FINDING REMO; Escape Italy Attracting Classical Musicians, Painters and Hollywood Stars in Its Heyday, Italy's San Remo Is the Ideal Place for a Sparkling Summer Break, Says NORMAN MILLER

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN MILLER

LIGHT, dark, light, dark: the tunnels come every few hundred yards as the coast road sweeps west from Genoa towards France, causing the sunshine to flicker like an old movie as I slice through each hill.

The Italian region of Liguria is at the point where the Alps reach south and touch the sea - but it isn't just tunnel builders who benefit from the meeting of the mountains and Med.

Shielding the coast from chilly northern air, the peaks have created one of Italy's most temperate spots. Dubbed the Riviera dei Fiori (the flower coast), it is a playground for a constellation of stars and starlets, and a top spot for a flying summer break.

At its heart, and closer to Nice on the French Cote d'Azur than Genoa, lies San Remo. In its heyday, from the late 1800s to the 1950s, the city was a magnet for aristocrats and artists.

Tchaikovsky composed here, Monet painted here, and the British upper-crust built ravishing villas that still line the Corso degli Inglesi, just east of the town centre. One frequent royal visitor was the tsaress Maria Alexandrovna, who inspired the building of the Russian Orthodox Church - its domes still provide a striking, and slightly disapproving, backdrop to the city's casino.

Later, screen royalty came in search of la dolce vita. Sinatra breezed in with Ava Gardner, as did Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, the real-life Hollywood queen from along the coast in Monaco.

Glistening gin palaces still moor in the harbour and mink-clad women still trail groomed poodles and groomed men, but modern San Remo now mixes faded glamour with bustling, contemporary bars, and stylish shops lie between the cathedral and the sea.

Saturday night in the casino, and rather than tuxedoed high-rollers, I watch superannuated playboys and dolled-up 40-something blondes trying their luck at roulette and cards.

At one table, a mafioso-lookalike plays blackjack with an unlit cigarette drooping from his mouth - pure affectation, given that smoking is now banned in bars and restaurants in Italy. At another, a geeky type cleans up at chemin de fer, his stack of chips growing gradually loftier as he demonstrates an uncanny talent for this most mysterious of casino games.

SAN REMO'S old town exudes a similar mystery.

Set in the heart of the modern city, La Pigna - as the historic quarter is known - is another world.

Diving through an archway off Piazza Cassini, I am suddenly amid a maze of dark, enclosed alleys, where yellow lamps illuminate medieval walls and religious frescoes, the gloom punctuated by tiny cobbled squares and pools of light from neighbourhood bars.

Above La Pigna, the church of Madonna della Costa and the Regina Elena Gardens look over the city.

Later, grabbing a table at an old port bar, I enjoy an early evening drink, tucking into the array of complimentary snacks that seem to come automatically: local Taggiasca olives, little potato cakes and thin slices of pizza.

I make sure, though, that I leave space for dinner at the casino, where my irritation at having to don a shapeless borrowed jacket to conform to the restaurant's dress code is assuaged by my first mouthful of sauteed baby squid in a chick pea puree.

About 30 miles west of the city, just shy of the French border, the Hanbury Gardens are a feast for the eye. Established in the 1860s by Londoner Sir Thomas Hanbury, who made a fortune trading in the Far East, the gardens carpet the shoreline of La Mortola.

Mixing native Mediterranean species with tailored sections featuring plants from around the globe, the gardens are traversed by sculpture-lined pathways and a section of the ancient Via Julia Augusta, one of the most important Mediterranean coastal paths in Roman times. …