Just down the Ligurian coast from Genoa, the aptly named Golfo Paradiso (Gulf of Paradise) offers a feast for the senses: bright turquoise water and dramatic green hills, beaches and trails galore, unique architecture and mouthwatering food…. It’s obvious why the Italians prefer this area when celebrating summer.
Camogli is where the Italians go. It has the same things going for it as Cinque Terre, but without the geographic isolation. Because it’s a little bigger, you’ll find more choices for bars, cafes, and restaurants. Camogli also has a colorful history which reverberates today.
We stayed at a great AirBnB right over the busy little historic harbor, next to the Castle della Dragonara and the big Baroque church (Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta). Matteo, our host, told us that the promontory was originally an island, but eventually land was filled in to connect it. In addition to giving us a brief overview of the town, Matteo also pointed out all kinds of historical tidbits. For instance, the seemingly random bar stuck on a wall next door turned out to be the remnant of a wall oven. Matteo’s place is old-school Italian, with marble floors and sinks, and he’s added some vintage model boats and curios. There isn’t a balcony, but the big living room window opens up onto the harbor piazza. We enjoyed the sounds of waves crashing, as well as evening festivities and some impromptu soccer in the alley behind our flat.
The harbor itself always has plenty of boats of all sizes coming in and out, as well as foot traffic. It’s a great place for eating or strolling, and occasionally some entertainment. There were buskers on Friday and Saturday evenings, and one of the cafes brought out screens for watching the EuroCup. When Italy played, the cheers echoed in the hilltops. Our favorite place was the perennially popular La Cage aux Folles Pub, which serves divine salads and bruschetta with anchovies and pesto. Liguria gifted the world with two culinary pleasures: focaccia and pesto. Camogli is one of only four villages producing authentic focaccia al formaggio (focaccia with creamy white cheese); to find it, just look for people lining up outside the local bakeries. Pesto is even easier to find: it graces focaccia, pasta, and plenty of other regional dishes.
Besides the castle, the harbor also has a rock jetty with a lighthouse at the end where there are 360-degree views of the town, the hills, and the sea.
Right next to the harbor, the pedestrian promenade Via Giuseppe Garibaldi runs along the beach. The “public” part is at the end by the castle, or you can rent an umbrella and a chair at one of the lidos further along. The entire stretch is lined with places to eat and drink, and a few shops with beachwear. In the evening, every restaurant was full; I have never seen so many aperol spritzes in my life.
Camogli is famous for its architecture: pretty much every building is painted with trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) in a palette of terra cotta, dark green, and pastel hues. This is actually a regional tradition dating back to the 1500’s and not restricted to the town of Camogli. Fishermen liked the bright colors because they could see the buildings from the sea. Today the Minister of Taste requires residents to keep the paint jobs fresh. There’s not much left of older crafts like stone carving in this era, but skilled painting is still going strong here.
Camogli’s location at the northwest corner of the Portofino National Park means hiking trails start right at the end of the beach. Because the vegetation is so lush, these are a refuge on hot days. The network of trails connects Camogli, the abbey of San Fruttuoso, Portofino, and Santa Margherita Ligure. There are also ferries, as well as buses and trains. Getting around is never hard and always scenic — even the train stations are beautiful.
Classic Italian Riviera with no flashiness, Santa Margherita is larger than Camogli and Portofino, with a ‘downtown’ area, a large waterfront, and villas perched on the hills.
It feels timeless, with old-fashioned resort architecture and sweeping views. Unlike the other towns, Santa Margherita is big enough for cars and motorcycles – but they always stop for pedestrians.
We took the train from Camogli, and strolled around the harbor. The public beach is rocky but pleasant, and has a water spigot for washing or drinking. After an excellent panini at a waterfront cafe, we picked up the bus for Portofino. It was a drop-dead gorgeous ride, and the driver did an amazing job negotiating the tiniest, curviest road safely.
Unless you have pots of money, this is not a place to stay – or even eat. However, Portofino is a perfect combination of natural landscape with man-made structures and is ridiculously pretty enough to merit a morning or afternoon.
Castel Brown, the big historic site, was closed for a wedding when we visited, but we explored the paths wrapping around the hillside promontory underneath it. The mixture of naturalized plantings was shady and cool, with views in almost every direction from the little Portofino harbor to Santa Margherita across the bay.
The giant neon pink meerkats standing sentinel on the harbor (part of a small sculpture garden, the Museo del Parco di Portofino) are a fun counterpoint to the luxury brand stores and mega-yachts. Even if they are not your taste, watching everyone else’s reaction is entertaining.
Cute little Rapallo is another resort town with a laid-back vibe. We went on a warm Sunday, and it was bursting with Italians flocking to the beach like bees to a hive. Rapallo wraps around its own miniature bay, and the coast twists and turns to create more inlets. Towards the edge of town, the grounds of an old villa have been converted into a park with stunning views. The villa itself houses a museum of lace, which was closed when we visited.
The town center with its medieval streets was charming, even if we didn’t find the antique market we were looking for. (It’s supposed to be on the fourth Sunday of each month.) The famous funicular was also closed….
This part of our trip showed us just how complex the effects of a pandemic can be. Although a few things have yet to reopen, life felt pretty normal on the Golfo Paradiso. Ironically, this region is often described as an alternative to the over-touristed Cinque Terre – but in a year when so many people are traveling locally rather than internationally, it was the most crowded area we visited.
For more Liguria, see our posts on Genoa and Cinque Terre.