Camogli: The little-known jewel of Italian Riviera

Sabyasachi Talukdar: For several hundred years Camogli was an important Mediterranean shipping base and was often described as ‘city of a thousand white sails.’ In 1880 Camogli was home to 500 registered ship captains.

Camogli, before the rain clouds gathered

Images of the picturesque Cinque Terre and Portofino villages floated in front of my eyes as soon as we sat down to chalk a road trip around the Italian Ligurian Coast. In what is also known as the Italian Riviera, the villages of Santa Margherita and Rapallo are very famous as well. As we were giving finishing touches to our trip plan, my Italian friend came up with a place whose name I had never heard before…Camogli. He insisted that we should spend at least half a day, if not more, at Camogli, which lies in a part of the coast tantalisingly called Golfo Paradiso or Paradise Gulf. I trust my friend’s judgment and decided to build in Camogli into our trip plan. It was only for a couple of hours while driving along the Ligurian coast, but am I glad we listened to my friend!

View from the Castle

It was on a weekday in early April that we started our day at Rapallo, and then drove towards Portofino through the beautiful harbour of Santa Margherita Ligure, the summer refuge of Italy’s rich and the famous. From Portofino, we headed north taking the mountain road which snakes around the Portofino peninsula, destination Camogli. It was a working day and we were lucky to get parking at Piazza Matteotti near the railway station, at the bottom of the hill. On busy days and weekends, this parking lot fills up rather quickly and then the only choice is to park the car at the top of the hill and then walk down to the village at the foot of the hill.

A family outing

At first glance, Camogli, is anything but spectacular. The beauty starts to unfold as we reach the waterfront promenade. To the right, beyond a tottering cliff, a vastly wooded cape of the headland reaches out to the sea, only to be met halfway by the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. Take a moment to soak in the beauty of Camogli’s magnificent pastel-hued facades of the multi-storied row-houses…in shades of cinnamon, apricot, and amber and contrasting beautifully with the turquoise waters of the Paradise Gulf. The saying goes that the vibrant coloured houses once helped the fishermen of Camogli find the way back to their port, while their wives kept watch over the village. Camogli is said to have got its name thus, shortened from ‘Case delle Mogli’ or the ‘house of wives’.

Camogli’s photogenic crooked alleys winds along the hills; the terraced streets melt down to a perfect cove of pebble beach amidst a backdrop of umbrella pines and olive groves. Walking along these streets also greatly aroused our olfactory senses with the aroma of the addictive Italian food drifting in the breeze. 

While the sights and smells mesmerized us as we walked around, photographically speaking, we couldn’t have chosen a worse time to be in this charming town. It was just past noon and the strong seaside sun was right above our heads.  There were but some serious looking clouds in the horizon and a storm seemed to be brewing over the Ligurian Sea. The Met department had predicted an evening thunderstorm and it did look like they were right after all. The sea became choppier, the waves bigger and the beach looked forlorn devoid of swimmers and sunbathers. Even the smaller boats, which head out around the peninsula to San Fruttuoso and Portofino, were suspended due to the impending storm.

Flower blooms next to the marina

We had our lunch right on the beach, with the finest and freshest seafood platter at La Rotunda. We then drifted out for a leisurely walk to the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta which sits majestically on a rock overlooking the sea. The church is home to the sacred remains of the two patron saints of Camogli – San Fortunato, patron saint of fishermen and sailors; and San Prospero, the patron saint of the city. For several hundred years Camogli was an important Mediterranean shipping base and was often described as ‘city of a thousand white sails.’ In 1880 Camogli was home to 500 registered ship captains. Today, the days of Camogli’s naval dominance over the centuries are well past and the village is now more of a fishing hub.

Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta

The fishing in this part of the Italian coast has an Indian connection, we were told. Some fishermen here have been using a unique trap system since the early 17th century. It works by dropping fixed nets in the sea water between the months of April to September. The nets are made of coconut fibre that has been coming from India for centuries and at the end of the season they are dropped to the bottom of the sea and used as fish food. Tuna is the most common variety caught using these traps known as the Tonarella.

