When I finally decided to travel back to B and spend my summer vacation in the charming town on the Italian Riviera, I’ve only had one simple plan in my mind: to fully enjoy it. As a subsidiary plan there was the idea which wouldn’t let me off the hook, about the belfry. More precisely the belfry from San Giacomo, “To-die-for”. There was also a deeply hidden thought in my head, the one of the house that inspired André Aciman to write the novel Call Me By Your Name. I intuited that it would mean the indispensable key for me to that place for ever. And I knew I wanted it.
Not that I wasn’t happy with what I found so far in regards of the belfry where, I initially believed, Elio used to drag up some of their visitors for a quiescent hike and sightseeing. But some aspects just did not add up and it kept niggling at my mind. The belfry which was the focus of my earlier article, Padre Giacomo and Bordighera’s Bell Tower – is it the belfry “to-die-for”? is indeed the symbol of Bordighera, it is the first thing one would immediately perceive on almost every painting or photograph captured in B. Even in the background images of André Aciman’s social media profiles… And it really is just a bell tower neighboring the church, not one with it but a separate belfry, on the main piazza of the town, also called by the locals, piazzetta, where Elio and Oliver often spent their nights along with their gang of friends dancing, drinking and living the typical Italian social life of a small town.
But as you can imagine, the main square of a town just rarely is the most tranquil place to hike up to, much less in Italy (unless one is roaming it late night). And we can confidently suppose that the town center which, even according to the novel, is a longer bike ride away from the Perlman’s villa, is not the spot where Elio wanted to take a quick hike with Oliver after twenty years, before lunch. So I had to search for that specific belfry that Aciman mentions as the one that can be seen from Monet’s Berm, the one that is on the hilltop, not too far from the villa, beyond the abandoned tracks of the old coastal railway.
It was a fresh and humid morning when I stepped out to the Lungomare Argentina, the scenic promenade of the town in the company of some freshly bought apricots. The salty breeze of the Mediterranean put its arms around me and we walked along the boardwalk towards the outskirts of the town. The sky was still gray after the rain showers of the passed night, but I enjoyed seeing the curve of the shore on the French side unfolding slowly from the clouds and the morning fog. First Menton, then Monaco contoured itself out in the vague, misty sunbeams of the late morning hours.
On one side, by the sea I had the summer terraces getting ready with their colorful umbrellas and flowering vines to serve as welcoming retreats from the lunch hour heat during the siesta. On the other side, across the train tracks there were the old and also the newly constructed villas and summer houses with their yellow, red or green shutters, large French windows and balconies facing the sea. It would have been helpful to have the faintest idea where the Perlman’s summer villa – real or fictitious – was located, so I tried my best to assume this role to random buildings that would acceptably fit the narrative in the book. And there were plenty, however there was none which I would confidently award with the role. And I knew one thing for sure: I would never bring this up in our seldom conversations about “Call Me…” – as he sometimes refers to it instead of the worldwide trademark “CMBYN” – with André Aciman, much less would I ask him about the whereabouts of the house. I wanted this to remain my own game and my own victory in case I will earn one in this matter.
After an hour-long walk I reached the creek that goes by the name Nervia and unites with the Mediterranean just before the abandoned, aged royal railroad tracks. Vallecrosia is now part of Bordighera, however prefers to be mentioned as a village of its own. I crossed the pedestrian bridge to the other side and – very excited – I finally found the train tracks, to be precise, what’s left of them. There it was: “the endless empty lot in the hinterland toward the abandoned train tracks that used to connect B. to N.” /Aciman/ Although here and there some reminding fragments were intentionally left at their place like an odd open air museum, the tracks that connected this railyard to the main Riviera coastline railways were – it seems, recently – fully buried and transformed into a bike path. And obviously there was no trace of the old train car with the royal insignia, where the gypsies used to shelter. I knew I was on the right way, one step closer to the belfry.
