Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.
Today I’m happy to introduce you to Fern Driscoll, an expat, blogger, and retiree here to tell us all about Rapallo – part of the Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino known for its picturesque castle and world-class seafood.
First, tell us about you.
My husband and I moved to Rapallo from the U.S. after retiring and have lived there on and off for 13 years. We both enjoy playing golf (the world’s second oldest golf course is in Rapallo and it’s beautiful). We also swim and boat with friends and enjoy looking after our house and gardens.
If someone is visiting Rapallo for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
Just walking around Rapallo is a pleasure, particularly along the Lungomare (waterfront walk). The town hugs its little bay and a walk to the port will reward you with views of some pretty special boats. There are two main pedestrian walking areas, one along the coast (Lungomare) and the other a block inland (Via Mazzini). The former tends to be for the older folks, the latter for the younger. Via Mazzini is a mad bustle at five o’clock during the passeggiata, as people window shop, have an aperitivo, or just people-watch.
A funivea (cable car) runs up to the pilgrim church, Montallegro. The view from the church is tremendous and the history of the church and why it’s there is fascinating. There are several adequate restaurants and lodges up there as well. It is really worth the effort to see it. For hikers, it is on a system of trails that runs through the mountains behind Rapallo all the way to Chiavari, down the coast 15 kilometers.
The Castello in the center of town was built in the 16th century to discourage marauding Saracens. For a time it served as a prison; now it is host to exhibits of various types. There are elaborate fireworks July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, around the festival of the Madonna. After an evening procession the Castello goes up in smoke every year.
Several lovely churches in town are worth a visit: the 16th century San Francesco is right in the middle of town; the Basilica of Saints Gervasio and Protasio gives Pisa a bit of competition in the leaning tower division. There are other lovely churches to visit in San Michele and Caravaggio, just down the road.
On the western side of town, a bit more difficult to reach, is the ancient ruin of the Monastery of Valle Christi, which hosts an outdoor series of dramas in the summer.
Fans of mini-golf and/or books will find both in the Parco Casale. The International Library has books in French, German, Spanish, and English, as well as Italian. The mini-golf is in the same park. The Lace Museum is also found in the Parco Casale.
Being a Riviera town, swimming and sunbathing are must-do activities in the summer. There are plenty of places to rent a cabana and a chair for the day. As well, Rapallo has two excellent swimming pools: one indoor, one outdoor (also a championship water polo team), though they are several kilometers from the center of town.
Sports lovers will not want to miss Rapallo Golf and Tennis Club. The 18-hole golf course spreads itself along the hills on the western side of town (near the autostrada entrance) and is meticulously maintained. One hole gives a long view down the fairway to Valle Cristi. The tennis center is well maintained and popular. The club has one of the better restaurants in town.
There is ample opportunity for scuba diving from various nearby scuba shops and there is a protected zone along the coast where you can still see some interesting fishes.
A stroll around the old downtown will bring visitors to The Polipo, the octopus fountain that is Rapallo’s mascot, the band shell, and an underground peek at a bit of the old port (right near the band shell) that was dug up when the Lungomare was rebuilt.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?
There are many fine hotels in Rapallo. The prettiest places to stay are on the seafront, are certainly the most convenient for getting around, and offer the best views. The hotel Italia has rooms that offer a view of the harbor without an intervening street. The Excelsior Hotel is a 5-star spot with a health club/spa and a pool set in the rocks above the sea. The Hotel Bristol is a Grand Old Hotel, about one kilometer from the center of town. It, too, has a spa.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Rapallo is a convenient 40-minute train ride from the famous Cinque Terre, so many visitors go to hike the trails there (though, those who like to hike should not overlook the Portofino Peninsula which has trails that rival the Cinque Terre for beauty). A ferry ride will carry visitors to Santa Margherita, Portofino, and San Fruttuoso, all of which are musts. San Fruttuoso, a 15th century monastery, is still accessible only by foot or ferry; entry into its wee harbor on the ferryboat is an adventure all its own.
