13-14 May 2022
Squeezed between the villages of Cinque Terre and jet-set Portofino, Sestri Levante is like a poor cousin one visits in the suburbs. A stroll takes me among the shabby and Art Nouveau chic. Walking the extensive waterfront, I feel a similarity with Santa Monica or Palm Beach. I don’t know whether to love it or hate it.
I arrive in Sestri Levante after a 40-minute train ride from Monterosso. Already, I miss the small villages of Cinque Terre. All the coastal towns, which I glimpse for the few minutes when exiting a tunnel under the mountains, look interesting. Because of a castle hill and promise of interesting architecture, I chose to spend two days in Sestri Levante.
The town is large compared to Cinque Terre and of course there are cars and all the regular amenities of city life. The nearly 1-mile beachfront, named Blue Beach, is about an 8-minute flat, stair-less walk from the train station. Points of interest are in and around old town and the long, crescent of west-facing beach around the Baia of Favole or “Fairytale Bay,” named for writer Hans Christian Andersen who visited here.
There is a second, smaller and very busy sandy beach on the protected south-facing Baia del Silenzio. It is the perfect place to have an afternoon aperitivo and admire the surrounding hills and villas. Everywhere there is the hint of money and luxury but not at the jet-set, Portofino level.
In the evening as the lights come on and the sun sets, I can see the lights of the communities all along the coast of the Ligurian Sea all the way to Rappelo which is about 12 miles distant. To Rapallo’s west is a jutting promontory and the beautiful town of Portofino. Having been to Portofino on other occasions, I choose not to revisit.
Old town Sestri Levante is small with one Main Street, Via XXV Aprile. Along most of it, turn to the left you will be at the beach, turn to the right and you will find a beach. Lining the streets are cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and several Art Nouveau villas. Many of the villas have been converted into hotels.
The highlight of the churches and town is the beautifully decorated Basilica Santa Maria di Nazareth. Four massive white pillars adorn the facade and the interior has three naves, square polychrome marble pillars holding up tall rounded arches and a barrel vaulted ceiling. The paintings and frescoed ceiling are very nice. Construction began about 1604, the interior is of a later date in the late 18th century.
Climbing Via Cittadella above old town I find a couple old churches – closed. Chiesa di San Nicolò e Castelli Gualino is up the hill – closed. The landmark Torre Marconi atop the hill is inaccessible as evidently a hotel has ownership of Castle Hill and one cannot view the tower unless one is a guest of the hotel. Rather frustrating as visitors seem to be restricted to parts of beach, shopping, eating and drinking.
I decide to participate in the eating and drinking. However, because towns are so close together and easily reached, I walk to the train station and board a train for the seaside resort of Rapallo. Just 3€ and 20 minutes later I am walking it’s beautiful seaside promenade.
RAPALLO – a beauty of the Italian Riviera Ligure
At one end of the beach is the monument to Christopher Columbus and a quarter mile away at the east end is the medieval Rapallo’s Castle on the Sea. Constructed in 1550 to protect Rapallo and other settlements along the riviera from pirates, the small stone fortress is picturesque but closed. I am told a large storm in 2018 damaged the fortress; I would guess time and neglect have eaten away at its chances of surviving many more storms.
In between these two landmarks are a plethora of restaurants along Lungomare Vittorio Veneto, the street which runs adjacent to the promenade. I select one in which to practice the art of the two-hour lunch.
Returning to the train station, I stroll past many beautiful examples of Art Nouveau architecture. Between about 1890 and 1914, the Liberty Style or “stile floreale” was copied by Italian architects as an adaption of Art Nouveau and the facades of hotels and villas are decorated with flourishes of design, iron work and balconies. An exceptionally beautiful 1929 pavilion is the Chiosco della Musica, a rotunda of twelve columns that support a splendidly frescoed dome.
The iconic tower of Chiesa Santo Stefano can be seen from most locations in town. And the music draws me to the Basilica of Saints Gervasio and Protasio. The interior is ornate and quite beautiful; mass is about to begin and it is standing room only.
I have enjoyed my luncheon trip to Rapallo and so with regret board a regional train which whisks me back to Sestri Levante. To be honest, my biggest disappointment is my hotel. This one is the first that turns out to be a poor choice: My comfortable room is in the attic! My “city view” is a 24” square of window above my head, the only view would be for someone over 6′ tall or by me standing on the bed. I once traveled through Asia with a 7’3” ex-basketball player. He could see out this window.
The beach outside is mounds of sand and equipment which remains a mystery of construction to me. The bar is also closed.
Many things about Sestri Levante remain a mystery to me. Most of Blue Beach is a series of sand piles ready to be spread, cafes preparing to open. And there is a guy walking around the cafes in old town wearing a bright yellow and orange clown suit prepared to create balloon animals. I think he puts his cigarette out first. I met his female counterpart on Baia del Silenzio and she had no pretense of balloon skills and was just asking for money, perhaps to buy some balloons.
The leisure time and la passeggiata practice does give me the opportunity to stock up on ibuprofen gels and Euro. Currently Euro is selling at $1.05, the lowest I have bought it in a long time. I love that I remember more and more of my Italian phrases. And the menus are so full of wonderful choices that I have trouble choosing: caprese, anchovies alla Lemoni, sea bass, my beloved pulpo, chocolate crème brûlée, gelato, Prosecco and delicious white wines, and homemade pasta with all combinations of sauces – a plethora of gastronomic delights.
I must keep walking the 3-4 miles a day or waddle home.
Amo tutto italiano!