Travel: Rural Europe - Town of anchovies and illusions

In Chiavari on the Italian Riviera you start to wonder what continent you're in, writes Michael Delahaye
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As with all the best discoveries, we came upon Chiavari by chance, late one evening en route from Bordeaux to Florence. It was 8pm and we'd been driving for 12 hours. Our little hire car was protesting - and here we were, just past the French-Italian border and facing the interminable string of tunnels that punctuate the autostrada of the Ligurian Riviera.

We needed to eat and sleep. But where? The only names that stood out on the map were Genoa, La Spezia and San Remo - a choice between a port, a naval base and a song festival. Scanning more closely, my eye focused on a seaside place I had never heard of and, as it turned out, couldn't even pronounce: Chiavari (the accent is on the second syllable: key-ah- va-ree - important, as otherwise it can be confused with the verb meaning to have sex).

Along its front, Chiavari is an unremarkable Mediterranean resort with perhaps a tad more timbre than most. The water and the beaches are scrupulously clean and - a boon for those with small children - the swimming areas are enclosed by low breakwaters of boulders that still allow the sea to circulate. (Rather less suitable for small children is some of the amorous nocturnal activity here, involving the local adolescents.)

If you want to stay on the front there's a fair choice of two- and three- star hotels. Our room in an unpretentious three-star establishment - with en suite bathroom, breakfast and parking - cost just 80,000 lire (about pounds 30). And there was the bonus of waking up to the weather forecast on RAI-1, given in full military fig by one Captain Paolo Capizzi - no doubt of the Carabinieri Cloudbusters Brigade. In Italy the weather is too important to leave to civilians.

But what really justifies at least a stop-over is what you may never find unless you walk 100 metres away from the front, under the railway line. Behind it lies the old town.The atmosphere is a mix of Italian and, bizarrely, South American. The streets have names such as Corso Montevideo; there are huge white churches and consulates for Peru, Chile and Uruguay. When you spot an old gentleman in a linen suit doffing his panama, you start seriously to wonder which continent you're in.

The explanation is that towards the end of the last century, many of the town's sons emigrated to South America, made their fortunes and either came back themselves or sent their money back. The blend of architecture that resulted can make you gasp or laugh.

Take five minutes to inspect the palazzine along the Corso Millo. Even Italy doesn't offer many chances to see peach plasterwork with terracotta embellishments and turquoise shutters - on the one building.

Now take a right turn off the Corso Millo into the commercial centre of the old town and, a second time, you start to wonder whether you've stumbled on to the back lot of a film studio. What from a distance look like ordinary architectural features - carved stone, pointed brickwork, protruding sills - turn out to be painted illusions. The technique - finta architettura - started in the 17th century as a cheap way for the average Chiavarese to tart up his modestly plastered pile. In spirit, it wasn't so different from the penchant of today's DIY enthusiasts for taping instant leaded lights to their double-glazing. Down the centuries, the effect in Chiavari has been to make even the relatively recent look instantly old.

The town's undoubted wealth is reflected in the quality of the shops. Old money never dies here; it just turns over. If you have a weakness for designer kitchenware, if names such as Guzzini and Alessi make you weak in the wallet, prepare to shed your lire. And remember: the great thing about any Italian gadget - a Parmesan grater, a cappuccino foamer or a humble orange squeezer - is that, if you get bored looking at it, you can always use it.

Predictably, the local culinary specialities are fish based. For a taste of the best at around pounds 15 a head, try the Creuza de Mar in the Piazza Cademartori. The fresh anchovies in oil and the clam spaghetti make excellent starters, particularly when sluiced down with the tangy Sardinian house white. And, if you really want to impress your fellow diners, pat your lips and murmur: "Siamo nati per soffrire" - we're born to suffer.

But if, on the day you leave, you just want to pack something snackable for the journey, do what we did: go along to one of the bakers in the Via Martiri della Liberazione, buy a large tile of freshly baked focaccia (the flat, dimpled bread made with olive oil) and then walk along to the Bottega del Formaggio at No 208, where Gianni or Mauro will fill it with cheese and prosciutto. Chiavari is that sort of place.

The nearest airport to Chiavari is Genoa. The only airline with flights there from Britain is British Airways (0345 222111), daily from Gatwick. A World Offer fare has just expired, which means you can expect to pay around pounds 200 return. You may do better to fly to Milan, which is about 100 minutes and pounds 10 away by train. See 48 Hours in Milan (p 8) for details of flights there.