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Hidden Beauty in Northern Italy

Il Mulino da Drin, at Punta Chiappa, on the Ligurian Sea.

Photo: David Cicconi

Revealing a secretly prized place is a little bit like telling your dreams at a dinner party: it’s an act of inadvertent autobiography. This is especially true when the prized place happens to be—how best to put it?—on the “modest” side. “You like all the ugly towns in beautiful settings,” my wife said to me after our recent, and I might add mutually heartsick, departure from Recco, on the coast of Liguria. “What’s that about?”

I prefer the word homely myself, but no matter: what it’s about, pure and simple, is love. To explain Recco, you have to start with the Second World War. A sunny seaside town with beautiful centuries-old palazzi, Recco had the longest elevated railway bridge in Liguria. Destroying the bridge meant impeding communication and passage between Rome and points north. From the fall of 1943 through the summer of 1944, first the British and then the Americans flew nearly 30 bombing raids over the town, flattening 95 percent of Recco’s houses and commercial structures before the bridge finally fell on the 10th of July.

The town that rose up from the rubble was—to put it gently—a major missed opportunity in urban planning: bad, blocky apartment houses, cement piazzas with the odd weedy patch of greenery, a mediocre esplanade along the sea. This awkwardly reconstructed center of Recco is, nevertheless, bordered by surviving examples of festive trompe l’oeil villas of the old town, and a spread of period houses dots the surrounding hills. Bright yellow and pink, lime green and terra-cotta, they are like jeweled pins set in an improbably lush cushion, a patchwork of olive trees and grapevines, figs and pomegranates, rosemary and sage and (Liguria being the home of pesto) basil, and more basil still.

What distinguishes Recco for me is that, unlike nearby Portofino, it does not have so thick an air of leisure, as in in-the-pursuit-of, setting the rhythm and tone. People do play here, to be sure, but Recco has the unmistakable vibrancy of an actual, functioning town. Each Monday morning, its sprawling open-air market draws crowds of people from surrounding villages.

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