many things to do in Chiavari on the seashore of Liguria.
The town has a mysterious house on a hill. I asked a few folk what it was and got different responses or inconclusive answers.
Not that you can see much of it as this intriguing old mansion is mostly hidden behind thick foliage of surrounding trees set in a massive landscaped garden.
It's more of an estate than a garden I suppose and within you can just see the cream-walls of the upper floors, the roof and the peaks of its Gothic tower.
I thought perhaps it was a technicoloured holiday home for the Addams Family. But I finally got an answer about the intriguing house on the hill.
It's full of luxury holiday apartments for the millionaire set and not exclusively for football players. Any overpaid prima donna can rent out a flat for a week or two at top prices.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN CHIAVARI
1. Have fun or relaxation on the pebbles of the Blue Flag beaches.
2. Step back in time through the streets and lanes of the historic centre.
3. Visit museums, see the castle and the historic walls of the town.
4. Marvel at the facade of the cathedral and its glorious golden interior.
5. For nature lovers, take a walk in the open-air Botanical Gardens.
Italian attack dogs and an American wolf
At the roadside of the estate an idiosyncratic fence in French style and painted in yellow adds an eccentric and amusing diversion from the ferocious perimeter protection usually favoured by rich Italians.
Ensconsed in moral panic with ever alert guard dogs roaming behind forbidding steel is the norm. In fact Chiavari has one of the greatest numbers of CCTV cameras per head of population anywhere in Europe.
More benign cameras came into town in 2012 when Hollywood arrived. Some scenes from the movie 'The Wolf of Wall Street' were filmed in Chiavari.
It also featured the Cinque Terre further along the coast. The movie stars Leonardo di Caprio and was directed by Martin Scorcese. So a strong Italian connection there.
Under the hills not far away
Chiavari nestles comfortably on flat and fertile terrain in a gap between the Ligurian coastal hills. It's no coincidence that the Italian word for 'key' is similar to the name of the town. For this area opens up a passage from the sea to the hinterland and vice versa.
Therefore it was an important area for trade and strategic position in a place that was otherwise difficult to access. It's still small today though, with a population of under 30,000.
No major logistical problems nowadays as there is easy access both by road and rail to the town. Chiavari lies roughly halfway between Genoa in the west and La Spezia in the east. It's just over 40 miles by road to the former and 55 miles to the latter.
The town is easily reachable by the rail line that runs along the coast and is not far from the more celebrated Cinque Terre towns and villages which lie on the same line. The railway station was opened in 1868.
There is also an autostrada which runs behind the hills and over the rear of the town. This has also improved communications and made visiting easier. A price worth paying perhaps for the despoiling of the airspace above attractive buildings.
A huge concrete flyover can never be good for house prices or perhaps even TV reception. But given the quality of Italian programme schedules the latter may not be such a tragedy.
A trip down Chiavari lanes
The historic centre of the town is one of the best preserved in the region and offers an interesting setting in which to walk around. Many parts are pedestrianised.
On market day the streets are taken over by lots of stalls selling almost anything. This is not a strong tourist town so you'll find an authentic market experience in Chiavari.
The square of Piazza Partini is dominated by food with meat, poultry, cheese, fruit and vegetables on sale. Meawhile in the network of streets you can rummage through clothes, jewellery, antiques, books and art.
The narrow streets, tall buildings and the wonderful pavement arcades ensure you can stay cool during your stroll.
Old Chiavari was once part of the Genoan Republic during a formative period. Therefore it's no surprise that the architecture of the great city of Columbus dominates.
The town also exudes the style of the 15th century Renaissance in many of its best buildings. The mansions are particularly grand around viale Millo Enrico and are complemented by exotic vegetation.
Palm trees grace the gardens providing colour and character to the street. Behind them the artistic contours of historic architecture are a pleasure to the eye.
You will sight us on the beaches
At the seafront the facades and features are more banal and exude all the quality of a generic package-holiday resort. You could be in Spain, Portugal or the South of France for all the difference it makes.
Perhaps even South America when you read the street names. You'll find 'corso Beunos Aries', 'corso Montevideo' and 'corso Lima' among others.
This is a reminder of when many local people immigrated to that continent in the 18th and 19th centuries. And in those far off places you will find their ancestors bearing surnames typical of the old town in Liguria.
At the time of writing the town boasts one of the least attractive beaches I've ever seen.
With its wide and flat expanse of grey gravel and stone it looks more like a recently cleared floor of an urban demolition site rather than the Italian Riviera.
Hopefully this is a work in progress and the beach will be developed.
However on a return visit we saw that the site was being used as a fairground. So perhaps the land is reserved for special events.
Certainly the other pebble beaches in the town are absolutely fine with Blue Flag status and a popular attraction for locals and visitors. It's a common destination for holidaymakers from the urban thrall of Milan which is only around 80m miles away.
That 70's show in old Liguria
Nevertheless the need for development applies to some aspects of the town itself. Hotel entrances and reception areas with a look from the 1970s are not offering some ironic retro whimsy in design.
They are actually genuine relics from that era that have never been modernised to keep up with the times.
This isn't very surprising as in Italy the Ligurian folk are noted for being very careful with their money. Also their customer service doesn't exactly go the extra mile. But give them your hard-earned cash and you'll make them happy.
One of the hotels became notorious as it is claimed to have been the site of the founding of the left-wing Red Brigades terrorist group.
On November 29th 1969 in a suite in the Stella Maris hotel a meeting was held by organiser Renato Curcio with the 'Metropolitan Political Collective'.
Supposedly that day the group decided to take up arms in their campaign against the Italian state. It's also said that they took the idea for their flag from the star symbol of the hotel.