Last summer, just shortly before I went home from here, I learned about a little village, a thorp on the hills of Monte Maure that offers a beautiful background to any picture that is taken in Vallecrosia or Camporosso, a hamlet called San Giacomo. And it wasn’t difficult task to immediately find out about the little church with a bell-tower on its top, La Chiesetta di San Giacomo. I did not have the opportunity and time to properly investigate this new and expressedly gripping discovery back then. So being at the lower end of the serpentine road that climbs the hill towards to the place where I believed I will reach my destination, and also, having a full vacation time ahead for adventures and discoveries made me extremely happy, all agog and proud of myself. I felt that I can rest assured in regards of the belfry and since it was about lunchtime, I agreed that I deserve a steak with gorgonzola sauce on one of those seaside restaurants. I walked back to the promenade, this time on the other bank of the river, entering the border town between Italy and France, Ventimiglia and made myself comfortable at a table by the sea, facing the now sundrenched view of the Côte d’Azur and Monte Carlo in the far end. While waiting for my steak I took the time to learn about the town. I was sure the name of Ventimiglia means actually what it is in Italian: twenty miles, maybe the distance from France, I suppose. I wasn’t completely wrong about that, as indeed, Ventimiglia was approximately that far from the French back in the XIV. Century up to the early XIX. Century. But the etymology of the name brought up a totally different aspect. The original name for the place in the ancient era was Album Intimili, meaning the capital of the Intimilii, a Ligurian tribe. That later became Vintimillium and then Ventimiglia – or called Vintimille by French.
After the tasty detour that I let lazily lingering into the afternoon charged me with fresh energies and determination to take the hill on. As soon as I passed the little church named after Christ the King and which affiliation wasn’t clear – as it could rightfully be either in Vallecrossia, either Camporosso or Ventimiglia, since the boundaries between these localities were never clarified in my mind – I found the entrance to the narrow serpentine that would help me get to the top of the hill. It was called Collasgarba, meaning something rude or rough in Italian, however to me, though it was steep, it seemed to be not only friendly but very welcoming, too. Besides the breathtaking views from Monet’s Berm or from the overlook by Marabutto, in the park with the Piave Memoriale, no other place offered me such enthralling vistas to the sea and Bordighera before. It must have been time for vespers, the bells from Cristo Re started to spread their chime across the landscape mixing with the song of the blackbirds and cicadas as a call for the evening worshipers, as I climbed higher and higher on the crooked road. I knew I must be close to the hilltop, there were fewer houses left and almost no vehicles passed me. I looked at the villas with the entrances from the main road. I could just imagine the view from their flower-filled balconies. It wasn’t easy to dig up too much helpful information about the small village on the hilltop and its little church, but the old map I found on the internet was still encouraging me to continue the hike, although it suggested that at some point the paved road will cease and a tiny dirt road will take me over to guide me up to the church.
– Posso aiutarvi? Chi state cercando? (Can I help you? Who are you looking for?)
The straightforward question came from one of those beautiful balconies looking down to the sea but the old woman didn’t seem to care much about the vistas, but rather about my intentions in the secluded area. When I mentioned chiesetta di San Giacomo, she first pointed down to now distant Cristo Re mumbling something like there are so many beautiful churches to go to in this area, why someone just would want to climb the hill for that little chapel. But then – probably when she saw I may have a special obsession for San Giacomo she pointed to the viaduct in the far-far distance arching over the large valley between Bordighera and Ventimiglia bearing the scenic highway, Autostrada dei Fiori from Italy to France, saying that taking the car would be easier. It sounded so strange, because I was sure the church is just minutes away from me now and it just did not make sense to do an almost fifty kilometer detour to reach the village by car – that I don’t possess anyway. But I learned never to argue with locals and instead I tried to ask her about the church itself. I even mentioned the belfry. Mostly because I wanted to know what to expect to find if I ever manage to get to the hilltop. It might be closed now, she replied and added that I won’t be able to go up there on this road anyway. I pulled out the printed map as a proof, not that she could see it from up there but to give my hike an explanation.
– La gente ha costruito casa lì… (People built house there) – she pointed to the tip of the road.
Nonetheless, after she offered me lemonade and waved goodbye, I continued my walk up towards to the end of the paved road. I loved the smell of the orange trees full of fruits, the yellow cactuses in the sight, the magenta paper-flowers hugging the rocks and the breeze from the Mediterranean. When the road ended, there was indeed the last house. It seemed to be newly constructed, fenced up and the friendly sign reminded the only pedestrian – that was me – about the consequences of trespassing the private territory. The woman was right (as it always happens with locals and that’s why one shall always avoid any kind of argument with them). These people bought this land, built a house and just simply cut the narrow road from getting to the village, and to the chapel. I felt disappointed and suddenly tired. My first attempt to find the belfry “To-die-for” just failed. I found myself putting the blame on these people who moved right here to obstruct my way.
