Sunday, October 23, 2011


The "gli" is the hardest sound for me to pronounce in Italian. It comes out like a hard "glee" no matter what I do. Maybe it's this strange sound fixation that started my quest to explore the town of Camogli. When I pass it on the train, I spend the next ten minutes silently repeating, "CamoGLI. CAMOgli. CAM -O - GLI" until I realize that I've started whispering or speaking out loud and scaring all the nice Italian people next to me on the train. I told another friend, Lorenzo, about my desire to visit Camogli, and he smiled widely. "It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen", he beamed. This, coming from a Monterosso boy, is big praise. These little towns have more then their share of rivalry, and for someone to so heartily endorse a town not their own? Well, that sealed it.
So today Camogli it was. Cold, but a cloudless sky and a huge sun creeping over the Ligurian sea. Camogli is about an hour west (and a bit north) of Monterosso by train, on the same line that stretches along the coast up to Genoa and down to La Spezia. It's a small town, about 6,000 people, compared to nearby Chiavari, Santa Margherita Ligure and, of course, the bustling city of Genoa. I heard it compared to Vernazza, the next town to us here in the Cinque Terre, but considering its about 15 times bigger, I don't really think that's a fair comparison.
Whatever it is, Camogli is beautiful. Once called the "city of a thousand white sails", it's been an important spot on this stretch of Liguria since Napoleon. The boats still bob carefully in the still ocean below the colorful, typically Ligurian pastel buildings, with their intricately painted facades. The top photo is a great example - those windows? Fake. Brickwork running up the side of the building? Not real. Elaborate molding above those fake windows? You guessed it. This NY Times article from a few years ago explains it better then I can - and might be talking about this exact building in Camogli- but insomma, for those of you lazy readers, the trompe l'oeil artwork is typical of this region. Those too poor to afford rich exterior work of their house simply painted it on. Or, maybe those practical Ligurians found a way not to sacrifice style and keep their buildings sturdy.
Camogli also has it's own castle (again with those pesky pirates) that is perched over the rocky cliff in the shadows of a centuies old cathedral, which was much more ornate then I expected. A cruise ship tour next to me is also responsible for this next piece of information - the stone circle designs in front of most churches in Liguria is to symbolize and remind worshipers of the moment that life comes and the moment that death comes to the body.
Life came to my body, however, in Camogli sitting in the sun underneath the towering church on the rocks, eating a foccacia in the Camogliese fashion (anchovies, olives and tomatoes - though I'm not too sure they can patent that as something unique in this region) and when I discovered Camogliesi, a local dessert produced not that long ago - in 1970 - by a local man. This dessert - half cookie, half donut and stuffed with a cream (rum flavored is the most traditional) is like a heavy, delicious, rum laced bomb for your stomach. The woman in the shop explained it to me as a beignet with a cream filling. I bet you CAN eat just one. Really, I'd be hard pressed to devour more then a few, and at 28 euro a Kg, so would you.
The day was perfect, again, save for those cruise ship groups. I was mortified - honestly, completely embarrassed - as an American, listening to some of the conversations these people were having. The beaches were "gross" (not at all true), the pizza is better in Connecticut, and why-oh-why is everything so expensive?
If you don't want to try and experience it, stay on the cruise ship. Please. For my sake. Don't leave me shooting apologetic looks to shopkeepers, counter-people and old Italian women in your wake.
I get it - we're dependent on tourists here. But sometimes, even in Camogli, I wish I could choose which ones.
Fortunately, I found the worlds largest pan (or at least close) used to fashion a fish fry every summer on the town's feast day. I probably can't eat it, thanks to that shellfish allergy plaguing my life, but throw in a rummy flavored, gooey centered Camogliesi, and I'm there - cruise ship catastrophe or not, it was really the most beautiful place I've visited outside of my little home. And by next summer, I'm sure I'll have that "gli" down cold.

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