Given the more prominent and inspirational star of international Communism it sees a bit of a stretch to believe in this humble explanation.
Besides the hotels other relics of more interest are to be found around the streets of the town and in the museums.
Once upon a time this was all fields
There is a magnificent cathedral entitled "Nostra Signora dell'Orto" which literally translates as the 'Our Lady of the Vegetable Garden'.
Perhaps that's not an entirely correct translation but certainly it refers to an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1610 which supposedly took place in a garden on the same site.
Italian always sounds more exotic than English anyway. I suppose 'Our Lady of the Allotment' doesn't have the same ring to it.
Work began soon after the miracle and there followed alterations and additions in future generations. For example the splendid portico with corinthian pillars dates from 1907.
Inside you can see the golden interior with its huge altar and three naves of marble and stucco. There is also much gilded decoration in this Aladdin's cave of Christian worship and praise.
There are colourful stained-glass windows and various works of art. You will also find spectacular frescoes and wooden sculptures inside the cathedral.
The old castle of Chiavari, originally built in 1146, sits atop a hill on the eastern side of town. It was once much bigger but then mostly dismantled in the 16th century.
It's now mainly the tower that remains. But it's still a notable landmark although now in private hands and not open to the public.
There are also remnants of the old city walls to be found. Well conserved sections remain which also date back to the 12th century. Under the rule of the Genoan Republic many buildings were constructed and in 1167 the wall was built to protect the town.
In 1959 archaeological remains were discovered dating back even to the 8th century B.C. This actually makes them pre-Roman. Vestiges of an ancient necropolis and human settlements were unearthed by workers on a construction site in the aforementioned viale Enrico Millo.
All the world in a garden
Certainly worth a visit is the Botanic Gardens created by Giuseppe Rocca over 100 years ago as a private park. But now it has been gifted to the town and opened to the public.
It had suffered neglect and decline but was eventually redeveloped in a major upgrade between 1998 and 2001. It is now the only significant Botanical Gardens in the area
It has attractive little plots, a wooden bridge and old stone walls with thousands of exotic plants in the open or in the comfort of the greenhouse. For a nominal fee you can enjoy a relaxing encounter with nature from all over the world.
A less enjoyable encounter can occur in winter though as the ever present danger of flooding hangs over the town. Like many other places on the Ligurian coastline it can be inundated with water pouring down from the hills behind. The consequences can be disastrous.
Staying on the historical theme, the Palazzo Rocca contains marvelous exhibits of Genoan art. The building was constructed in 1630 and sits in front of the Botanical Gardens. Once owned by the famous Grimaldi family it also now belongs to the town.
As well as the Palazzo Rocca there are the Archaeological Museum, which was opened in 1985, the Museum of the Risorgimento, the Museum of the Diocese and the Museum of Physics and Meteo-Seismology.
In the footsteps of the famous
On the edge of town the remains of an old bridge can also still be seen. They comprise the oldest parts of a modern reconstruction that spans the river Entella.
This bridge connects Chiavari with the neighbouring town of Lavagna. It's called the 'Ponte della Maddalene' and was originally built in 1210. However only the central part remains.
Tradition states that the bridge was crossed by Dante on his way to duel with Malaspinae. This walk was recorded in 'The Divine Comedy' poem written in the early 12th century.
These words appear in the 'Purgatory' section.
"Between Siestri and Chiaveri descends
A river beautiful, and of its name
The title of my blood its summit makes"
If he lived in the 21st century I guess he would just jump in his Lamborghini and hurtle across the flyover.
Another famous name from Chiavari was Domenico Garibaldi. If the surname is familiar then you'll be thinking of his more famous offspring Guiseppe.
The prodigal son returned from his sea travels in the mid-19th century to lead the fight for Italian indepedence. Hence the museum in the town dedicated to the 'Risorgimento' or 'Resurgence' of Italy from the 1866 victory.
Another fine building in the historic centre is the former 'Palazzo di Giustizia' or court building in the more prosiac English. Built in 1886 and designed by Guiseppe Mazzini in a medieval style.
It was replaced as an active centre of law and order in 2013 when a new modern building opened. The older building sits in Piazza Partini and towers over the food stalls in the square on busy market days.
Handicrafts and crafty hands
The town is also famous for the celebrated 'Chiavari chair' design built in cherry wood and which was created in 1807 by Guiseppe Descalzi.
But the driving force was the contemporary Marquis Stefano Rivalora. He had been inspired by the artisans of Paris after a visit to the French capital. The finesse and delicacy of the cratmanship in France intrigued him. And so the light but robust version was created by Descalzi.
The town is also a site of other traditional crafts such as silk and lace manufacture. Of course there is also the traditional maritime workshops for boats, sails, engines and anything else you need to set out on the waves.
Appropriately the motto of the town is 'Vitam Excoluere per Artes' which translated from the Latin means 'Life ennobled by skills'. A progressive sentiment on worth of the artisan.
In this modern age Chiavari is also noted internationally for the development of software including video games.
Ironic then the record number of CCTV cameras about town. A deterrent perhaps to the light-fingered who grudge actually paying for things.
So, as you see there is a packed programme of places to see and things to do in Chiavari. In fact in the high summer months there is even more on offer.
The Italians love their festivals and you will too. There are countless celebrations of life and living in Chiavari and many other Ligurian towns.
So if you time it right you may enjoy the spectacle of a religious procession through the streets or a medieval carnival of music and dance.
Not forgetting great food and the best wine the region has to offer. When you're in Italy you can't go wrong in the dining stakes. Buon appetito!