“Intra Siestri e Chiaveri s’adima una fiumana bella, e del suo nome lo titol del mio sangue fa sua cima”
(Dante Alighieri, XIX Purgatorio, Divina Commedia)
Chiavari, or “Ciavai”, for who knows the dialect, with its characteristic arcades shading us from the summer sun, while we are looking for a small local restaurant, is an important historic and commercial town, and is the second most populous town in the Gulf of Tigullio, situated where the river Entella flows into the Ligurian Sea at the end of its flood plain.
It is very close to the quarries of Lavagna, to the towns of Sestri, Riva and Moneglia which are in front of it on the eastern side, and surrounded by the Bay of Santa Margherita and Portofino to the west. Above all, Chiavari is famous for its daily fishing catch, and for macramé lace.
It is situated in the province of Genoa and represents a pearl of the Ligurian tourism, proved not only by its picturesque seafront promenade and by the achievement of the Blue Flag in 2006, but also by its road network and paths, outlined by a clear sky as an important landmark to reach the woods located inland of Chiavari and the beauties of Val Graveglia.
It is easy to get used to the tranquility of Chiavari, and one can never get bored on the “ciclovia d’ardesia” either on foot or by bike. It is 35 kms. long and follows the Antella, forming a connection between the coast at the town of Lavagna and the inland location of Bassi di Tribogna.
A bit of history...
The first certain traces of settlement in the area of Chiavari go back to the 8th century b.c. They are findings of iron, gold and bronze neclaces from the burial sites, and are kept in the archeological museum.
During the Roman period, the area was prized by the empire for its good strategic position and used as a trading area and a border point. Known by the name of Clavarium, which means “key of the valleys”, it is in fact situated at the ends of the four valleys: Val Fontanabuona, Val Sturla, Val Graveglia and Val d’Aveto.
Some documents cite it as Tigullia, others mistakenly as Segesta, a name that really refers to Sestri Levante. From that period there isn’t much to analyze, except the first relationship of man with his territory. It is only later, before the end of the first millennium, when the settlement was crossed by an ancient road, running from the east to the west of Liguria, that the settlements that precede the modern town, began to develop.
Genoa, which was expanding quickly, met with great resistance from the citizens of this first Chiavari, who were faithful to the Counts of Lavagna. In 1167 the Genoese consuls tried to attract allegiance by building of the castle, and in 1178, seeing that the attraction of the Counts persisted, laid the foundations of the town itself, more or less as we know it today, according to a precise urban plan.
The streets and arcades, which run in front of the houses, took shape. With the help of Genoa, which lost Chiavari on account of the Fischi, and only to get it back in 1332, Chiavari entered a brilliant golden age, and in the course of the XV111 century, the degree of economic stability was increased and controlled with discretion, by an ever more elite middle class. I
was to be this class of fine thinkers, stimulated by illuminist and revival ideas who would find the fertile ground to let Chiavari grow spiritually,and also structurally, building aristocratic houses in the newest and best architectural styles.
After the sad but fortunately short period of plague, the city lends itself to follow Ligurian affairs under the Napoleonic campaigns, and in the 1800s finds itself annexed to the first French Empire and its extensive territory beyond the Appenines.
ooked after, silenced but always at the centre of attention, both at the dissolution of the Ligurian republics, and under the following Kingdom of Sardinia, from 1900 onwards another point in its favour attracts the aristocratic tourism, in a mirrored destiny in the levante of La Spezia: the sea, the clean beaches and the healthy air, attract wealthy tourists for thalassotherapy.
The flourishing commerce from handicrafts to the daily fishing catch are still enjoyed under the Gothic arches of the arcades and the remaining mediaeval shops.
In the sparkling atmosphere of Caffe Defilla, young Genoese graduates still meet today as they did during the splendid age of the quiet town of fishermen. These things are still the spirit of Chiavari.
Without a doubt, similar to the views of great Norwegian forests, in a much smaller space lies the Val d’Aveto, a nature reserve recognized in 1995, in the localities of Santo Stefano D’Aveto, Rezzoaglio, Borzonasca, and Mezzanego.
Proof of the biodiversity of the Ligurian Appenines, the ideal union between the climate and the geology of the region, can give experiences that one could easily miss in other places.