A man walked out to the gate to find out about the purpose of my unannounced visit. He brought me some mineral water in a bottle and looked at the map.
– Sì…ovviamente abbastanza vecchia… (Of course, pretty old…)
While I was quenching my thirst he mentioned that there may be another way to get to San Giacomo if I insist not to drive via the Viadotto di Borghetto. There’s an old road up from the town, just behind the railway station, once I pass the Teatro Romano – the archeological site of the Roman Era in Ventimiglia.
I knew there will be a second attempt but I didn’t plan it in advance, it was just like a task that needs to be fulfilled at some point. So few days later when I spent the morning hours walking around San Remo from down in the port all the way up to the old town, on the way back, I decided not to get off the bus in Bordighera but instead I took the trip to the last stop, in Ventimiglia. It was just clearing up after a quick summer storm and it was a pleasant late afternoon, although excessively humid. Past the Roman Era theatre’s ruins, I walked to the lower end of the narrow side street, which had a forgotten sign stating it leads to San Giacomo. On the right, however I noticed a familiar other sign: AVML. When I did my thorough research about the belfry and the possible location for it in San Giacomo, one of the very few useful data that I found was related to this Alta Via Dei Monti Liguri, the 440 km long hiking trail along the Italian Riviera. It was because the AVML on its way to Bordighera crosses San Giacomo and the belfry is one of the reference points in the area. And I suddenly remembered everything that I’ve read about it before, so I also recalled the fact, that the hiking trail is a shortcut to the chiesetta compared to the San Giacomo paved road. I knew there’s a water fountain and a last house before the trail starts its climb towards to the village uphill. I did not waste my time to stop by the fountain and just exchanged some niceties with the old lady who spent the twilight hours sitting on a wooden stool. I guess I mentioned her what my destination is and she told me something like “Good luck with that!” It was way too late when it dawned on me why. Because there was one thing that I forgot to put into the account: my fear of heights. Not that the 260 m or so over the sea level would exceed my countless trips at 41,000 feet for work and for pleasure, but acrophobia isn’t anything like that. The unprotected narrow paths on the edge of the mountain when I reached impressive heights and left the area comfortably guarded by the trees and bushes made me feel not just extremely uneasy and anxious but sad in the same time. There was the best view I could ever capture of the Italian Riviera meeting Côte d’Azur and yet I was blocked numb with my back glued to a rock looking down petrified to all that beauty. I couldn’t do a step forward, nor could I find my way back to the place behind the trees that would have meant safety at that moment. I looked up over my shoulder and I saw, I felt that only few steps separate me from the edge of via Maure that would lead me to the belfry but I also knew I am unable to make those steps. When I found the strength and courage for it I slowly groped back to my last safe spot and dropped to the ground. I felt exhausted. Not because of the long kilometers in San Remo that day, the hundreds of stairs in the old town, the climbing on the trail in the muggy afternoon, but because of the second failure to get to the final destination, also, because being so close and yet not being able to finalize the journey to the belfry. It was getting late, but I knew I can’t just go back to B. tonight without reaching the chapel, as the next day was my last day there for a while. I don’t know how but I found hidden energies to rush down the hill, back to the sign at the intersection. When I got to the house, at the fountain I washed the sweat of my face and neck and while I was drinking the old lady got up from her stool and handed me a clean towel. I told her about my fiasco and she didn’t react at all. It was like she knew it all along.
-Il percorso c’è… (The path is there…) – she said simply and expressionlessly pointing towards to the obvious, the sign to San Giacomo down in the intersection where an hour ago I decided to detour myself to the Alta Via. Why didn’t she tell me that before? – I asked quietly.
– Non l’hai mai chiesto. (You never asked)
She was right. Nothing could have stopped me to take the Alta Via.
