Colourful, glitzy and a little eccentric, Liguria turned out to be our perfect honeymoon destination.
If the Côte d’Azur feels a little like France with a hint of Italy, then Liguria feels like Italy with a hint of France. It’s typically Meditteranean – warm, verdant, full of life and unpredictable. It’s also atmospheric and romantic, even – as we discovered – in the rain. So it’s the perfect destination for lovers.
This is the Italian Riviera, picture postcard Italy. Like the Côte d’Azur it offers charming towns with gorgeous old buildings painted in pinks, primrose yellows and shades of terra cotta. The steep hillsides are covered in flowering shrubs, olive groves, fruit trees and palms. Idyllic sandy coves and bays are lapped by the Meditteranean which – on a good day – displays every shimmering shade of blue and green. On other days, the hues are somewhat different!
My husband and I decided to honeymoon in Liguria after being captivated by the setting of the movie ‘The Enchanted April’, which was filmed there. The book on which the film was based was written by Elizabeth von Arnim, cousin of Katherine Mansfield.
The enchanted April
The Enchanted April is about 4 very different women – Lottie Wilkins, Rose Arbuthnot, Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs Fisher – who end up as unlikely sharers of a holiday castle called San Salvatore in Italy. Each of them, in her own way, is dissatisfied with her life. But the castle and its glorious setting work their magic on them, and by the end of the month, their lives have been completely transformed.
Elizabeth wrote her novel during a stay at Castello Brown in Portofino in 1922. While the book names the local towns as ‘Mezzago’ and ‘Castagneto’, both of which are real towns elsewhere in Italy, there is little doubt that Portofino is the real setting and that San Salvatore is Castello Brown.
Santa Margherita Ligure
Tempting as it was to set up camp in Portofino, which became swanky and fashionable after the bestselling novel was published, we chose Santa Margherita as our base instead. It’s an attractive, larger town with more amenities and is a lot more affordable than Portofino. The taxi from Genoa airport to Santa Margherita took about 40 minutes.
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Because we weren’t paying Portofino prices, we could afford a gorgeous suite on the 5th floor of the lovely Art Nouveau styled Grand Hotel Miramare*. With views over the sea to the front, and over the tropical gardens and mountains to the rear, we could enjoy the sun all day.
When it came out, that is. Because what we hadn’t foreseen was that it would pour down during most of the week. Those green hills and lush gardens don’t come from a paintbox!
A plaque on the wall of the Grand Hotel Miramare commemorates one of several experiments carried out in the area by Guglielmo Marconi, when he successfully transmitted short waves from the hotel’s terrace to his yacht, the Electra, which was moored 150 kilometres away.
Santa Margherita has 2 beaches, lots of gorgeous historic buildings and an atmospheric old town that’s lovely to stroll around. It also has ferries to various other local towns, including Portofino. How I love ferries! They are one of my favourite, most civilised forms of transport. (Note to self: write a post all about ferries sometime).
Like the other towns in this area, Santa Margherita also has some elegant private houses and villas, some of which have been converted into boutique hotels. If, like me, you love looking at real estate and dreaming of the holiday home you’d buy if you won the lottery, then let me tell you, there are homes here to die for.
The weather. Ahem.
The skies looked threatening on our first day as we explored Santa Margherita. It didn’t take long before the heavens opened and we retreated to our suite, with nothing for it but to enjoy the wine and food left there for us, compliments of the hotel.
Little did we know it, but this was to be the pattern for much of the week – a quick outing followed by a downpour and a scurry ‘home’. Spending more time indoors than we anticipated inevitably meant more eating and drinking, which quickly became a major feature of our holiday.
We were pleased to have such sumptuous surroundings to shelter in. The hotel was gracefully furnished in a traditional Italian style sympathetic to its period architecture. It had 2 indoor bars and a library as well as an elegant lounge. Outside was a lovely swimming pool and the glorious Mediterranean gardens, but opportunities to enjoy them were limited.
