There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence.
We went to Liguria in April—that bit of the Italian coast just east of the French border, sometimes called the Italian Riviera, which traps the Ligurian Sea in its curve. When I was at school, the first syllable was pronounced to rhyme with fly, and the second vowel was like the “u” in furious—laɪˈɡjʊərɪə. Nowadays these eccentric British pronunciations are disappearing, and it seems to have crept closer to the Italian, with the first syllable rhyming with fig, and the second vowel like the “oo” in Moorish—lɪˈɡʊərɪə.
In climate, it’s a lot like the Côte d’Azur. But the landscape is very different, with steep hills and cliffs falling straight into the sea, stranding small villages in rocky clefts here and there along the exposed coastline.
There are interesting walking trails here—well waymarked and … well … reasonably well mapped, by Italian standards. The trails generally have three sections—the steep ascent from the village, the stroll through olive groves, and the steep descent to the next village. Many of them are nicely surfaced, and the reason for that becomes obvious, after a while—the locals drive up and down them on scooters, in tiny cars, and even in Tuk Tuk trucks. On one occasion, the Boon Companion and I were negotiating a blind corner and had to step quickly into a church doorway, to avoid a Fiat 500 which was being driven one-handed by a young woman who was talking animatedly into her smart-phone, held horizontally in front of her face. A short distance up the path she failed to make the turn at a Y-junction, and crunched head-on into a gate-post. As we watched, awe-stricken, she wrestled the Fiat into reverse gear, pulled back by a car length, and then accelerated off up the hill, her wing-mirrors clipping the hedges on either side. I could see her male front-seat passenger conducting a slow hand-clap throughout this process, and had to wonder how long that relationship was going to last (if not cut short in the meantime by a tragic motoring accident, of course).
And one day, just outside Riomaggiore, we ran into this odd object, adhering to a lamppost:
Out of curiosity I scanned the QR code, which took me to the website mentioned on the sticker, which then demanded that I allow my phone to share its location data. Since my phone has no more idea of its location than my shoes do, we reached an impasse at that point. But as we carried on up the hill, I pondered the state of outdoor navigation these days. A “You Are Here” sign that asks your phone where you are and then tells you where you are? What on earth is that about?
We started in Porto Venere, near the five coastal villages called the Cinque Terre, and then moved to Portofino.
Both areas are well served by water buses that stop off at the various coastal towns and villages nearby, making a boat out and a walk back an appealing possibility. Some of the landing stages are surprisingly precarious in a high sea—but Italian sailors cheerfully chuck elderly Japanese ladies in inappropriate footgear on and off the boat, so all is well.
In Portofino, something happened that hasn’t happened to us before—we got a room upgrade. So we found ourselves installed in something like a marble aircraft hangar with soft furnishings and a view of the harbour, in which we wandered endlessly, trying to remember where we’d put our reading glasses.
Portofino, the guidebooks say, is a place to “see and be seen”. It was certainly full of the sort of shops that sell only a single colour of linen scarf, staffed by exquisite creatures who sat tapping languidly on their mobile phones all day, and who responded with ill humour (a single, tiny vertical crease appearing between their rectangular eyebrows) if anyone actually came into the shop. The Boon Companion, of course, took to this like a duck to water, happily cutting la bella figura along the waterfront. Your correspondent meanwhile shambled in her wake, more brutta than bella.
It was up for sale for $300 million last year, but presumably Melnichenko is still struggling on with its limited accommodation while waiting for his even grander Sailing Yacht A to complete sea trials.
Selfie sticks were blessedly less evident than they were when I reported from Venice, but their users made up in persistence what they lacked in numbers—we sat over coffee at the harbour one day and watched a young woman spend twenty minutes finding the perfect combination of head tilt, pout, V-sign and backdrop. Twenty minutes. And they say that the internet has reduced people’s attention span.
So we sipped prosecco in the spring sunshine, ate pasta, seafood and gelati, and watched the passing show. What could be better?