Here in the basaltic peaks of Penna and Pennino, from where one can enjoy a view of 360° from the Tirrenian sea to the Western Alps, wild cats and wolves thrive, while hoopoes, cuckus and rollers and often majestic herons, assure us of the quality of the uncontaminated water and woods.
Delicate plants like water lilies colour the pools of the forest of Lame, in the heart of the reserve, at an altitude of 1600 to 1800 metres.
The valleys, with their famously combined marine and alpine characteristics, slope down greenly to the regional park of Portofino, in the localities of Camogli and Santa Margherita Ligure, covered with pervading maquis.
It is clear that from Chiavari reaching to all of Tigullio, the expert tourist can find what he wants, from a country hotel to a fortified village, a trekking stables or a trip in a sailing boat.
Each structure operates along the lines dictated by the rules of conservation, giving value and promoting the territory with guided tours, or choosing spaces where to build greenhouses, vegetable gardens and barns with related educational activities suitable for even the youngest.
Places of interest
Chiavari, notwithstanding the tourist boom, is a town happily married to fishing and handicrafts, activities which have helped it to grow quickly. Among its particular products are the “campanino” chairs and the beautiful macramè lace which we have already mentioned.
In Via Martiri della Liberazione, also known as “Strait Street” you will discover what is meant by going for a walk in the ancient centre of Chiavari, perhaps after a break taking photos on the beautiful sea front, a real flowering terrace on the Gulf of Tigullio and Portofino, and on to the point of the Colonia Fara. It is there that the adventure with colours starts, the sounds and the smells of the mediaeval community…. Chiavari has in fact preserved that footprint of a seafaring crossroads, a trading point, and together with its classical arcades, its original places of antique fairs and food fairs, but later on we shall come back to them.
From Via Martiri, all the roads continue strait, intersecting at right angles. The streets run between arcades, continuous on both sides, sustained by gothic style columns, surviving and recalling the 13th century Genoese court.
Another recollection of the past, and of its richness, we find in the buildings, all those of Portici Neri, The Palazzo Torriglia, home of the civic art gallery, and Palazzo Rocca, built by Bartolomeo Bianco in the seventeenth century and home of the botanic garden with its amazing glass houses of orchids, and the archeological museum, with its findings from the pre-roman burial site found at Villa Millo.
Among the buildings of most interest, we always find churches; emblems of the majestic stile that dominates Chiavari, there is the “Santuario del Nostra Signora dell’Orto “, built after the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary on 2nd July 1610. The cathedral is the focus of Catholicism in the town, being the centre for the diocese and marian sanctuary. The facade, supported by Corinthian columns, includes 5 marble bas-relief works of art showing episodes in the life of the Virgin, which are related to the frescoes inside and to the works of sculptors of the caliber of Borzone Coppola and Pogliaghi.
The building is an excellent example of neoclassical architecture, an exultation of white marble and good geometric devisions. Its floor plan is in the shape of a latin cross and has two rows of arches. Once inside, it is worth admiring two large stained – glass windows in the apse, showing Saint Sebastian and Saint Rocco, created in 1928 by Costante Panigati, famous for having been the Artistic Director of the Luigi Fontana & Co. of Milan.
Equally attractive is the church of Saint John the Baptist in a small square named after the ancient town; the monastery of Clarisse- near the auditorium which was the church of Saint Francis- with the altar dedicated to Saint Anna, and the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’ Olivo in Bacezza along the road called Aurelia. This sanctuary is also wholely built in marble and famous for its Tamburini church organ installed in 1936. Going up the “Salita”, the best time to admire the impressive castle is at sunset.
It was built between 1146 and 1147, one of the first castles built in the Tigullio, and forms part of the city wall. There are two well preserved water cisterns in front of the tower, the wall of the old citadel and the external four sided structure of the fortifation which seems even now to protect the city from barbaric pirates.
Towards the end of the fifties, the location of a pre-Roman burial site was found and in the 1980s the findings were officially put on display in the then archeological museum for the pre historical finds of the Tigullio. Today it is the archeological museum of Chiavari, housed in the prestigious Palazzo Rocca.
Accommodation, tourism and events
To welcome you during your stay you will find bathing establishments with every possible comfort for a daily fee, and also free beaches. These lie beneath the long promenade at the sea.