For those with time, Zoagli and Chiavari are two lovely towns just down the coast from Rapallo. Camogli, in the other direction, is still a fishing town and is a famous tourist destination for Italians.
Genova is a city rich in history and full of beautiful places to visit. It’s worth a vacation visit of its own, but one can get a feel for the place with a day trip from Rapallo, also about 40 minutes by train.
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
Focaccia! Focaccia is the famous Ligurian flatbread. Farinata is another Ligurian specialty, made from chickpea flour. It is much more delicious than it looks or sounds. The pasta specialties of Rapallo are trofie al pesto (small irregular pastas with the famous Genovese basil sauce) and pansotti with walnut sauce (little hats of pasta stuffed with mixed greens). Yum! True pansotti must be made by hand and most still are.
Fish! Rapallo no longer has a fishing fleet, but Santa and Camogli do; you can’t find fresher fish than what you’ll be served in a Rapallo restaurant.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
Coffee bars: Bar Cristallo (located at Via Agostino Giustiniani 12) and Bar Roma (located at Via della Libertà 14). There are great pastries at both and both are frequented by locals.
Caffe Canepa (located at Piazza Garibaldi 41) dates from the late 19th century and is just a stone’s throw from Rapallo’s famous octopus mascot.
There are several restaurants/bars (Bar Il Castello—at Lungomare Castello 6—and Bar Sole, at Lungomare Castello 10) on the little passeggiata by the Castello; it’s very pleasant to sit outside and watch the water and the passing scene.
Locals congregate at Ristorante Nettuno on the Lungomare (Lungomare Vittorio Veneto 28). Seafood and pizza are excellent there.
There are a handful of other good restaurants along the Lungomare. If you have a car, don’t miss Ristorante U Giancu, on Via San Massimo, where you will eat Chef Fausto’s delicious creations surrounded by cartoon art. Beloved by locals, Fausto is also well known in the US, where he gives infrequent and over-subscribed cooking classes.
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
Italians are, by and large, a very courteous people. They find loud talk, sloppy dress, and undue haste rude (patience is absolutely requisite to get along in Italy). But on the Riviera people are used to these things, as there are so many visitors from other countries. As in most places, simply being pleasant, patient, and polite will do the trick.
Why should people make sure to visit Rapallo?
Rapallo is one of the original Riviera resort towns; over the years, it has grown to be quite large (30,000 or so), unlike neighboring Santa Margherita, Zoagli, and Camogli. (Portofino is in a class by itself; with a population of only about 500 full-time residents, it is almost purely a tourist attraction.)
While Santa, Zoagli, and Camogli retain their rather upper-crust characters (and they are charming and delightful), Rapallo has continued to grow and develop as a real town, with a wide variety of people pursuing a variety of occupations, not all of them tourist-related. There was an unfortunate surge of construction in Rapallo in the 1960s as the town spread out from its old center. A lot of large block apartments were constructed to accommodate the growing population. This gives Rapallo a different personality than its near neighbors, a personality we find authentically Italian.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
Anywhere along the Lungomare, on the ferry boat rides, Montallegro, Parco Casale, golf course, and on the road that leads from Rapallo through San Michele and Santa Margherita to Portofino.
Anything else you want us to know?
It is great fun to visit during the annual festa for the Virgin, July 1-3. There are fireworks morning, afternoon, and evening all three days, a procession of crosses, a conflagration of fireworks on the Castello, and a fair. Every weekend in the summer, there is music from the kiosk, and weekend evenings the Lungomare is closed to traffic so it becomes one big party.
There is a system of bus routes around the town and plenty of taxis at the train station. Ferries, buses, and trains will take you to neighboring towns or down to the Cinque Terre.
Market day is Thursday and markets carry mostly clothing and housewares, as well as some food.
Rapallo has an excellent website in Italian and English (www.comune.rapallo.ge.it). Choose Canale Turistico for a listing of the many events going on around town.