Monday 13 October 2008


View from our balcony at Albergo Teresa in Laigueilia (Yes! Yet another balcony!)

John and I were fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in Italy in September doing very little apart from being beach bums and propping up various bars and restaurants, reading (John read NINE books!) and enjoying the company of the friends we have made in Laiguelia over the many years we have holidayed there.

I know we're now well into October but since our return I have been v.busy rewriting my introductory letter and synopsis for my recently finished novel - Cyprus Blues (another rejection from an agent greeted my return and I reckoned I needed to totally revamp my pitch)- writing the first chapter of my new murder/mystery novel Winchester Blues (Yeah! I've actually started it!) and the laborious task of washing dirty clothes and putting them away.

Both my camera and i-pod, sadly, did not survive the holiday (too much sand, I fear) but I have now downloaded the pics I did manage to take and they're just too good to leave in a folder. And, I wanted to tell you about this wonderful Italian seaside town of Laiguelia that we discovered years ago, purely by chance.

John had been in Nice on a business conference and I had tagged along for the ride. And afterwards, we decided to spend the next week driving through Italy until we found somewhere nice to stay.

We took the coastal road and the scenery was absolutely magnificent. Both the coastal road and the autoroute are way above sea level (you have mountains to one side of you and deep drops down to the coast on the other side) so you get a birds eye view of Nice, Menton, Monaco and then, into Italy, Ventagmilia, San Remo (we have found a fabulous beach restaurant here - Hippocompo - where they do spaghetti with clams, homemade cake and ice-cream to die for) and lots of other Italian towns dotted along the coast where the river beds have gouged out valleys from the mountains to the sea.

Nothing, though, was what we were really looking for (somewhere small and unspoilt) until we rounded the bend of the road, several hours drive from Nice, and came upon a most glorious bay with two towns straddling either side: firstly Laiguelia (Colin Firth, apparently, spent a holiday here) and then the larger Alassio (Earnest Hemingway lived in Alassio for a while, Frankie Howard holidayed here (is that a claim to fame?) and there's a brilliant wall next to the park which has probably a hundred or so artistic ceramic tiles attached with all kinds of fascinating pictures and designs).

But it was Laiguelia that we loved straight off. We had lunch there, by the sea, and decided we'd like to stay there. Our first attempt at finding accommodation, though, was a disaster. We went into one of the many cake shops and asked if they had a room. The woman behind the counter must have thought that we wanted a room for the afternoon for a bit of illicit hanky panky and shooed us out of her shop with her broom! We've seen this lady serving behind the counter many times since then but she's made no sign of recognizing us.

Both Laiguelia and Alassio have roughly two sections: the medieval old town with narrow, traffic-free streets and ancient buildings, most of them shops, running parallel to the beach, and the more modern section beyond the road and railway line, rising up into the hills as far as modern technology can reach. (The railway line runs between Nice and Genoa, really close to the sea, and must be one of the world's most beautiful railway journeys.)

Entrance to the old town of Laiguelia

Anyway, we reckoned we'd find somewhere to stay on the other side of the road, in the modern section, and we very quickly discovered the charming little family-run hotel called Tre Ciuffi (three trees) with a small room with a balcony looking towards the sea. Sorted!

And we continued to return there for several years until, one year, our room was double booked and we stayed for a few days at Albergo Teresa, just a short distance away: another small, family run hotel. And, yes, they also have rooms with balconies facing the sea and, to our delight, a much better selection for breakfast (well, these things are important)and we liked the family a lot so we have continued to go there ever since. It does mean that I have lost the wonderful mirror on one of the floors of Tres Chuffi that always made me look at least ten years younger and several dress sizes smaller (must have been a trick of the light!) but one can't have everything in life.

View of Laiguelia from the beach

View of Alassio from La Scogliera

One of the things we love about returning to Albergo Teresa, is that we usually meet the same holiday makers every year and it's a real joy to meet up again, even just to shake hands and say a few greetings, most of us only really knowing our own languages, although John has learnt a smattering of Italian. But I need to say a big hi here to MICHAEL and CARLO, from Germany, who know quite a lot of English. We have discovered a shared love of dogs and proudly show photos of our dogs to each other. Also hi to JAN-FRANCO, TERESA, ESMERANDA and the fantastic KATALINA (Teresa's baby girl who is absolutely gorgeous.)

Also, a hi to DANIEL BYRNE and his partner from London. We were sitting next to them at Le Safari Restaurant in Nice on our first night and got round to chatting, as you do, and discovered a shared interest in music and so we 'educated' them about The Essaouira World Music festival. By the way, if you're looking for a great place to eat in Nice, look no further than Le Safari Restaurant in the old town: it has an incredibly wide selection of food, particularly speciality dishes from the region, and plenty of outside seating. It's usually chock-a block so we always book in advance. As you're probably realizing, food plays an important part of our lives!

Another view from the balcony of Albergo Teresa

John on the balcony with the railway station house in the background

Me on the balcony

Me on the balcony wearing my new Loominellie pashmena plus a hat I bought from a second hand stall in Laiguelia for 5 euros and a maroon body and black mesh top from Florence, costing significantly more than 5 euros!

We spend most of the day on the beach. Even if it's raining, which can sometimes happen (yes, even in Italy!), there are overhangs you can shelter under. And I swim in the sea several times a day which is far better than in a swimming pool although considerably more dangerous: I was told off by lifeguards this year for swimming too far out in rough water and I knew they were right so I switched to swimming parallel to the shore when the sea was particularly choppy. There have been times when the waves have been crashing one after the other way out to sea so it's almost impossible to swim so then we just 'play with the waves', trying to jump over waves as they break, getting knocked over and diving under the breaking crest. Scary but fun.

