RAPALLO, Italy ― Every spring, as the rainy season wanes, tourists pour in to the Italian Riviera, like a succession of rogue waves breaking over a sea wall.
They come for the magnificent landscapes, breathtaking vistas and impossibly blue Mediterranean. They come to see the postcard-pretty town of Portofino and the fabled Cinque Terre, where footpaths cling to the steep cliffs, seeming to be the only way in and out of the five achingly picturesque villages that perch on the hilltops and tumble like cubist landslides down to the sea.
And the ones who have been to the Riviera before ― especially the Italian tourists ― come to Rapallo, a less glamorous, unpretentious seaside resort where it’s easy to relax and unwind, away from the bustle of the more popular places.
A hotel balcony offers splendid views of a 16th-century castle and a broad esplanade that hugs the shoreline of Rapallo in Italy. (MCT)
Like many coastal towns scattered around the Mediterranean, Rapallo has been a tourist resort for centuries, although its glory days are over and its sheen has faded to a palette of soft pinks, oranges and yellows that dance gracefully along the Mediterranean.
The town hugs the Gulf of Tigullio in a casual sweep of low-rise hotels, some past their prime, with palm trees soaring over rooftops and calling to the umbrella pines that rise from thickly wooded hills behind the town. For a spectacular view, you can take a nine-minute funicular ride to the beautiful Sanctuary of Our Lady of Montallegro, sitting almost 2,000 feet up in the hills. Or you can take a cue from American poet Ezra Pound, whose publisher sniffed, “EP disapproves of the funicular. He prefers to go there on foot.”
Pound found Rapallo such an attractive respite from his tumultuous career that he moved to the area in 1924, eventually settling in the village of St. Ambrogio, where he lived with his mistress, Olga Rudge, and wrote most of his masterpiece, “The Cantos.” (Pound’s idyll ended when he was arrested for treason by U.S. troops after World War II and eventually committed to a Washington, D.C., psychiatric hospital for 12 years.)
Then, as now, Rapallo’s “main street” is the broad esplanade between the hotels and shoreline. Where smart carriages once rolled alongside well-dressed couples out for a stroll, today’s visitors find themselves part of a more contemporary parade. Bambini scamper back and forth, challenging their frantic parents to keep up with them.
Tourists poke their heads into restaurants that form the ground floor of every shore-front building, while fishermen try their luck casting from rocks below the walkway. Old women trudge past with laden market baskets, vying for space with lithe young Africans peddling fake Gucci handbags from mats laid out on the ground, ready to fold up the whole operation in a single move and scatter at the least hint of marauding police.
My wife and I watched the scene unfold from the balcony of our room in the Hotel Italia e Lido, strategically placed at the far end of the esplanade.
Our view took in the whole bay. On the far side, a bronze statue of Cristofero Colombo stood as tall as the surrounding palm trees and pointed west across the water. A long white pier jutted into the bay, from which ferries glided silently in and out, bound to and from Portofino, Cinque Terre and other must-see points on the Italian Riviera. Right below our balcony, waves lapped against the stone walls of a small but sturdy-looking castle built in the 16th century to guard the town from pirate attacks.
At night, orange floodlights illuminated the castle against the black sky, trapping it, as if in amber, in a vague past that hints at romance, mystery and maybe a bit of danger. The ghost of Lord Byron might be sipping an absinthe on the next balcony, enshrining this very tableaux in a poem.
Our first night in Rapallo, we stumbled onto a delightful pizzeria. We spent about an hour carefully sizing up restaurants along the esplanade. They all seemed similar, so we chose the one with the biggest crowd, and it proved to be a wise choice. Although well past 10 p.m., the place was hopping with patrons ranging from toddlers to great-grandparents. We marveled to hear nothing but Italian being spoken in what was clearly a tourist destination.
We were escorted to a back bar area and given glasses of wine to tide us over while we waited for a table. The floor show was lively as waiters balanced huge trays of food and danced around children who were clearly vying for control of the room. Just as we drained our glasses, a table opened up by the huge picture windows, and we were treated to a simple and delicious meal of pizza and grilled vegetables, capped by affogato. Usually, this ice cream is laced with a shot of espresso, but here they used whiskey to create a sublime treat.
On our last night in Rapallo, we were tempted to repeat that auspicious opening dinner. But we had developed a fondness for our hotel and decided to try its more formal, though still reasonably priced, menu instead.
We were one of three couples sharing the spacious dining room that night. One long wall displayed photographs depicting famous people who had dined there during the hotel’s long-gone heyday. Most were movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. But there was also a picture of EP himself, in all his bearded glory, enjoying a bowl of pasta.
Between courses, the proprietress of the restaurant came over to greet us. The daughter of the hotel’s builder, she had lived in New York for several years and spoke perfect, unaccented English.
“I see Ezra Pound ate here,” I said, gesturing toward the wall.
“My dear,” she said. “Ezra Pound lived here.”
Always the English major, I felt compelled to correct her misconception. “Well actually,” I said, trying not to sound too pedantic, “Pound lived up the hill in St. Ambrogio.” I gestured vaguely behind me, toward the church steeple above the hotel that someone had told us was where St. Ambrogio was.
“Ah,” she sighed. “His lover’s house was in St. Ambrogio, but his wife lived in the hotel, and when he stayed with her, this is where he lived. He and my father were very good friends.”
And then the clincher: “And this is where he got his mail.”
A minor gloss, but a very big deal for a writer who carried on such a vast correspondence as Pound. Is it possible, I wondered, that three generations of Pound enthusiasts have been making a partial pilgrimage at best?
I had a fleeting image of a perplexed and harassed hotel clerk coping with the mountain of letters addressed to Pound, then my mind cut to a picture of the poet himself sitting on one of those little balconies upstairs, sipping an aperitif, maybe reading a book or answering a letter, his wife inside typing a Canto as he silently congratulates himself on finding such an agreeable town to end up in. He gazes over at the old castle thinking it might be a good idea if they were to light it up at night. Then he gets up and leans against the balcony rail glancing backward toward the church steeple high on the hill where Olga Rudge waits.
Hills and harbor. Cinque Terre and Portofino. And there in the middle, Rapallo, a gracious gateway to it all.
If you go
•Getting there: The closest airport is Christopher Columbus near Genoa (http://tinyurl.com/3ktvqv9). A coastal rail line offers train service from Genoa and Rome to Rapallo. Visit www.italiarail.com or call 877-375-7245 to buy all-access passes or single tickets, get prices in U.S. dollars and find a European train travel guide. You also can book tickets to and from Rapallo through Trenitalia (011-39-06-6847-5475; www.trenitalia.com/en/index.html). Servizio Marittimo del Tigullio offers ferry service, usually from May to September, from Rapallo to Portofino, Cinque Terre and more. Round-trip fares range from about $6.50-$45, depending on the destinations. (011-39-01-8528-4670; www.traghettiportofino.it).
•Where to stay: Hotel Italia e Lido (011-39-01-8550-492; www.italiaelido.com/eng/holiday-hotel-rapallo.asp) has balconies on all of its sea-view rooms and a private beach with changing rooms and sun beds available May through September. Singles from about $72 and doubles from about $114 a night.
By Peter Magnani, Contra Costa Times
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)