Wednesday Oct. 10: San Michele ⇒ Chiàvari ⇒ La Spezia
Food & lodging notes
Continued on our way towards La Spezia, driving through quite rugged mountain country on the way to the Ligurian coast (a branch of the Appenines). The hills reminded us of western Pennsylvania; there is heavy industry, oil, mining going on. We bypassed Genova (Genoa) and proceeded on the autostrada a ways further, until we got tired of being underground. The A12 here is inside tunnels more than it is in the open air. (An aside about tunnels: each one is named; the length of each one is given at its entrance. The longest tunnel along this stretch was 1808 meters, comfortably more than a mile. Each bridge is named too, and its length given. Why do I need to know this? Do you know how many bridges there are on a typical stretch of freeway? The signs amount to visual clutter. Still, it’s the right side to err on…)
We got off at Rapallo, a prosperous-looking beach town of about 30,000, and headed down SS1. The climate became increasingly Mediterranean (Californian); we began to see palms, cactus, agave, pampas grass, etc. We passed through several small resort towns (see footnote 4), pristine harbors, views to die for, etc., and stopped for lunch in Chiàvari. This is another mid-sized town with a nice feel to it. We had a large and pleasant, freshly prepared lunch for about $13 for two. This was an anomaly. Everything seemed to cost much more than we were expecting — the exchange rate at that time was dismal. (The guidebooks warned of this; one stressed that Liguria is particularly expensive.)
After lunch we had a walk around town during the dead time after noon. We saw the morning markets being broken down in the larger piazzas. These temporary daily markets are a feature of large towns as well as small — we saw them in Milano and Firenze as well as in La Spezia and Lucca. Housewives do their daily marketing here.
A ways after Chiàvari SS1 turns inland and up and the driving turns into serious mountain switchbacks. (The road bypasses the Cinque Terre.) We got used to the frequent fallen-rock signs (caduta massi). Passed through a number of tiny towns, and noticed that there was often a rather grand house just past the “Leaving <town>” sign. Is there a story here? Local boy make good and erects a grand pile to live in just beyond the limits — turning his back on the town?
We descended abruptly into La Spezia, a dizzying switchback drop to the sea.
We found the hotel (Astoria) without much ado. The maps in the various guidebooks had varying degrees of (lack of) detail; over time we got better at using especially the Red Guide to zero in on a destination. The pattern we eventually settled on was: Red for hotels and restaurant ideas; Bantam for background and an up-to-date “flavor” of a place, and sometimes for restaurant ideas; and the Blue Guides for culture, history, and excruciating detail. And Harrison’s Italian Days for deep background. Red is a gorgeously organized affair, and it proved reliable for hotel recommendations (with only a single exception). We used the maps in all the guidebooks, as well as ones we’d brought and others we bought on the spot. Doing it again, I would stock up on Michelin maps beforehand — cheaper, more up-to-date, and more consistent than the ad-hoc way in which we managed.
The Astoria is located, according to Bantam, on a “quiet side street; parking can be adventurous.” “Quiet” may have been an overstatement; “adventurous” was not. The first time I’ve ever parked on a sidewalk (it was not to be the last). From our second-floor room, which had a narrow balcony over the street, we heard the sounds of ping-pong from across the street. The facing establishment turned out to be a recreation center attached to a church and school. The bells of its clock tower were a constant companion in La Spezia.
La Spezia is a young town. There is a naval base, a shipping terminal, and a major railhead. Lots of young people. We ventured out on foot in search of the post office, the information booth, and a promising restaurant for dinner. This was our first experience of the passeggiata, and an overwhelming one it was. When we finally stumbled upon the strolling center of this town, it was packed with people, mostly a mix of twentysomething’s and families with babes in prams; against this wall-to-wall torrent we struggled upstream. (We looked forward with no great relish to a loud and restless night, as all of these young people got drunk and “partied.” But no: this is not America; that isn’t done here. They vanished like the dew, most of them probably home to dinner.)
We didn’t find a restaurant during passeggiata, but oriented by our walk and a map at the Astoria, we identified some good places to look when we re-ventured out after 7:30. On our second evening in the countryside, we were still learning how Italy works as regards restaurants and hours of opening: almost all restaurants had been closed and shuttered during passeggiata, so we had tended not to notice them at all. In the end Alice found us a perfect little trattoria, at which we had a lovely, simple, long, and restful repast. Easy on the budget too.
This note is in keeping with other details we observed that spell “home-oriented” for especially the women in the culture. On our walk up the hill we saw three women returning from market, laden with bags, to their homes in the fine residential section above. We speculated that they certainly go to market every day, perhaps several times a day. Between that and cooking and sewing, there wouldn’t be time for a whole lot else… We found numerous fabric and notions shops wherever we went.
In La Spezia we also came across a fabric shop selling the peculiar fuzzy rope that inexplicably hangs in the doorways of Ligurian shops. Many strands of the colorful stuff, an inch and a half in diameter, are hung close together to define the doorway space without blocking the flow of fresh air. The fabric shop also sold lengths of plastic and glass beading used no doubt for the same purpose.