San Remo: past its prime, but still in full-flower

Somehow I seem to specialize in visiting places that are both out of season and past their primes. Mind you, I'm not complaining. I rather like this twin tendency, the most recent example of which occurred on an afternoon in May when I pulled into San Remo, the resort and flower- growing center on Italy's western Riviera.

At first glance everything looked in place on the main boulevard. The towering palms along the seafront, planted by a Russian empress in 1875 in the salad days of the Italian Riviera, looked properly regal. The flower gardens around the palatial white casino and the big hotels seemed well tended. And sea and sky, after a late, bleak spring, were now in closer harmony.

Yet it was clear as I began to hunt for a room that San Remo and 1980 were slightly out of sync. The vast lobbies and lounges of the hotels were all but empty, and the sofas and chairs that might have held travelers from Liverpool, Stockholm, Milan, and Chicago were more of leatherette than plush. Behind the shiny wood main desks, the clerks played at being busy, and when I asked about accommodations they studied their room charts as if by a late cancellation I might be squeezed in.

Part of the truth, of course, is that I had beat the season by a month, for the Ligurian coast does not begin to fill up until late June, and then rooms are scarce through September. But the San Remo of 75 to 100 years ago, even 25 years ago, drew a different kind of crowd. The hotel I finally picked, the Miramare, dates from the turn of the century when the English came down in style by boat train from London, or by yacht.

"Even in the 1950s San Remo was still very stylish and the Italian Riviera was on every American's itinerary," an Italian friend was to tell me back in New York, "but since then other places -- Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice -- have replaced it on the tour."

In other words I was in my element -- a month early and 25 years too late. The carpeting on the broad staircase leading to my room was spotless but slightly frayed. I suppose I expected hand-carved furniture and ornate moldings in the room. At least the ceilings were high and French doors opened onto the gardens and sea. Not 50 yards from the balcony a passenger train rattled and whistled past, an event that would occur perhaps twice hourly for the rest of my stay. In one direction the track stretched toward Genoa, Milan, Rome; in the other, Nice, Lyon, Paris, London.

The frequent tooting kept reminding me that I had missed a last chance to ride to the Riviera in classic style on the crack French Train Bleu, the daily special from Paris's Gare de Lyon to the French Riviera and on to the Italian border town of Ventimiglia. On May 31, the Train Bleu was retired, a victim of age and growing operating costs. I had arrived from Paris by a more circuitous but just as noteworthy route. There had been an unnamed overnight train from Paris to Turin (providing proof that European sleepers are not always luxurious or mysterious), and then I'd picked up a car at Fiat headquarters and driven the aptly named Ritmo (rhythm) down through the Piedmont and west along the eyefilling Riviera dei Fiori, where flowers are a bigger business than tourists.

Luckily San Remo is not wholly dependent on the fickle traveler. It is the center of Italy's largest flower market. Though I missed the Mercato dei Fiori, which opens for business every morning from 6 to 8 from October to June and sends 20,000 tons of cut flowers to Italy and the world each year, there were signs of this long-blooming industry everywhere. You don't see dazzling open fields of flowers, however. The carnations, roses, jasmine, violets, tulips, and mimosa prosper in the terraced hills above the sea, safely within glass houses.

Past its peak or not, San Remo was still able to spring a few surprises on me. One was the Citta Vecchia, the cramped and hilly old section, which, I think, deserves more than the single star it gets from the Michelin green guide. I found my way to the Old Town with the help of a man I met on the street who told me as we climbed hillward from the Russian church (San Remo was obviously a favorite spa for Russians in czarist times) that he was in town on business -- flower business, of course. He said he raises the long-stemmed baccarat roses for northern European consumption.

At the end of the climb stands the baroque Church of Our Lady of the Coast, with its graceful facade and leafy esplanade. You have to admire those who make that steep climb every day, even once a week. Starting down, threading my way through narrow lanes and stone staircases, I could see that the Old Town has lived totally apart from the palmy spa directly below it. There were no other tourists about -- only children, cats, a few adults seen behind open doors chatting in tiny social clubs and taverns. And almost no shops, save a bakery or greengrocer.

Try to imagine then my surprise at coming upon a smart little craft shop, El Botteghino (the little botega), which could lose itself in Greenwich Village or Ghirardelli Square. "We are the first here," said Dimasi Francesco, tooling a leather purse at his workbench. I tried to imagine San Remo's Citta Vecchia full of antique dress shops, jogging stores, and chocolate chip cookie stands. Of course Mr. Francesco and his partner Arione France, who worked at a loom behind him weaving a colorful poncho, have higher hopes for the Old Town, and in that I wished them well.

Some hotels are only as good as their concierges or desk clerks, and the Miramare's was top drawer. His best tip was a trattoria named Nico's, by the harbor. The grilled paghero (kin to the red snapper), pasta, salad, and dessert amounted to my best meal in a two-week continental swing. I told the owner's wife it deserves at least one Michelin star. "Oh, no, we don't have enough decoration or service for that," she said. "And I'm glad. We might have to pretend too much if we had a star." That's the San Remo I know and love.

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