The end of my Italian holiday was fast approaching, but one important thing remained for me to do before I had to go. And what was that? An outing to the beach, of course! I also had a slight ulterior motive, as there was another abandoned village in the area that I wanted to check out.
The nearest beach to my home base of Biella lay to the south in the neighbouring coastal district of Liguria, two hours away by autostrade. So we packed our togs and towels and beach umbrella and set off!
Our route took us first across the fertile plains of Piedmont then into the Ligurian Apennines. The mighty autostrade was barely hindered by the mountain range, tunnelling under peaks and soaring over hidden valleys, the small towns below seeming completely isolated as we zoomed overhead.
As we left the pine-covered mountains and reached the shining coastline, I delicately hinted to Cesco that the abandoned village I wanted to see was a mere 70km out of our way. Astonishingly he agreed to take me there, despite the lingering trauma of our adventure to Caldè and his complete lack of interest in such places. Truly he must love me.
From the town of Savona we headed west along the coast and began the reconnoitring process for a place to enjoy lunch, perhaps including the local specialities of pine nuts and seafood. This mostly consisted of trying to find an open parking space, since the entire population of Northern Italy seemed to have migrated to the seaside for the day. It was a wonder the country didn’t overbalance.
So we cruised along the striking white cliffs through busy seaside villages until we finally managed to wedge ourselves up against the cliff (and mostly off the road). There was a restaurant nearby, all we had to do was take a long staircase down the cliff face to get there.
After making our way down and reaching the restaurant, we discovered it was an hour wait for a table. We had adventuring and sunbathing to get on with, so this just wouldn’t do for us. We surrendered our hard-won parking spot and continued along the coast.
The next park we managed to nab was in the town of Noli, and we decided to pass by the flashy restaurants on the shoreline in favour of wandering the narrow alleys behind for a neat little place. There we stumbled across Pino, and the charming home-made menus had me sold in an instant.
Inside the little restaurant, we selected the special menu for four courses of tastiness, starting with two different starters. The thin pumpkin and squid crepe was surprisingly delicious, and the marinated swordfish also hit the spot. Then we were treated to a Ligurian classic: pasta alla vongole, or pasta with clams.
Then came swordfish steak cooked with potato and pine nuts, olives and basil – yes swordfish again, but considering it tops $30 a kilo in New Zealand I might as well make the most of it. And finally a lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate. “Do you want it with alcohol or without?” Cesco relayed to me, a question he needn’t have asked. I enjoyed my limoncello-infused sorbet while he had the plain version.
But there was no time for a siesta even after that epic meal, because we had a village to find! We continued along the scenic coastline until we reached Loano, a town whose name is apparently quite funny as it can be translated as “the anus”. I can only assume that the residents have been made thoroughly aware of this fact.
From Loano we headed back into the forested mountains up a very narrow zigzagging road flanked by terraced olive plantations. We were searching for Balestrino, a town that had been relocated further down the hill in 1953 due to the potential danger posed by earthquakes. Because apparently that episode of The Simpsons in which the entire town was picked up and moved to a new spot is actually completely plausible. Unlike on TV though, the old buildings were left behind to be claimed by the elements.
Passing through new Balestrino, we asked a local about old Balestrino. “Up the hill and on the left” we were told. So we did as we were directed and found ourselves parked on a short narrow street in the shadow of a castle – the castle that had once crowned the village. It was marked as private property and looked as if it might still be occupied, while the nearby road down into the old town was thoroughly gated and closed off.
Foiled, we walked further up the main road to see if we could find another way in, and approached another local for advice. There’s no way in, we were told. The old village is unstable and could collapse at any time. So the best we could do was to take a picture of the intriguing empty village from the main road.
This village features on a lot of online listsicles, and most of the time the picture included looks just like the one I took. I guess now I know why, and I also now know the pitfalls of trying to find the awesome places in online listsicles since none of them thought to mention the tiny issue of lack of access.
Still, if you want to see the abandoned and semi-ruined village for yourself (and from a distance!) you’d best do it soon as the next earthquake is liable to bring the whole place down.
“Great!” Cesco cried, hiding his disappointment well. “Now we can stop wasting time and go to the beach!”
We retraced our winding route back down the hill to Loano and were lucky enough to find a park right next to a tunnel that would take us under the sea wall and finally to the beach.
We spread our towels on the pebbly sand and pitched our umbrella against the relentless sun above. The beach was still very crowded despite it getting late in the afternoon, and peddlers selling drinks, shoes, trinkets and clothing were doing their rounds. Unfortunately they did not include a cocktail salesman.
Peeling off my outfit to reveal the togs I’d been marinating in all day, I headed for the water. What Italian beaches lose in the crowds and pestering peddlers they gain by having water warm enough to swim in without immediately catching hypothermia.
As we dried off in the sunshine, I couldn’t help but ask: “You can’t seriously prefer this to searching for abandoned places?”
“Yes!” Was the emphatic response, proving that I needed to plan many more such trips in order to change his mind.
After a good hour and a half of lazing around, it was sadly time to leave sunny Liguria. I can see I’m going to say this about everywhere, but I only wish I had more time to explore this fascinating region with its spectacular white cliffs, mysterious ruins and forested mountains. I’ll even take the crowded beaches!
But alas time waits for no Manda, and the time is fast approaching when I must leave Italy and continue my adventures on my own. Where to from here?