Along the Italian Riviera is Camogli, a tiny town of founded by sailors and fishermen.
The port can hold a maximum of thirty ships, yet it’s said there were hundreds in the early 1900s. They simply weren’t at home. Always out in a different port on a different exhibition. The city’s name, in fact, is said to come from the dialect for “casa delle moglie,” meaning home of wives, referring to the wives left behind while their husbands sailed the seas.
Though today you’re likely to find only fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, Camogli remains rooted to its sea-faring history. Even with the tiniest of coastlines, it lives and breathes the sea. It’s also shockingly beautiful. Quaint in it’s size — the city center, which is actually along the coast, is probably no more than a half a mile long — it’s worldly in atmosphere.
There is a caveat, however, with just 5,400 citizens, the town triples in population in the summer and on weekends, making it virtually unlivable. Seeing it in the complete calm of late October – low season when some ships even close altogether and restaurants sit half empty – I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly hold the numbers crowding the town come summer. Like I said, it’s little.
My advice? Avoid the summer months like the plague.
But beyond that, there’s plenty to enjoy in this small port town.
Of course the main activity are passeggiate lungomare, or walks along the sea. You can take a dip from the tiny public beach or eat at one of the many restaurants lining the walk. Another piece of advice: ask for prices at places where they’re not listed. You don’t want to pay 10 euro for a croissant and coffee just because there’s a view (they all have views…).
Pay attention to the fancy façades of the buildings. They’re the face of Liguria: since the 1500s the buildings have been elaborately painted in the “trompe l’oeil” style. First there are the colors. Originally chosen to mimic marble, over the years they’ve grown to include a variety of colors, natural or not, effectively inventing marble on the spot. It’s architecture created with a brushstroke: windowpanes, reliefs, statues, entire windows.
There’s art under your feet as well. In Piazza Cristofo you’ll find a cardinal rose made entirely of small, smooth stones fished from streams or along the beach. Called rissêu, it’s a craft found only in Genova and Levante (the Ligurian coastline south of Genova). Most of these elaborate mosaics are found in the piazze in front of churches, but they also decorate ville, monasteries or important streets.
Beyond that, the most popular thing to do in Camogli is … leave Camogli. That is, hike the hills surrounding it. Directly south of the town’s main thoroughfare starting at the far end of a large parking lot is a stone path leading to the San Rocco Church. It’s about a thirty minute hike straight up, but the view at the top is worth the fatigue. Most of the hike is made of stairs (…nearly 600 stairs!) that wind through olive trees and stone walls hiding pretty ville and seaside homes.
From here you can continue on to on to San Fruttuoso (about 2.5 hours) or even all the way to Portofino (about 4 hours). Long time blog readers might remember the walk we took from Portofino to San Fruttuoso. A part of the Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino, that same trail continues past San Fruttuoso and on to Camogli – this is the trail from the other direction!
The most popular trail is probably San Rocco – Batterie (old cannon emplacements) – San Fruttuoso but those looking for a little more beauty and relaxation and a little less butt-kicking hike can descend to Punta Chiappa (approximately 30 minutes). Punta Chiappa is a small angle of land jutting out into the sea in the heart of the Portofino Marine Reserve. They say it not only has breathtaking views, but is a perfect place for snorkelers hoping to find a wealth of marine life! The descent is done principally on stairs here as well, and the view is even more breathtaking. Once there, you can take a well-deserved dip in the sea.
Dreading the idea of hiking on your holiday? Don’t worry, there’s a ferry that can take you to all of these stops (besides San Rocco, which is on a mountain, but there’s a parking lot so you can always drive). Ferries can be found in the port of Camogli, San Fruttuoso or Portofino (as well as other towns along the coast, but we’re focusing on these three) and you can buy round trip tickets or even just a part of the journey, meaning you can walk one way and catch a ferry on the way back!
No matter what to visit Punta Chiappa and San Fruttuoso you can either: 1) walk 2) go by boat. Either way, Camogli is the perfect starting point.
Each year Camogli holds two major events: First on the second Sunday of May there’s the Sagra del Pesce, or fish festival. The entire town comes out and to fry up fish with an enormous (nearly 13 feet in diameter) frying pan. The original, even larger, pan is on display near the marina.
Then, the first Sunday of August is the “Stella Maris.” The event is to celebrate the Madonna and originates from a mosaic in the town depicting the Virgin Mary as a protector of sailors. A cannon blast kicks off the celebration in the morning, announcing the departure of an infamous local pirate ship, among others. In the evening locals place hundreds of glowing lanterns in the wanter to light the sea, helping the boats sea the shore.
Though I wasn’t able to be there for either event, it’s a good enough excuse as any to visit again!