I had to hurry before the evening falls, so I hugged her for goodbye and took the poorly paved road uphill. I was climbing again. Somehow the weariness disappeared and I was fresher than even one hour before. Not too many houses aligned along the steep road and mostly the dogs paid attention to the strange wanderer barking loudly and angrily behind the fences. My steps were fast and determined to get to the destination as soon as I could. Suddenly the paved way ended. There was a ramification, the road split into two shallow paths, I took the right one and continued my way up hoping to hit the summit. I even checked the map on my phone that alerted me about the short time it has until he’ll die for the day. It was so that after few more steps I should have reached the street, the same via Maure I hoped to reach from the Alta Via, too, more than one hour ago. But then a fence blocked my way again. It was a gate actually. Apparently another property took over the path and a new home will be built on the place where once people walked up to the litte chapel to worship. I didn’t have time to grieve the vanished road any longer at the gate, it started to get dark. Unless I wanted to jump it and face the consequences. I walked back instead to the bifurcation. The other way didn’t look any better than the previous one. It was overgrown by fragrant honeysuckle bushes and redolent beach roses. There seemed to be no way to pass through the lush vegetation. I spotted a car farther down on the paved road, someone just pulled out from one of the high-lying yards, put the handbrake on but with the engines running stepped back to close the gate. He noticed my presence, the dogs wouldn’t let me go unnoticed anyway. We greeted each other and he immediately asked if I wanted a lift down to the town. I nodded and asked him to let me grab some water in my bottle before he closed the gate and meanwhile I confessed to him why I was there at that strange evening hour. He smiled. And after all now you want to just come down to the town without to see the chiesetta? – he asked. I must have looked baffled because he put his arm around my shoulder and with the another one pointed to the tunnel formed by the honesuckle and rose bushes.
– È proprio lì, dietro… (It’s just there, behind…)
I ran back to the ramification and indeed… behind the honeysuckles there was the little cross pointing to the top of the chapel. The belfry. After I thanked him in many languages that came to my mind, I told him not to wait for me and waved arrivederci.
I quickly fought myself through the bushes and there I was! The warm orangy late afternoon sun still dominated the entire top of the hill. But most beautiful of all was the sunlit little chapel with its bell tower.
I was sweaty, dirty, exhausted. And inexpressibly happy.
Now I know why they nicknamed you so.
4 thoughts on “The crooked way to San Giacomo, and the belfry “To-die-for””
Just discovered your awesome blog today (by googling “Villa Albergoni Moscazzano”, btw) and I’m hooked! What a beautiful enterprise, and how many hours of work you put into it. And your beautiful photography makes me long to see those places also some day. I’m very much looking forward to slowly savoring your articles, but wanted to ask re. this one (which read like a detective story): do you happen to know a lovely essay by Aciman called “My Monet Moment”? It’s, as your other Bordighera post, about trying to locate the spot where Monet painted etc. A similar meandering through the town as you experienced. It’s in the collection “Alibis”, and I cannot recommend it highly enough if you are interested in this spot. Plus – trying to avoid spoilers here, but you might get crazy over this – the ultimative hotel tip…
I’m glad you had a chance to visit the Mediterranean despite the pandemic and hope you have lovely plans for this year as well. Thanks for your wonderful blog!
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First of all, Martina, thank you for your kind words. Of course I read “My Monet Moment”, “Alibis” and actually the whole work of Aciman (novels, essays, etc) And to make you sense how on spot your comment is, I have to tell you the story how after reading “My Monet Moment” I immediately told André he confused the Garnier Villa with the Villa Etelinda Bischoffsheim, which is the real villa on Monet’s paintings. (you can easily spot it behind me on the first picture) And from that we started a nice conversation about our beloved Bordighera and many other things like “Call Me… “. Since I wrote this blog (the initial stories and articles) I’ve been back to both, Lombardy and Liguria. Actually I even spent the last summer in Italy, and I was lucky enough to have some gorgeous time again in B. I just physically did not have the time yet to share all my newer experiences and pictures in this matter, because I stayed in Europe after that nice vacation and just returned to New York yesterday evening. I hope, soon I will be able to complete the blog with the awesome stories and experiences I have been lucky to encounter. I am touched by how many people from all around the world keep sending me their thoughts, their messages and their experiences connecting to my blog and my trips to those beloved places.
Looking forward to posts about your newest travels! And I’m glad you got the chance to stay in Europe despite the pandemic.
Thanks also for the corrections about the Villa Garnier. I’ll copy this into my “Alibis”-copy to have it at hand.
Again, congratulations on a fabulous blog. Whenever I think of your site, while doing house chores or driving my car, I see the colour blue, an intense, deep blue. A true azzurro. Your eyes saw so much beauty, and you shared it with us in such a generous way. Do you know how happy you made us?