So very Mr Ripley
Glamour and jazz on the Italian Riviera
There’s a scene in the 1999 film The Talented Mr Ripley in which Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) invites Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) to accompany him to the Music Festival in Sanremo, a small coastal city in the Ligurian region of northwest Italy. Tom accepts and the two of them have a fun, jazzy time drinking prosecco at a giant white hotel with a magnificent terrace and lush gardens overlooking the ocean and everything’s great, up until the moment they go boating on the beautiful blue Mediterranean and Tom clubs Dickie to death with an oar.
I’ve seen the movie many times and every time I envy their trip because I like Italian food, jazz, prosecco and most oceans. I’ve always wanted to do everything they did (except be murdered by a sociopath who wants to steal my identity). So earlier this year I decide I simply must stay in a giant white hotel with magnificent terrace and gardens in Sanremo. I book a room for myself and Dickie. Oh, I mean for myself and my wife and daughter.
We fly into Nice around 9am on a cloudy Friday in spring, rent a car and hit the Basse Corniche, the lowest of the three cliff roads, lined with 19th-century villas and snaking along the coast through Cap Rognoso, Cap d’Ail and the haven of pastel-coloured everything that is Monaco. It’s a lovely, spectacular drive and we’re in Italy before 10am, Sanremo by half past.
The Royal Hotel is located at the western edge of the city, just a few minutes’ walk from the art nouveau casino and the compact dining and shopping area. The hotel’s creamy white facade is dotted with balconies and darkgreen wooden shutters. Suites on the lower floors boast terraces large enough to accommodate a swinging quartet and a dozen prosecco-swilling jazz fans. Our gorgeous room is on the top floor and has a stunning view of the enormous pool and expansive subtropical gardens below, and the swelling Mediterranean beyond. Rooms at the rear of the hotel also have excellent views of the town rising up the steep hill to the north.
The hotel was built in 1872 and much effort has been put into maintaining its classic old-school charm and appeal — parquetry-floored lounge areas decorated with still-life paintings and portraits; a bow-tied grand-piano player who knows every song ever written; smartly uniformed bartenders who know every cocktail ever conceived; glamorous dining rooms; a smoking room; and huge windows with beautiful views of everything. Below ground is an expansive wellness centre that offers high- end treatments, massages, a hydro-massage pool, a Turkish bath and a Swedish sauna. It’s very international down there (Dickie Greenleaf would love it).
We take a walk, passing the onion-domed Russian Church, built in 1906 in honour of Russian empress and Sanremo fan Maria Alexandrovna. (She was far from the only Russian fan; Tchaikovsky wrote the opera Eugene Onegin here in 1877.) In a few minutes we are on Corso Giacomo Matteotti, a pedestrian strip of shops, cafes, restaurants and gelateria. Like other Ligurian towns, Sanremo was built with defence in mind — the first foreign visitors were, after all, marauding pirates — and the steep hills to the north act as a natural barrier, protecting from severe weather and giving the region year-round mild temperatures. The oldest part of the city, built in about 1000, consists of steep, narrow, twisting alleys beneath archways and buttresses, small squares and tiny terraced houses. The area is known as La Pigna (the pinecone), for the way it wraps itself around the hill upon which it’s built. We pant our way to the top, to the Piazza Santa Costanza, and are rewarded with a great view of the city and its twin harbours.
We return to the lower reaches of La Pigna that night for dinner at Osteria Camelot. Tucked away, the restaurant has a bougainvillea-draped outdoor terrace and a small vaulted room that was once a wine cellar. It’s a friendly, family-owned place — genial host Gianluca works the floor; his wife Enrica takes care of coffee, the bar and the register; Gianluca’s mother Tita cooks classic Ligurian food. Thanks to the wide coastline, seafood is prominent in Ligurian cooking, while the forested hills are covered in pine trees, providing the tang of pine nuts one finds in many dishes, not least pesto sauce, which is wildly popular around here. I taste the silkiest gnocchi imaginable, and the best sundried tomatoes (made by Tita). When we’re finished, Gianluca tots up the bill then randomly crosses out a few dishes and throws in a complimentary limoncello. The whole experience is so delightful we can’t resist returning the next day for lunch, where he does the exact same thing with the bill. We never learn why it is called Camelot.
We sleep with the balcony doors open and at about 3am sounds drift in — the hush of waves; the spatter of light rain; the distant strains of Italian pop mixed with what sounds like a World War I marching band playing the soundtrack to The Godfather. Then the sky cracks, the music stops and the heavens open.
There are advantages visiting a resort town out of season. The super-rich residents, who can clog the roads, restaurants, yacht clubs and luxury hotels, are all at their summer homes in wherever it’s summer. Consequently, hotel tariffs are lower, it’s less crowded and there’s not as much traffic. On the other hand, the weather can be punishingly terrible, as it is on our second day, so there’s no swimming in either the ocean or the hotel pool. I imagine it’s amazing in summer; guests can enjoy the use of a sandy beach with bathing huts, umbrellas and sunbeds at a lido directly opposite the hotel.
There’s a long, scenic bike path along the broad gold ribbon that separates land from sea, abundant watersports within walking distance, two marinas 1500m away, a yacht club, an 18-hole golf course and horseback riding just a short drive away. But none of that matters today. We take an umbrella-domed stroll through town, stopping for macchiato at a cafe opposite the Ariston Theatre, home of the Sanremo Music Festival, which was the inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest. The theatre is showing a superhero movie and even on this dismal day, people are turned out stylishly, and it’s clear this is a place that’s every bit as chic as its French cousins Cannes or Antibes, but a bit more down-to-earth in a manner that befits the Italian Riviera. People appraise each other less (or at least less obviously); the wealth is less ostentatious.
While my wife, Sally, is enjoying a hit of wellness in the subterranean spa, my daughter, Sylvie, and I amuse ourselves in a variety of ways, including making a smartphone movie of her running up and down the long, redcarpeted hallway on the fourth floor, all very The Shining; listening to the hotel pianist’s Farfisa organ interpretation of Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock; and playing hide and seek in the large, almost-deserted lobby. It’s still raining so we take a break and I Google “interesting facts about The Talented Mr Ripley” in search of inspiration for further amusements.
Moments later my world falls apart when I learn that the Sanremo jazz festival scenes in the movie were filmed in Anzio, 700km away. I am here at the Royal Hotel under utterly false pretences. The magnificent terrace, while still magnificent, is the wrong magnificent terrace. But then I realise it doesn’t matter what drew me here, or at what time of year. I can’t wait to return. • royalhotelsanremo.com • visititaly.com.au
Sanremo’s pretty marina, top; spires of the Russian Church, top right; Royal Hotel, above; Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Matt Damon in
The Talented Mr Ripley, left