The sports which this seaside area offers include surfing and deep-sea diving. For subaqua and diving courses there are 4 centres at Lavagna alone; there is also sailing and even trips on catamarans. In nearby Rapallo there are excellent hotels and a harbor with more than 350 moorings.
For the ladies, above all in the area of Sestri and Santa Margherita there are boutiques with the best designer names. The whole of Tigullio, from May to August celebrates the “Paglio Marinaro” or marine races which, with the beginning of the summer, involves the canoeing clubs of the different neighbourhoods ,which prepare with enthusiasm for the race which has taken place every year since 1974.
The fair of Saint Antony and the agricultural fair take place in the centre of the town on Saturdays and Sundays around17th January, attracting stall holders of every kind and for every occasion.
You mustn’t miss the Carnival, with numerous days of entertainment, occasions for children, dances, stands and “breaking the Pentolaccia”, an event which takes place in Piazza Matteotti.
In spring time the events not to miss are Chiavari in Flower, a market which envolves all the streets of the ancient town in May: the Rivarola Vintage, a public event with a 60s theme taking place in Via Rivarola in collaboration with the association Images 360, the market Chiavari Damare in Roma square, on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.
The second weekend of each month there is the antiques market, which attracts hoards of visitors from all Liguria; and the market of Tastes and Traditions, the last weekend of each month in Via Rivarola.
As far as religious holidays, there is the fair of Sant’Antonio Abate is held on the Sunday nearest to 17th January, and the fair of Nostra Signora dell’Orto on the 2nd and 3rd of July. We can also remember the Premium Classicum Clavarense, a prize for the best student of the year in classical studies.
Liguria, but above all the Tigullia area, is the native land of focaccia. The most famous is the star with the cheese of Recco, recognized as the best one, but don’t worry, the other variations from anchovies with tomatoes, with onion, or other delicious toppings, will not delude you.
For a snack between one swim and the next, farinata is unequalled, a kind of thin savoury cake made from chick peas, water, oil, and baked in a copper tray.
Traditional, and however hard they try in other regions, incomparable, the Genoese “torta pasqualina” is a complete meal in itself, used on feast days and for heralding the spring, as we see in its ingredients: eggs, beet, Albenga artichokes, peas, marjoram, borragine and other herbs, laid in fragrant layers, the challenge of all the housewives of the area.
But , besides appetizers and savoury pies, Chiavari is a rich world in the kitchen, with much that is close to the traditional dishes of Liguria presented by rich soups of herbs and pulses (mesciua is famous) or meat stuffings with marjoram, thyme and parmesan cheese ( you must ask to taste the stuffed chime), notablely very refined.
The fish is also excellent, which, served in first class restaurants, or in corner taverns, seems to aquire the benefits of a climate which makes it more delicious. The blue fish, the raw or marinated anchovies, the lightly cooked tuna; the shell fish, the scampi are excellent in all ways, pasta with lobster; or stockfish, “baccala” with garlic, are all dishes that you must try. Octopus salad,” moscardini” with sauce, mussels (here called “muscoli”) stuffed with breadcrumbs or boiled, the scorpion fish, and others, are all part of the story that a restaurant can personalize and enrich, without forgetting the genuine, traditional tastes of the area.
Linguine, trenette, bavette and pappardelle are examples of excellent pasta which go well with herb sauces, like pesto, Genoese with basil and traditionally served with green beans, pine nuts and boiled potatoes, or with broad beans, nearer to the taste of the Ponente.
These pastas can be served with meat sauces such as game, from rabbit or wild boar, or walnut sauce, or simply with parsley and mushrooms gathered fresh especially in October or November, this is a must. They represent another choice, equally tasty, which we can find, not only at Chiavari, but in all the levante.
The journey through tastes of the traditional menu stops at the dessert of Tigullio, represented by Genoese “pandolce” a kind of low risen cake made with butter, anice, sultanas or zibibbo, limes and pine nuts, or the “castanaccio” made from a sweet and sour batter of raisins, pine nuts and rosemary, and the “brunette di laete”, a special vanilla desert.
To fully enjoy your meal “da pascià” as they say in these parts, ask for Vermentino DOC of the Gulf of Tigullio, or a “bianchetta Genovese” for white wine and a “ciliegiolo” for red wine. Excellent also are the “passiti” naturally those originally from the Gulf of Tigullio.