Liberty-style in Liguria, Albion on the Mediterranean. In the early twentieth century, the English communities discovered the Riviera di Ponente, and Mediterranean style
It was a romantic getaway. I needed it. So mobile phone off, far from my children, from work, cares and commitments. Two days with my wife, from the other side of the world – an almost three-hour train ride from home. Having left the station, climbing up the hill and leaving a chaotic holiday-makers’ Alassio behind, we suddenly found ourselves in a corner of paradise. Romantic, and I say that as a philologist: Villa della Pergola sprang from the romantic Anglo Saxon scene, from that English community which had discovered the Riviera di Ponente in the late 19th century, building eclectic style villas amidst olive and carob trees, cypress trees and Mediterranean brush, with balconies boasting breathtaking views. In the beginning of the twentieth century the community of the sons of Albion was already so numerous as to build a church, a tennis club and even a Liberty-style train station in Alassio. Some in Ventimiglia, some in San Remo, and some in Albenga, each wanted to take their refined Nordic culture and fuse it with the powerful, revitalizing Mediterranean countryside. And that is what the Scots general William Montagu Scott Mc Murdo did, after a military career in India, when he sought his buen retiro in an eclectic villa, complete with pagoda dome and neo-colonial portico. All of this, of course, with impeccable taste. The same went for the owners that followed over the years, Sir Walter Hamilton Dalrymple and Daniel Hanbury.
We are sitting on the terrace, waiting for a coffee, and I’m thinking that the history of European nobility and intelligentsia has passed beneath this piece of sky: English, French, Italian. Artists, leaders, poets. A fairy-tale place, which experienced, like in all fairytales, a time when danger seemed to loom on the horizon. At the beginning of this century, after years of dereliction, it looked like the twenty-two hectares of garden were destined for a devastating speculative end. But a fairytale wouldn’t be so without a hero arriving in the end. And in this case it was a group of Ligurian friends – including the Ricci family – who bought the property at a court auction and set about restoring it to its former glory. Today, being a guest at the villa or the adjacent villino, both finely restored, is something everyone should treat themselves to at least once in a lifetime. It is not just the history in the air. It is the taste. The palpable, domestic sense of refinement. Even just this cup of coffee on the terrace, bathed in generous sunlight, can banish the stresses of everyday life. All of the bedrooms in the relais – fifteen, large, bright and comfortable – have a sea view. No one has to miss out on the sunlight, the view of infinity, the silence broken only by birdsong.
Then there is the garden, which in itself justifies the whole stay. If I speak of paradise I am, once again, being literary. For the Persians, and later the Greeks, ‘garden’ was ‘paràdeisos’. Never before has that been so true as of here. The restoration of the park by the landscape architect Paolo Pejrone has moments of pure poetry: tall trees, palm trees rescued from palm weevils, fragranced citrus trees, the collection of agapanthus, one of Europe’s most valuable. We are walking, my wife and I, beneath the pergolas laden with wisteria in bloom, raining down on us in whites, pinks and blues. Wherever your gaze rests, it is wonderful, a dream: the cacti, the agave, the pools with Japanese carp, the putti covered in foliage that trembles in the light breeze, the blossomed climbers that embrace the cypress trees.
Sight, hearing, touch, smell. Only taste is missing to complete the ecstasy of all the senses. That task is left to Giorgio Servetto, the chef at the restaurant Nove, located in Villa della Pergola. We are guided through the choice of food and wines, and it is a triumph of Albenga artichokes, squid, seared tuna, anchovies in green sauce, almond desserts, local Vermentino wine. I cannot even keep up with all the information I’m getting from the expert sommelier or from the enthusiastic waiters. Several dishes later I get to the coffee, accompanied by some little chocolate delights. Even a wisteria blossom picked from the garden, glazed and frosted.
Via Privata Montagu 9, Alassio (Savona)
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