Right next to the Basilica is the 900-year-old Dragonara Castle which was erected to defend the harbour and the entire coastline. The castle terrace jutting into the sea was a delightful photographer’s viewpoint, with the bright pastel houses and the sea both captured in a single frame. In the opposite direction, was the panoramic sweeping vista of the Italian Riviera along the distant curve of the Ligurian coast to Genoa and beyond.

Visitors soak in the beauty of Golfo Paradiso

The moment we stepped around the church and the castle, it was as if we were looking at a completely different town. In front of us was a sheltered marina with countless colourful boats of different sizes bobbing around on the choppy waters. The impending storm meant a day off for the fishermen, quite a few of them taking this opportunity to attend to their boats. Behind the harbour, many of the colourful houses featured decorative trompe l’oeil elements or three dimensional effects – often painted seashells. Only when we took a closer look did we realize that the shutters and windows of the houses were actually brilliant paintings on the walls! We were engrossed so much in exploring the nooks of this delightful village that we completely forgot about the steepness of the cobbled streets, we were walking all along!

The turquoise sea is a sight to behold

Much like Cinque Terre, cliffs rise almost vertically from the coast. This offers some exciting and scenic hikes. A short hike from Camogli takes you to San Rocco. The walk takes you through olive trees and woodlands before the reward of the beautiful church and gorgeous views of Camogli and Genoa. If you have little more time, continue further on to San Fruttuoso, home to the splendid 13th-Century Romanesque Church of San Nicolò di Capodimonte. Another path leads to Punta Chiappa, a little corner of paradise where nature meets history and traditions. Characterized by a sharp stretch of land, la punta (the point) reaches the sea from the Portofino Promontory, as being part of the Portofino Natural Park. If hiking is not your cup of tea, both Punta Chiappa and San Fruttuoso are accessible by boat from Camogli.

All our hopes of watching a Mediterranean sunset was washed out as the lashing rains made us scamper to our car. The day ended in a tad disappointment, but were we happy that we had the chance to discover one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, Camogli.


Tourists take a stroll along the marina

WHAT ELSE TO DO: Hiking in Camogli is a popular activity with tons of seaside trails ranging from easy and short (30 minutes) to hard and long (4 hours). Most paths are well-marked.

Much like Cinque Terre, the cliffs here rise almost vertically from the coast. This offers some exciting and scenic hikes. A short hike from Camogli will take you to San Rocco. The walk will take you through woodlands and olive trees and then opening up in front of you is the rewarding view of the beautiful church of San Rocco as well as gorgeous views of Camogli and Genoa.

The magnificent pastel-hued row-houses forms a backdrop to the sheltered marina

If you have a bit more time in hand, continue further on to San Fruttuoso, home to the splendid 13th-Century Romanesque Church of San Nicolò di Capodimonte. Another path leads to Punta Chiappa, a little corner of paradise where nature meets history and tradition. Here a sharp stretch of land, la punta (the point) reaches the sea from the Portofino Promontory, being part of the Portofino Natural Park. If hiking is not your cup of tea, both Punta Chiappa and San Fruttuoso are accessible by boat from Camogli.

One highlight of the year in Camogli is the second Sunday in May when a fish festival called the Blessing of the Fish (Sagra del Pesce) is held to please the patron saint of fishermen, San Fortunato. Large amounts of fresh fish are cooked in gigantic pans along the waterfront and distributed to all present. And it is free!

With a storm brewing in the horizon, the fishermen use their time to repair their boats

HOW TO GO: Camogli is on the main train line between Genoa and La Spezia, although not all trains stop there. A frequent and cheap bus service runs from Rapallo and Santa Margherita. From Camogli’s harbour, passenger boat services run up or down the coast during the summer, the ticket office stands nearby. Out of season, a smaller boat runs several times a day — if sea conditions allow — the short distance around the cape as far as San Fruttuoso.

A tourist walks past the traditional fishing nets of Camogli

Words and Photos: Sabyasachi Talukdar

About the author: Sabyasachi Talukdar is a publisher and editor by profession but his passion lies in traveling the world and photographing and documenting the passing moments. Not one to be compartmentalised into strict photographic genres, Sabyasachi’s interest in photography stretches from travel to candid street moments and from portraits to landscapes.

One thought on “Camogli: The little-known jewel of Italian Riviera

  • December 26, 2018 at 3:43 am

    Quite a elaborate story about the place and it’s people. Liked the “indian connection” as well.


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