Elsewhere in the region, locals weren’t so lucky. As the week went on, the storms caused havoc, with flooding and landslides cutting off some villages. Friends in the UK told us that our weather had even made the news there. Meanwhile, our in-laws holidaying in Scotland were enjoying endless days of sunshine. Typical!
Food and drink
Luckily, there was no shortage of wonderful cafes and restaurants to shelter in during the rains. There was plenty of pizza and pasta on offer, naturally, and a range of fine dining options too.
Our own hotel offered a traditional multi-course menu, which we did enjoy on a couple of evenings. But my favourite dining experience turned out to be in a French restaurant, Rêve, not too far from our hotel. My simple dish of fresh pasta with broccoli and bacon was outstanding – full of flavour.
My husband’s favourite was a family-run restaurant in the old town called Angolo 48, which was also very good.
On one of the 2 sunny days, we took a ferry to another nearby town called Rapallo, where we enjoyed the local pizza – simple but full of flavour, and rather enormous. We enjoyed trying out the local wines and beers.
Being June, summer fruits were plentiful and gardens were in full bloom.
On the one other glorious sunny day, we decided to walk the coastal path to Portofino. This turned out to be a romantic, scenic stroll of about 5.4 km through some of the delightful small settlements like Paraggio with stunning views across the bay of Tigullio. The rain-drenched flowering shrubs and trees around us seemed even more fragrant as they steamed and dried in the heat.
About an hour and a quarter later we arrived in Portofino, which did not disappoint. In fact we agreed that it was the most beautiful place we had ever seen.
Breathtaking as it was, there’s no getting away from the fact that Portofino, when it’s not drenched in rain, is drenched in tourists like us. The regular ferries from nearby coastal towns disgorge hundreds of them.
The downside of this is that prices are VERY high in places, especially along the main street from the ferry terminal to the piazza. We stopped to buy an ice cream there and baulked at the €5 price. A short walk further on and down a side street, we paid €2.50 instead. So if you visit, beware of rip-off prices.
We decided not to fork out for an expensive lunch, and carried on up the long flight of steps uphill to Castello Brown. I was keen to ‘do a Lottie’ and admire the breathtaking views from the castle windows.
Castello Brown is named after Montague Yeats-Brown, who was English Consul-General in Genoa when he bought the building in 1867 and transformed it into a comfortable villa. However, evidence suggests that there has been a fortification on the site since Roman times.
Today, the castle belongs to the Municipality of Portofino and is a museum open to the public. You can visit the interior and also the beautiful and extensive gardens which slope down the hillside, and which so enchanted the guests of ‘San Salvatore’. The interior of the castle is simple, functional and unadorned. It’s the exterior, and the views, that are spectacular and utterly magical.
There is no cafe or refreshment facility on site, so it’s well worth bringing a bottle of water and a packed lunch. The walk up the hill in hot sunshine will leave you in need of a cool drink.
When the honeymoon is over
Somewhat ironically, the final morning of our honeymoon in Liguria was bright and sunny – and the first time that the hotel staff decided it was nice enough for us all to breakfast al fresco. All of which made our departure even more bittersweet.
Nevertheless, as we headed to the station for our train to Genoa and our flight home, we felt refreshed, rejuvenated and – just like the friends at San Salvatore – full of love, gratitude and optimism for our future lives. And totally smitten with Liguria. We agree with Lottie that “this place – it’s a tub of love.”
If you’re interested in Elizabeth von Armin and her family, you might enjoy my post about my visit to the home of her cousin, the writer Katherine Mansfield, in Wellington. The two had much in common – they were independent spirits struggling to break free from the restrictive, conservative societies into which they were born.
Update Oct 2020
A new book, by award-winning Australian writer Gabrielle Carey, has recently been published. It’s called ‘Only happiness here: in search of Elizabeth von Arnim‘. Queensland University Press, $32.99.