Me on the beach (I look much better out of focus!)

Most of the beaches of both Laiguelia and Alassio have small restaurants (serving excellent food!) with beach beds for hire but we always go to the public beach and lay out a large blanket, our lounger pads, various bags etc and literally camp out, which is far more enjoyable and allows us plenty of space.

For several years we saw the same couple, always in the same place, on the beach and speculated who they were because the guy looked, to us, like a personal bodyguard to the the woman he was with: usually standing with a cigarette in hand surveying the beach. Eventually, though, we plucked up the courage to say hello and they turn out to be a delightful couple - FRANKO and LOUISE - who both work for the Italian Post Office. So much for speculation then! We can manage a fair bit of conversation and it's always a pleasure to see them again.

When it's coffee time, we usually leave all our stuff and walk the several hundred yards to La Scogliera , a restaurant on the beach that denotes the start of Alassio. So another hi here to ETTORE and RENATA, who run the place, and OLGA, the waitress. Last year they had a Moroccan waiter called MOHAMMED and he, naturally, was a great fan of Gnawa music. John took his large i-pod player with us so Mohammed could listen to some of the Essaouira Festival recordings and so we had a little bit of Morocco on an Italian beach. Sadly, he wasn't there this year. I guess that that's the way of things in the catering business.

We usually have lunch at Bagni Lino , which is a fair old trek the other way and there's another hi coming up - to OLIVERO, LANDAR, LAURA and MARCO. They do fantastic salads (tuna, tomato, mozzarella cheese ; lettuce, carrots, sweet corn, mozzarella; tuna, butter beans and egg) and enormous foccacia sandwiches. Our favourite filling is anchovies with thick slabs of butter, which is scrumptious. I usually scrounge some of John's lunch and then have a Magnum, which is one of my many indulgences. (Sorry, did I say many? Of course, I mean few!) For years we would see a group of German and Swiss holidaymakers having lunch here and eventually started to say hi and this year we even got to talking and I scrounged a cigarette. So, hi to BERNARDO and UTE VOEGTLIN, from Switzerland. And guess what! They are music fans, too, and enjoyed the Essaouira Festival CD that John gave them.

Normally, there are so many people on the beach that we are quite happy leaving our things but there was one year, on a day when the weather wasn't so good and the beach was almost deserted, that some sod stole everything apart from my shoes. So now, if the beach is very quiet, we haul everything up to the car and then haul it down again. Generally, we feel very safe in Laiguelia but there are, sadly, thieves everywhere and it was foolish of us to think otherwise.

La Scogliera with one of the resident dogs (he was just a puppy last year)

Bagni Lino

John on the beach near La Scogliera

By late afternoon, when the sun is slowly sinking, most people, including us, head for the town and the beach becomes a rich source of dropped food for the seagulls.

Seagulls on the beach

Seagulls on the rocks

In town, now ready for yet more refreshments, we alternate between the main cafe, Al Mole, or the main pub, Al Galeone, run by another friend, Antonio, (both close to the beach) and watch the world go by. Here, there's usually still sunshine so there are still lots of people on the beach and children playing on the slide and it's a lovely sight to see the sun illuminating the towers of the church (which dominates the town), giving the illusion of shimmering gold.

Al Mole

Al Galeone

One of the waiters at Al Galeone

As for supper, there are so many restaurants in Laigueilia that it's impossible to get around them all in one holiday. By far the most popular place is Le Pecan, which serves the best pizzas you could wish to eat: very thin, crispy bases and a mind boggling choice of toppings.

But quite frankly, the best place to eat is at Albergo Teresa, where the chef makes pastry to die for. You get the traditional four courses of Italian cuisine: ante-pasta, pasta, il secondo (either meat or fish with veg) and desert. It's a very filling experience and one that we can't indulge in too often otherwise we'd get very fat but the food is absolutely scrumptious.

Because the town is hemmed in by sea and mountains, neither Laiguelia or Alasio can be over-developed, so it provides a much needed sense of consistency in this ever changing world of ours. But, even so, we do see changes e.g. shops or restaurants changing hands, but what was very striking this year was how expensive everything has become. Of course, there's the weak pound against the euro effect but the actual prices are much higher, too. Also, as with Essaouira, we've seen the rapid decline in the fishing industry. When we first started going to Laiguelia, there would be loads of little fishing boats chugging back to shore in the evening. Now there are very few and most of the fish in the restaurants is frozen.

Most if not all of the hotels and beach cafes will be closed now and perhaps some of the shops so the town is sure to have a different feel to it. But we'd still love to buy a house there so we can stay longer (this in spite of the fact that in principle I don't really approve of second homes because of the damage part-time residency does to an area). So, I'm buying a lottery ticket every week and we've found the house that we'd like and it is actually for sale. So fingers crossed!

P.S. Forgot to mention that Laiguelia was the inspiration and setting for my very first accepted short story for publication, called, unsurprisingly, September in Italy. (Quality Women's Fiction). It was rejected, at first, because there wasn't enough description and imagery so, somewhat peeved, I re-wrote it dripping with description and imagery and it worked! Yippee! So, thank you Laiguelia.

P.P.S. Since writing this, I had four numbers on my lottery ticket, which is a first for me. However, the £53 I won won't stretch as far as a house in Laigueilia!