Sunday, June 16, 2013

Liguria: A Layered Land

We were driving through Liguria a few days ago and my friend, Nicola, was telling stories.  As we drove on a road that wound along the sea and through mountains terraced with olive trees, he was sharing some funny stories that I swore I would not repeat, but most of Nicola's tales come more in the form of legends, little histories of this beautiful land.

And then I pointed to a cluster of houses, tucked deep into a mountainside.  I asked who lives in these houses and why.  They are almost impossible to reach.  I tried to envision the kinds of people who live here.  Then Nicola told me that if you walk in the woods you often come up houses that have been abandoned.  Whole houses, made of stones, that are crumbling to dust.

That's when he explained to me about ubago.  Ubago is a word of Ligurian dialect.  Ubago is a wet, dark place.  You can come upon it only in the deepest reaches of the woods.  Here you feel that anything can happen.  It is where you will confront ghosts and mysteries and perhaps your own demonds.  The past itself can arise.  Ubago is the forgotten.  It is the darkside.

I'd met Nicola at a conference in Genoa the previous fall.  Genoa is the heart of Liguria -  the province of Italy that abuts the French Riviera. Liguria is thought of as riviera "lite" - without Cannes or St. Tropez.  Not to mention Provence. It has none of the jet set allure and hence is less known.  Perhaps in its own way Liguria is a bit of a forgotten place.

I'd only been here once before.  With my mother decades ago.  We'd stopped in Genoa and spent a night in La Spezia.  I had been to Genoa before and once decades ago with my mother to La Spezia.

I knew little about this part of the world but when Nicola told me that his family had a four-star hotel (Hotel Caravelle in Diano Marina) and that he had his own olive grove (where he produces organic olive oil), well, it seemed like a no brainer.  We made this side trip from our vacation in Spain.

When driving through Liguria, you can't miss the terraced landscape.  Nine hundred years ago, Nicola explained, the people of this region recognized that this land had the perfect combination of rich soil and brilliant sunshine for growing olives and grapes. But it was also very difficult because the mountainous land was so rocky.  If they managed to till the land, where would they put the rocks?  So they developed a technique of creating terraces, braced with walls of stone.  To this day this is how this region is farmed.

What I'll call the layered look - of this multi-layered land.

But now as Nicola was explaining to me about ubago, I got a look at another kind of layers.  Something that went beyond the mountains and the sea and the terraced terrain.  Liguria is a prehistoric place (I actually saw a prehistoric plant at the Hanbury botanic garden that had a boy plant and a girl plant whose centers weirdly evoked human genitalia).  Its beginnings were pagan  and so it still has a tradition of ghosts, and spirits, and unseen things.

The sun and the mountains, the sea and the dark side.  Olives and grapes.  Hilltowns and abandoned houses made of stone.  Prehistoric plants.  Come to Liguria and find your portal into another world.  It can be hard, I know, where everywhere you look is beautiful and mysterious at the same time.


  1. I love this region, it's probably the place I love best in the world. So enjoyed your post!

  2. I feel like I'm there when I read your notes. Just finished my first Mary Morris book, Nothing to Declare. I don't know where else to express my longing to know what happened to Lupe and children. Thank you for that story. I will be looking for the rest.

  3. Dear Mary, Yes, beautiful and mysterious. Lovely blog.

  4. Mary, so amazing that you were able to go back and see Nicola and visit his families hotel! I enjoyed my time in Liguria, myself staying in Nervi, where Nicola lives and gave me a ride home one night from Genoa. Such a generous young man, he and Paoloa. We had lots of fun!

  5. That would be great! Your blog and pictures are inspiring me to go there! Liguria is officially on my places to visit!
    Freizeit Ligurien