So very Mr Ri­p­ley

Glam­our and jazz on the Ital­ian Riviera

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SEAN CON­DON

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. • roy­al­ho­tel­san­ • vis­i­ti­

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

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