A few years ago I was in Cannes, on the French Riviera, and I saw a couple of surfers eagerly heading out into what can be best described as wind-blown slop. It was cold, it was blowy and the water was the colour of… erm, let’s say it was a murky brown. It couldn’t have looked less appealing.
So when I got a call the other day from some friends saying there was going to be good surf in Varazze, in Liguria, and they were heading down all the way from Chamonix, I was skeptical, to say the least. Could surfing in the Mediterranean really be that good? The forecast seemed to think so. It looked unbelievably good in fact. Six foot with offshore winds. I had to see this…
It’s only an hour’s drive from here to the coast and most of that hour is spent on my new favourite road – the Torino to Savona motorway, known locally as the Autostrada della Morte.
In the UK, motorways go mostly in straight lines. The Torino to Savona motorway is the exact opposite.
There are switchbacks, tunnels, viaducts, bends that wrap around and around, I’m sure there was even a chicane at one point. It goes up steeply, then spirals back down even more steeply. There isn’t a solitary straight for 30 miles. All of this on a two-lane motorway at 110km/h. It is, frankly, incredible.
The two carriageways are completely separate (at one point as much as 2km apart) and you catch just the occasional glimpse of cars travelling in the opposite direction; on a bridge hundreds of feet above you, or firing around a 180 degree bend before disappearing into the side of a mountain. The next minute they’re hundreds of feet below you, and then they’re gone again.
Being Italy, the entire motorway is, of course, a race track, which means the racing line must be taken at all times. On several occasions as I was sat in the slow lane at the speed limit (not because I’m a good, law-abiding citizen, but because to go any faster would have been to invite almost certain death, and I’ve seen enough scythes lately), someone would fire past in the fast lane before swinging immediately across my front and into the hard shoulder so they could hug the inside of the bend as tightly as possible. They’d then exit the turn straight back into the fast lane and prepare for their next death-defying manoeuvre.
These weren’t boy racers either. In fact, the craziest of the lot was a little old lady in a beaten up Honda Jazz. She nearly killed me on at least three occasions. I think she was deliberately slowing down after overtaking me just so she could have another go!
Heart pounding and nerves frayed, I finally found myself at the toll booth and exiting onto the more sedate, but equally spectacular, coast road winding along the edge of a cliff and down into Varazze. It’s a typical Ligurian seaside town; a long stretch of beach backed by tall, colourful buildings interlaced with tiny cobbled streets. But it has a real surf vibe too. There are surf shops, kids on skateboards and, most remarkably, lots of people in shorts, hoodies and flip flips. Not something you see every day in Italy, the land of chinos and deck shoes.
I parked up and crossed the road to the beach. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The surf looked incredible. Not quite the six foot that had been forecast, but big nonetheless, and very clean. I spotted my friends, sat on the shoulder, keeping out of the way of the locals (it’s only polite) and picking up the scraps. There were plenty of waves to go around though and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.
I’d read that the locals can be a bit unwelcoming, but this didn’t seem to be the case at all. The whole place had a very relaxed, friendly feel and the only trouble my friends encountered in fact was over-politeness; one paddled for the same wave as someone else and they both ‘gave way’. How terribly English.
The wave breaks over a reef and packs a decent amount of power. It is one of the area’s more consistent breaks and clearly attracts surfers from all along the coast; I heard quite a few French voices among the Italians, as well as some English and Australian. Apparently there are gentler beach breaks nearby for the less experienced, which I’ll have to explore when my board and wetsuit finally arrive and I need a slow reintroduction to surfing. It’s been a while. My arms hurt just watching people paddling out.
I stood on the jetty for a while taking photos and then we wandered into town for a bite to eat before, with some trepidation, I headed back up to the Torino-Savona motorway for the drive home. I can confirm that it’s equally hair-raising in the opposite direction.
So, it turns out I’ve been mistaken all these years, you do get good surf in the Mediterranean, you just need to know where to go… Italy, of course. Everything is better in Italy, even the motorways!
Have a few more pictures…