Saturday, 25 September. We had finished our 15-day Elderhostel tour at the airport in Nice, France, where we said good-bye to the rest of the Elderhostelers at 9:00 a.m. We then headed for the car rental desk to start the second phase of our 40-day journey.
I had arranged the rental through our local travel agent in Harrisonburg after searching thoroughly for the best deal on the internet. The deal I got with Europcar was so much better than anything else I could find that he was worried that there might be an unpleasant surprise at the rental counter. But there wasn't. We got a great 1999 Renault Laguna. It came with a diesel engine and air conditioning. We had not asked for either, but it really turned out wonderful to have them. The weather was very warm, and diesel fuel cost about 25% to 30% less than gasoline. We loved the car - and there were no surprises.
We got on the autoroute heading east through the mountains behind Nice. The skies were overcast and it rained occasionally. A short way into Italy, we got off at the first San Remo exit. We had heard about the city ever since we had lived in Italy (1959-1963), and we just wanted a quick look. We entered the city on the west end and drove along the shore (or as close as the road went) all the way out the east side to the next autostada exit. San Remo turned out to be a fairly large city, with the typical congestion and noise. We found a small park along the beach and stopped for half an hour. It was very pleasant there.
When we got in the car to leave the beach area, I realized that I didn't know how to get the car into reverse. I tried everything he could think of, but finally just pushed the car backward a couple of feet so we could get out of the parking space. We stopped at the next gas station and asked the attendant if he could help. He showed me that there was a small ring around the shift lever that had to be pulled upward before the car could be put in reverse.
We followed the autostrada along the coast and marveled at the engineering feat it must have taken to build it. At least half of it was through long tunnels. It seemed that every time we were out of the tunnels we were overlooking a picturesque town nestled on the coast between the ridges of the mountains. We continued through Genoa, passing from the Riviera dei Fiori (west of Genoa) to the Riviera Levante (south of Genoa). We exited at Rapallo. It was just a short way to Santa Marguerita where, after some searching, we found the La Vela (The Sail) Hotel in the part of the city built on the mountainside.
The hotel was created by converting a 19th Century mansion, built in the style of an old castle. That style of architecture seems to have been very popular in its day, as there are several other castle-like buildings along the coast. La Vela is perched high above the road from which it's accessed, and it has a narrow, corkscrew-like driveway to reach the small parking area near the main door. I wasn't sure it was even meant for cars, but I braved it anyway, and we found ourselves in the right place.
The hotel had a very elegant lobby with a long, open staircase leading to the floor above. Our room (#28) was one of only four on the front side of the hotel, facing the sea. The room was huge, and the view was spectacular, in spite of the rather foggy weather.
By this time it was nearly 2 p.m. and we were starved. We risked our lives to drive down the corkscrew driveway and head for nearby Piazza Roccatagliata (Cut Rock). We were lucky to find a parking place right in front of the Trattoria da Martino, a small family-run restaurant. We both ordered the pesto lasagna, and it was fantastic: plain homemade lasagna noodles covered with pesto sauce. The Riviera Levante was the birthplace of pesto, and they really know how to do it right (with lots of olive oil).
Since we were unlikely to find another parking place, we decided to leave the car there and walk to the waterfront. It's a very beautiful area, but there are so many cars that they ruin any image of a peaceful seaside village. Cars are parked in every conceivable space, whether legal or not. Between the cars parked on both sides are the cars prowling for a parking space. Squeezing by those are the cars just trying to go somewhere else.
Of course, Jane found her gelato as we walked along the shore. Santa Marguerita is not too large, so it didn't take long for us to get the feel of the waterfront area. We walked back to the car and then drove to the hotel to unpack. We really appreciated the tall, 8-foot wide oak wardrobe with matching dresser and night stands. There were so many drawers and hangers that even our huge suitcases of clothes couldn't begin to fill them.
We rested briefly but were surprised how much noise there was. We were well above the downtown area and would have expected very little traffic on the one winding road just below the hotel. However, it doesn't take many motor scooters going full bore to make a racket. There was also a sound like bombs being exploded. We finally concluded that this was from fireworks down the coast. In addition, we discovered that the main railroad line cut along the mountainside just below the hotel, and even electric trains make a lot of noise. This was a Saturday evening, probably the busiest time for traffic in a resort town like this. We found that there was almost no traffic noise the next night (Sunday), but the trains continued to run at the rate of several each hour. So much for our idyllic location!
On the recommendation of the hotel clerk, we wound our way down the south side of the mountain on long stairways to the Trattoria San Siro on Corso Matteotti, only to find that it was closed on Saturdays. So we walked back toward the sea and found our way to the Trattoria da Martino again. The food was excellent and very inexpensive. The walk back to the hotel was short, but all uphill. It was 10 o'clock by the time we got back, very tired and very warm. We had expected a cool night and had dressed accordingly, but it turned out to be surprisingly warm.