Julius and I had visited Lévanto, on the Italian Riviera south of Genoa, too briefly, about twelve years ago. I fondly remembered the town as an idyllic step back in time, a personification of the pre-WWII fantasy depicted in the movie, “Life Is Beautiful.” In the Lévanto of my memory, you go to the caffè every morning to have a coffee and pastry and read the paper, then take a leisurely stroll to the beach. After a swim in the clear, salty water and an alfresco lunch of, perhaps, seafood salad with the slightly effervescent, local white wine, there’s a nap in an antique bed in a quiet, dark room decorated with Renaissance frescoes. Ah, then another stroll while deciding where to have dinner. The next day, a short train ride to visit one of the five picturesque villages perched on the rugged cliffs of the Cinque Terre, a U.N. World Heritage Site. All for a few thousand lire a day.
The Lévanto of 2010 is bigger, brasher, more expensive, and more carnival-like (especially since our visit coincided with major FIFA soccer matches, which were broadcast in the outdoor cafes and bars, many of which have big flat-screen TVs). There are dozens of new restaurants and expensive shops, a flashy beach club with pool (entrance fee: 40 euros a day), three or four crowded spiaggi (beaches) with rental cabanas, lots of kids running around, and noisy motorini (scooters) on the narrow streets. But the town is still charming and still the ideal base from which to explore the Cinque Terre, whether getting there by train, boat or on foot.