Savona, the coastal city I had passed through multiple times on my past journeys to and from Italy, is my first destination this year. Back in October, I spent two days along the promenade with friends, a group of pilgrims on their way from Santiago de Compostela to Rome and Jerusalem. There was some organising to do: a stand to set up, people to talk to, a message to share. Though we spent some time in the fortress and in the park, I didn’t learn much about Savona. But you know what they say: there’s always next time!
It is winter now and I’m staying in the city center. Still, I start the day where I left off: on the beach. Because it is off-season I can bring my pup Simba. The restaurants and bars are closed. Wooden planks cover the doors and windows of the bars that were lively and crowded in the summer. The sea is rough. Last night, monstrous waves crashed against the sand barriers that have been pushed in front of the buildings in a further attempt to keep the water at bay. The sea has calmed down in the morning. While the occasional wave crawls across the sand and lingers at my feet, it is safe to walk here now.
Coming past the park on my way back, I’m starting to feel a little nostalgic for the memories made in summer and the people who made them worthwhile. Bits and pieces of conversations along with images flash through my mind: the crazy cat lady, who yelled at us because we happened to hang out in the place she’d made the daily meeting-point with her stray cats; Maitane, the pregnant donkey, joyfully rolling on her back; impromptu jam sessions and chalk paintings on the sidewalk. There is a Luna Park now, but it is closed.
The city of two popes
Ten minutes later I am back in the city. The street numbers inside Piazza Diaz are a litte confusing. I walk up and down the street and check the address again. Just as I’m starting to believe that there’s been a mistake, I find what I’m looking for: a small oval sign on an old wooden door: Due Papi Bed & Breakfast. I’m supposed to meet the manager at 10am, but Francesco is nowhere to be seen. I sit down on one of the red leather couches in the entrance hall while I’m waiting. About ten minutes later my phone rings, shortly thereafter Francesco enters. Above his grey sweater he’s wearing the robe of a barber shop.
“Sorry, sorry,” he offers as he quickly shows me my room, the kitchen and the communal area before he excuses himself to finish his appointment with the barber downstairs. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes. I’ll be right back.”
I’m still smiling when the door has already fallen shut behind him.
Due Papi is a spacious apartment on the second floor of an old building in the city center of Savona. My window faces Piazza Diaz and the theatre, a pompous white building with big wall pillars framing the entrance. Aside from the main building, Savona has made a name for itself for its open air shows inside the fortress, La Fortezza del Priamar.
When Francesco returns he is freshly shaven. He shows me the remaining rooms inside the B&B. The ceilings are painted with intricate frescos and the floors are made of tiled patterns. Some of the rooms’ walls are built along the old city walls.
“Do you know a little about the history of Savona?” Francesco asks me. I know a little but not too much, so I ask for his version of the story. “This B&B is called Due Papi because of the two popes that come from here: Sisto IV and Giulio III. You’ve probably heard of the Sistine Chapel in Rome before. But did you know that there’s a second, smaller one that Sisto IV built here in Savona? Sisto’s parents were buried there.”
I didn’t know this. In the summer we had stayed close to the infamous Via Aurelia, the SS1, the coastal road that goes from France all the way down to Rome. What we did see and visit was the fortress. Located right along the Aurelia, the Priamar fortress is hard to miss when you visit Savona. Free of charge, it offers cosy corners, gardens, and a restaurant to spend the day. I walk up to the section where we had lunch in the summer.
Back in the day, the fortress was used during the ongoing battles between Savona and Genova. Savona ultimately had to submit, and the fortress was used as a lookout post to regulate the port and to keep the city under control. I can see why, the view is remarkable from up here: in the South, the ocean sparkles in the midday sun, in the East, there is the port, and in the North, opposite of the main road, the city stretches out.
Savona: city flair and tranquility
I spend the day walking around town. The third-largest city in Liguria, Savona is big enough to experience a city flair — especially in the summer when tourism flourishes and the beaches and streets are crowded with people. It is still winter now but the sun is shining and the temperature’s mild. People are walking outside, and I am surprised by the number of dogs we encounter. Time seems to be running a little slower for everyone this time of the year.
While the outskirts of Savona stretch out further into the hinterland, the central district around the harbour and the old town is easily walkable. By the time we return to the B&B in the late afternoon, the sun is about to set. I’m a little hungry. The bars are starting to fill up with people enjoying their aperitif, yet most of the restaurants won’t open until 7:30pm.
Simba instantly drops to the floor and falls asleep when we enter the room, and I also rest my feet a little. A few hours later the day finally ends the way any good day in Italy should: with a glass of local red wine and a pizza Margherita.