Camogli is astonishingly charming. It is as if the entire town was constructed under the watchful eye of a small Italian woman roaring ‘paint all the houses in varying shades of pastel, make sure every building has a sea view and dear god make sure it has a robust culinary culture!’ Glorious grey pebble beaches, sea-front osteria and pizzeria, artisan shops and sunset aperativos - it’s the perfect Italian seaside destination and the best place to base yourself for a trip to the Italian Riviera.
Breakfast – focaccia and cappuccino BY the sea
The Italians aren’t big on breakfast and they do it differently in every region. In Catania, you’ll find huge round buns served with almond granitas, in Puglia you’ll find custard cream filled pasticotto but in Liguria you’ll find focaccia and cappuccino.
There are lots of lovely little cafes along the seafront but Bar Auriga is my favourite. Seats on the terrace face out to sea and make for the perfect pensive start to the day.
Foccaccia consumption is actively encouraged throughout the day as a substantial snack, and for this I recommend Focacceria Revello on the beachfront, where the focaccia is served hot and thick, with a crusty dimpled surface filled with tiny puddles of oil and salt. You’ll also find Focaccia di Recco, which is only produced in four Ligurian towns – Recco, Sori, Camogli and Avegno. It’s paper thin, consisting of two layers of unleavened dough filled with heaps of soft, fresh stracchino cheese – a melted paper tray of heaven.
Eat as much pesto as is humanly possible
Basil, salt, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts and grana cheese are pounded together to create a gloriously fresh green sludgy salsa fresca which is nothing like the stuff we readily slosh on sandwiches like middle-class ketchup in the UK. It is traditionally eaten with trofie or trofenette pasta, with green beans and tiny cubes of potato, or tossed in gnocchi. For a really unique treat, head to Pasta Fresca Fiorella on the beach front at lunch time. They make the pesto and pasta fresh daily and will whip you up a bowl for less than €5, which you can take away in a little plastic bowl to enjoy on the beach front.
If you’d like to try pesto in a more formal setting, try Ristorante la Piazette, their lasagne al forno con pesto (which uses pesto as a substitute for ragu) is sublime and it is, to date, one of the most romantic meals I’ve ever experienced.
Meander the colourful caruggi
Camogli is the perfect place for all my fellow indecisive souls out there. There are really only two streets you need to know about, which are connected by many, many steps (Camogli is fondly/ un-fondly referred to by locals as ‘the city of steps’). Via Garabaldi straddles the sea and is packed full of sea-front restaurants, pizzeria, gelataria and artisanal shops like the charming Abacanda, and Via XX Setembre, which sits just above, hosts various clothes shops, bars and restuarants, the train station and a rather charming market every Wednesday (8am-12pm).
The town itself has the effect of a Royal Opera House theatre set, a precedent was quite clearly set early on in the designing process by someone with a mild aesthetic obsession with trompe l’oel – most of the pretty pastel buildings are adorned with false windows and ornate cornerstones.
Apperativo in San Rocco
It’s a thirty minute trail from Camogli to San Rocco, which sees you stamping across olives and figs, through vineyards and past charming villas and walls adorned with mosaics, culminating in a sweat inducing 350 steps to the top. There’s little to see in San Rocco, bar a picturesque church but the views are worth the hike. Head to Bar Dai Mugetti for an apperativo at dusk; it overlooks the entire sweep from the Bay of Tiguillio to Sestri Levante, and you might even get a glimpse of Corsica on a clear day.
Hike to a Benedictine monastery nestled in a tiny inlet between the Portofino Mountain and clear turquoise waters
Not for the faint of heart, this hike takes about an hour and a half from San Rocco; it’s a scramble through thick woods, olive trees and vineyards. Part Medieval, part Romanesque, this Benedictine abbey was built to preserve the remains of a Catalan saint, and you can only get here by foot or by boat (a rather exclusive experience). The Abbey itself is all cloisters, vaulted rooms and medieval tombs, set against the backdrop of white gothic windows overlooking the beautiful bay of Tigello. The site sits on a stretch of pale grey stone beach, adorned with plenty few decent trattoria and lots of sunbeds tightly packed in, Italian style. Its a popular spot for local Ligurians given the clearness of the water here - snorkels should not be forgotten. You can find boat timetables here
It is also the site of ‘Christ of the Abyss’ a larger than life size bronze statue of Christ, buried fifty feet below sea level, offshore. If diving isn't your thing, take the tiny glass bottom boat out to see this spectacle.
Hop on a boat to Portofino
Fear not, film stars, fashionistas and fancy yachts aside, there is room for you too in Portofino. Arrive by boat into Piazza Martini Dell’Olivetta, the heart of Portofino. This is turbo-stylish riviera land. Explore the tangle of streets behind the harbour, home to Hermes and Louis Vuitton, souvenir and artisan craft shops and elderly women sitting on the streets nimbly stitching lace.
Take a hike past the super yachts and the pink meerkats which line the Museo del Parco, up a winding path to the church of Portofino’s patron saint San Giorgio, which contains relics brought back from the crusades and the Castello Brown, a 15th century fortress which is surrounded by superb gardens and pergolas. Further yet, take the winding path past luxury villas above terraced gardens to Il Faro (lighthouse) for spectacular views which stretch from Punta Manara in Sestri Levante to Capo Noli.
Enjoy a meal or aperitivo on one of the many restaurants spilling on to the harbour. Yes, you'll pay a premium but people-watching really is one of the best uses of your time in Portofino.
After lunch, take a trip to the infamous Hotel Splendido which has hosted everyone from the Winston Churchill to George Clooney via Humphrey Bogart. In fact, it was here that Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor (the first time). Pure unadulterated glamour.
Sure, everybody bags on about swathes of ‘white sand’ but what of large, soft grey pebbles? I’ll admit, when I first arrived in Camogli, I was a little disappointed, such is the British abhorrence with anything remotely resembling ‘shingle’. But the beach in Camogli is glorious - a huge stretch straddled between clear, turquoise waters and tiny coloured houses, so decorated apparently to make it easy for fishermen to spot their houses from a distance.
Have I convinced you? If you're heading to Liguria, have a read of my Budget Guide to Portofino, Ultimate Guide to Liguria and 10 things which will immediately make you sound more Italian