Monday, September 22 – Inland Liguria – Varese Ligure

Sunny and hot

Still wonderful weather, but we wore jeans instead of shorts because we were heading inland to small towns, where everyone does not wear shorts and flip-flops. We met in the breakfast room, then headed out in the car. It is a 15 minute drive from Levanto, up the hillside, through a few villages, but mostly thickly wooded areas, to the Autostrada. We did not get on the Autostrada, but continued up the Vara Valley to San Pietro Vara. The driving was easy – the roads were wide and there was not much traffic. We went through a few towns, but mostly thick wooded area still. It changed to some vineyard areas as we got higher. It was only about a 30 minute drive from Levanto to San Pietro Vara.

San Pietro Vara is a small town at the intersection of two main roads (and two rivers – the Vara and the Torza). We were headed further on to Varese Ligure, but made this our first stop. We were using The Heritage Guide – The Italian Riviera, and it had a few details about this town and its church.

We parked in a field on the edge of town and walked into the town. There were a few shops along the main road, one caffe and a sign pointing to a restaurant. The town was not busy but there were a few older men hanging around and some construction workers working on a house. We found the church, but the door was locked. Cesare talked to one of the old men and found out where the priest’s house was. We rang the bell and the priest called out from an upper window. Cesare said (in Italian of course) that we wanted to see the church. The priest hestitated at first – the church was closed – then said he would open it. We waited at his door, then realized he would probably appear at the church door, and got there just as he was opening it.

The church was magnificent. I will post photos later. I have a good one of the priest in front of the marble alter. The priest was very friendly and talkative and he and Cesare talked as he showed us the church. We spent about 30 minutes looking at everything. There is a famous triptych behind the alter, by Luca Cambiaso (mentioned in our guidebook – I have never heard of this painter). The alter was huge and made of several types of marble. They had large chandeliers hanging down in the church. Some had been stolen recently and replaced with modern ones. Everything was frescoed – ceilings and walls. That combined with the eight or so crystal chandeliers made the church very festive. The priest has been at that church for 40 years. He discussed everything with Cesare; they even got to talking American politics. Many people from this village immigrated to the US and send money back to keep up the church. First they put heat in the priest’s house, then in the church. He said people come to him for records of their ancestors.

It is wonderful traveling with people who live in Italy and are fluent. We would never have thought to hunt down the priest to see the church, but Stephanie says they have done this before. In most of these small villages, someone has the keys for the church and will let you in if you can find them.

Next we drove another 15 minutes to Varese Ligure. I have always wanted to see this town. I remember seeing a listing for a vacation rental in this area and I have read about it in guidebooks. It has a “Borgo Rotondo” – a circular design of the town. We parked and walked around for about 45 minutes. It is a small town with one caffe and a couple of restaurants.

We found a hardware store that had not closed yet (it was almost 1pm) and I bought sheep bells. I was so proud of myself not buying cow bells in Switzerland, as I have done on every trip, and then I caved when face to face with a hardware store in an Italian village. The bells were expensive – 12 Euro for the larger ones – but I got a few. They are beautifully made and have a really nice sound. They are very different from other sheep bells I got in Italy on previous trips.

The town is beautiful. There are old remains of a castle from the 1400s and beside that the Borgo Rotondo – a row of houses in a semi circle. This town was once on a major trade route. There is a stone bridge, built in 1515, over the river. This river and the river in San Pietro Vara were nearly dry – probably as a result of the summers drought.

We had a light lunch at La Taverna del Gallo Nero, the only open restaurant in town. Steve and Cesare both had Trofie al Pesto (noodles with pesto) but Steph and I had a baked noodle and vegetable dish that was small, but really good. They followed with salads and Steve and I shared a plate of carrots. I had an apple cake for dessert, but Stephanie and Cesare both had “drowned gelato” – gelato with espresso poured over it. They got decaf espresso (ask for Caffe Hag – this is the brand of decaf used in Italy). The desert was listed as “gelato affogato al caffe” – gelato drowned in coffee.

After lunch, we drove back the way we came until we were nearly at the Autostrada, then took a road to Brugnato, another village we wanted to visit. From the road we saw a little village high up on a hillside, then we saw a road and drove up it to the village – just out of curiosity. The road was narrow and winding as it went up the hillside. Cesare made Steve beep on each turn – even though we assured him this road was twice as wide as roads like this in Tuscany or Umbria and it was paved, so we could meet a car coming down the hill with no problem. It was fun beeping on the curves. The town was Cornice.

The town had a sign for a restaurant, but I think it had closed long ago. We saw a few people about, but not much activity. Some houses were remodelled, some were abandoned. Cesare had to take a business call on his cell phone, so we left him near the car and we explored the town. We saw a guy working on a house and Stephanie asked him if there was a main square or a caffe. He then started talking and did not stop for about 20 minutes. He talked too fast for Steve to fully understand, but Stephanie understood and prompted with a few comments and questions. He was from Genoa, didn’t like Genoa anymore, was living here now and fixing up the house to live in, gathered food from the surrounding hills, said the people in the village were friendly, not like people in Genoa. I caught one or two words of the conversation and that was it.

We left Cornice and went to Brugnato. Parked and walked around the town, explored the church. It was getting late and Stephanie and Cesare were taking a 7pm train back to Rome, so we drove back to Levanto (got stuck behind a big truck for many miles down the winding road), sat around in our garden and watched Steve juggle (he can juggle five balls), then walked them to the train.

I would have been crying as we walked to the train station with Stephanie and Cesare, but we are going to see them at the Chianti lunch on Friday and then in Rome a couple of days after that, so it really wasn’t “goodbye”.

After they left, we went for a walk around town, got a bit of foccacia and ate it sitting on a bench watching the sea, went back to the apartment and cooked a few potatoes and vegetables for dinner.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.