Friday, August 20, 2010

Explore the Italian Riviera by Vespa

Below is a guide I wrote about a weekend we had recently where we rented a Vespa and drove along the coast. It was a blast!

Along the northern coastline of Italy there is a place where the mountains touch the sea. A place where the palm trees, pine trees and cacti all grow together in the mild climate and a place where the aroma of the food is so powerful that the Italians call it the fragrant kitchen of Italy.That place is Liguria.
Liguria is a rainbow shaped strip along the Italian Riviera that spans from the border of France and stretches to Tuscany. It's famous for pesto, focaccia, deep marine blue sea water, extra large yachts, and celebrity sightings. The best way to see and experience Liguria is driving along the coastline feeling the salty breeze on your face in a rented scooter.

In this guide I go over some of the highlights to see on the Levante side of Liguria which includes Portofino, Santa Mergarita, Rapallo, and Camogli.
Renting a scooter is easy in this part of Italy as it is the main mode of transportation for the people that live and work here all year around. Scooters, including Vespas, can be rented at many of the hotels, dealerships, and car rental shops in this area. Depending on the type and size of scooter you want, prices start at about 40 euros a day. We rented ours from GM Rent who, for an additional fee, will deliver the scooter to where you are staying and pick it up when you are finished.
Where to Rent:
GM Rent
Don't forget to bring your valid drivers licence, no matter what country it is from.

Port of Romance
We started the day in Portofino, the romantic and glamorous stomping ground of the rich and famous including Grace Kelly, the Duke of Windsor, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, and where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton got engaged. This colorful and post card perfect tiny resort town is bursting at the seems with charm. It's been irresistible to the jet set since the 1940's and continues to grow in popularity every year. Every yacht here is bigger then the one before and every shop here is more expensive than the one before. It's an ideal place to sit at a cafe with a cappuccino not only to people watch but also to view the not so delicate ballet of parking the monstrous yachts as they come into port. Luckily for 2 wheeled travelers there is a scooter only parking lot at the top on the main square.
Where to stay:
Hotel Splendido
Salita Baratta, 16
Here the sign-in book reads like a who's who from old Hollywood to today's royalty. The staff have no problems telling you that the Spelendido is the most romantic hotel in the world. I might have to agree.

Painted City
Hop on the scooter and travel 5.7 kilometers down the coastline and you arrive in the town of Santa Margherita. Santa, as it's called by the locals, is much bigger than Portofino and needs more time to explore. I highly recommend tasting the focaccia here. If you had never tried the focaccia in Liguria then you have never had real focaccia. Made with fresh olive oil it melts in your mouth like a warm and salty piece of flat bread that is somehow soft and crispy at the same time. You usually know that you'll be having seconds and thirds after the first bite. Perhaps there is something in the water that makes it so good but it doesn't come any better anywhere else.
Another unique attraction in Santa Margherita are the pretty painted facades on most of the buildings around the town. Look a little closer and you will notice that many of the doors, windows, marble columns, and reliefs are actually trompe l'oeil paintings. Spend some time walking around the city seeing if you can tell the real windows with green shutters from the faux ones. These frescos are quite remarkable artistic works that you won't find anywhere else.
Where to eat focaccia:
Focacceria Pinamonti
Via dell'Arco, 24
Santa Margheritta

Go Barefoot
Travel 4 more kilometers down the coastline and you arrive at the town of Rapallo. Fans might recognize Rapallo as the sleepy seaside setting from the 1954 film The Barefoot Contessa staring Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart. One of the main attractions to see is the 16th century castle situated predominantly on the sea front. The small castle was originally built to counter the frequent pirate attacks which plagued this part of Italy during that time. It is now open to the public usually holding art exhibits.
Another highlight in Rapallo is found at the gazebo in the public square located in the center of Strada Lungomare. Step inside the gazebo, look up and see a delightful art nouveau style allegory painting on music containing homage to 12 different musicians. The painting, inaugurated in 1929, is called Il Chiosco della Musica or The Kiosk of the Music. There are so many details to see in these paintings and it might be fun to see if you can tell which classical musicians are represented.
Castello di Rapallo
 16035 Rapallo GE

Il Chiosco della Musica
Strada Lungomare Public Square

Relax by the Sea and Eat
Back on the scooter and 20 kilometers on the SE1 brings you to a seaside town that is pretty enough to rival any one of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre and that town is Camolgi. Here you can fill up your memory card with views of the rocky beaches and candy colored buildings. Climb up the steps to Castle Dragonara for the best sea views. I recommend stopping here to sample one of Ligurias most famous food inventions, Pesto. Il Porto Spaghetteria a restaurant who's entire menu is made up of all the different ways to make spaghetti including pesto and seafood marinara. Try your spaghetti plate with a cool and crisp glass of Vermentino, a delicious white wine that comes from the region.
Where to eat:
Il Portico Spaghetteria
Passeggiata Mare
Via Garibaldi, 197A
Castle Dragonara

End the Day
With the day winding down we decided to continue enjoying our Vermentino and watch the sun setting from the beach in Camolgi. You could stop here as we did or continue on along the coast to Sestri Levante, Chiavari and on down to Cinque Terra.

Touring the winding roads that stretch out along the meditterian Sea on a scooter is an unforgettable way to discover Liguria and an exhilarating experience you'll never forget.
(all pictures taken by me!)


labonnefemme1 said...

Beautiful post! Great job!

LindyLouMac said...

Another beautiful part of Italy, I love it all.

bellatigre said...

I love Camogli too!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful pictures ... thanks for the post, we are off on a scooter today.

Dean Suhr said...

My wife and I a variation of your scooter trip yesterday - it was quite nice. Love being able to pull over nearly anywhere to admire the view. Also like free and easy parking in the city centers.

GM Rents in Rapollo was a long, somewhat boring walk from our waterfront hotel. Suggest either have them deliver (10 Euro) or take the 7/8 bus. It stops a block away from their shop. Google maps will show you the route and times (no busses on Apple maps yet). Rented the 125cc for the two of us - a bit larger with plenty of power.

It's early April and a bit cool so we took the one with the windshield to keep the breeze down. Keep an eye on the gas gauge. We had to fill our tank later in the day - and filling stations are not on every street corner here like back home.

Ate a basket of fresh strawberries (from Sicily) on the dock in Portofino under the watchful eyes of a wild boar.

Focacceria Pinamonti in Santa Margheritta - delicious!

We found Il Portico Spaghetteria in Camogli (head to the bottom of the hill (wait for the signal and then head all the way down to the parking lot, walk down the ramp to the boats, and turn left through the passageway). but found it closed for dinner except Friday through Sunday. A few doors up we found a great little bakery with sinfully delicious treats. The boardwalk and character of this town trumps everything else we saw all day! Definitely worth the trip.

Instead, we returned to Santa Margheritta to Palma, on the main waterfront road a block or two south of the traffic circle. It was running under the name My Boyfriend's Not In Town. Not fancy, not too expensive, not really romantic, but the food and prices were good.

Thanks for the post.