We’ve been coming to the Riviera di Levante for many years now, helped by the fact that it’s only ninety minutes away by car from Lucca, but we’ve always passed right through Zoagli on the assumption that below the main coastal road, the Via Aurelia, there was just a scattering of villas and apartments hugging the coastline with not much else, as is often the case in Liguria.
The Via Aurelia is the old Roman road that runs from Rome along the coast, initially to Pisa and then subsequently extended by the Romans to Genova and ultimately into France. If you live anywhere in the west of Italy like Lucca you tend to spend a lot of time on the Via Aurelia going north or south when not on the autostrada.
In Liguria recently, early one Sunday morning because we needed a coffee, we happened to turn right on a whim (as we were heading south) off the Via Aurelia at a sign that didn’t seem particularly encouraging or helpful with no mention of anything useful other than a 2 star hotel and the train station. Normally in Italy when you’re looking for shops, bars, restaurants etc there’s a centro sign at every junction or roundabout and you simply follow that. We’ve still never seen a centro sign pointing to Zoagli.
Even when we reached the bottom of the steep hill and arrived at the railway station and the adjacent hotel, there was nothing to see and no sign of life. Unwilling to give up so quickly and now needing breakfast as well as coffee, we parked the car and followed the footpath, more in hope than anticipation. It goes up and over the tracks west towards the water and then bends right looking down on the railway (above left photo) before descending steeply to the left, passing attractive villas with lovely sea views towards a small shingle beach (above right photo) as the railway passes overhead on a large viaduct.
At this juncture you can continue down to the beach or cross underneath the viaduct, at which point the path quickly opens up into a lovely large piazza surrounded by a whole range of cafes, restaurants, shops and focaccerie. What a pleasant little place and a lovely surprise given the inauspicious beginning, but we've still no idea how everyone who lives here actually reaches this point in their cars.
The 2,400 Zoagliesi must be very private people who would much rather all the tourists stay nearby in Rapallo or elsewhere because this is not an easy centro to find, with a complete absence of signage and it has to be either deliberate or extremely careless.
Whatever the reason, we now had our pick of several establishments and opted for the cafe right under the viaduct that opens up at the back onto a veranda looking over the beach. After coffee and delicious fresh pastries (remember to ask if they’re fresh or frozen as we mentioned in our article on The Italian Morning because in this case they had both) there was another pleasant surprise in store for us in this interesting little community.
There's a coastal path cleverly constructed over the rocks for about half a mile. It starts on the beach just below the restaurant and stays close enough to the water for most of its length to permit easy access for swimming or sunbathing. Looking out across the open water to the west you can see Santa Margherita Ligure sparkling in the morning sun with the Portofino Regional Park towering above it (top photo). Another one of those great Riviera di Levante views. Rapallo is tucked into a bay on the right and not visible in the photograph.
The path was a great idea and really opens up the sea in a way that would be impossible if it were still just bare rocks. This is a lovely place to spend the day as it's very relaxing and with the almost complete absence of hotels it's never going to be overrun by tourists. If you're staying in one of the nearby towns our suggestion would be to jump on the train and come here for a day out. There's a restaurant called L'Arenella right on the water along the path that has a good reputation and it's already on our list to try next time.
There's always some quirk or odd fact or coincidence that appears out of the blue it seems wherever we happen to be traveling in Italy keeping our eyes open and in the case of Zoagli it's the plaque to Greg Lake that we noticed along the path. If, like me, your interest in music began in the late 1960s then you will know Greg Lake from his time with King Crimson and then as the 'L' in ELP. In any case, he was loved by the people of Zoagli after he started to holiday here every year and especially after he gave a concert in the town in 2012. With so few residents in Zoagli he probably came to know many of them and after his death five years ago the town gave him an honorary citizenship and placed a plaque on the rock in his honor.
The 16th century was a dangerous time for Italy with the French and Spanish wars on land, the sack of Rome by German forces and the constant threat from Turkish marauders by sea. Like Vieste a few years later, Rapallo was attacked by the Turkish buccaneer Toghut-Dragut in 1549 and the Genovese Republic realized that more fortifications were required along its coastline. The result in Zoagli was the Saracen tower (photo right) standing high on the rocks just above the beach.
Finally, back to where this article started with a screenshot of the nondescript signpost pointing to the station and the 2 star hotel. This is the turning off the Via Aurelia that you'll need to make should you wish to drive here one day, or perhaps you'll find the actual road that the residents take that eluded us.