Varigotti: the Saracen town

You arrive at Varigotti almost by chance, maybe having remembered some photo or an article in a travel mag. You stroll along the unusually wide beach. You see the edges of the bay in the distance, hemming in the sea. You notice the colour of people’s eyes, their accents, the sound from their stringed instruments: Ligurian, but also slightly alien. Varigotti occupies the narrow space between sea and mountains, but that’s not the only liminal space it occupies.

The water in the bay of Varigotti is abnormally clear; the light is abnormally golden, the air abnormally bright, and the houses abnormally positioned “with their feet in the water”. Low, squat, colourful houses, and – now that I think about it – distinctly Middle-Eastern in style. These are the homes of fishermen, they say; noteworthy because though the Ligurians face out to sea, historically they have always looked more inland. Partly because, as at Varigotti, the sea brought nothing but trouble, in the form of Saracen corsair ships or long-term conquerors, like their hated Genoese neighbours. Such a source of danger was the water that they made their port as much of a refuge as possible, and scampered inland to make a life of earth and stone.

Varigotti’s story is a somewhat confused one. On the one hand, it’s just a small town without claims to nobility, and without any bards who have sung its exploits. On the other hand, it is believed to date back far enough to have been fought over even in Roman times. It variously belonged to the Byzantines, to the Lombards (who, not being sailors, let its precious port fall into disrepair), and to the Saracens, who turned it into a new Mediterranean power player. In fact, such was their impact – so the story goes, but this may just be hearsay – that a certain Moorish timbre remains in the local dialect and accent, and also in the place names, such as Cà dei Mori.

In Varigotti, the men fished while the women got a few vegetables out of the land behind the houses on the sand. These houses hardly stand in an orderly line: they’re a jumble of low buildings right at the water’s edge, peppered with pillars and vaulted windows and topped with flat rooves. From a distance, they resemble a caravanserai. And they were called “Saracens”, without objection from anybody, for centuries on centuries.

And in large part, what makes Varigotti unique is its very inconvenience: its difficult, nonsensical streets, its crumpled layout, and the fact that, for all its beauty, it has seen better days. It’s not a place for lightning visits or rowdy groups, nor for big-spending revellers in search of the glittering windows of expensive jewellery brands. It’s not a place for avowed cocktailers, or for those who stay out into the small hours. It’s more a place of balance, where luxury can be found in small, precious quantities. It’s not for those who pride themselves on having everything, the latest essential of the new season, as is almost always the case in vacation resorts. This bluff, introverted town continues to grow naturally, not artificially; it has been spared the horrendous slanted houses that blight most of the Italian riviera. Just stroll along the Varigotti beach one Wednesday in late October, and you will understand.


”Hers is the least beautiful… But children must get used to injustice… and as soon as possible too!”
[From the film “La spiaggia” (1954) by Alberto Lattuada, shot partially in Varigotti. This rather acrid joke from the billionaire Chiastrino, at the moment of awarding Caterina, daughter of the protagonist, first prize in a sandcastle competition].