Sanremo and San Romolo: Once Conjoined Twins
Once upon a time, the remote hillside village of San Romolo was one of the Italian Riviera’s most popular daytrip destinations.
Mention its name to natives from Sanremo of a certain age only if you are ready to be showered with story after story about happy family outings, sun-drenched Sunday afternoons and long walks in the forest.
The Story of the Funiculaire of San Romolo
It must have been great fun while it lasted, but then, practically from one day to the next, it was all over. The story goes like this: until 1981, a cable car connected the coastal town of Sanremo with its distant suburb, providing the easiest, most convenient and most exciting way for the Sanremesi to escape their urban environment for an afternoon and visit the mountains.
When the line was built in 1936, it was – once you included its final stretch up to the summit of Mount Bignone – the longest such service in the world, covering a total distance of nearly 8 km.
The project, however, was not born under a lucky star: the large number of visitors from Russia and England on whom the operators had surely counted when planning the enterprise had since abandoned Italy, and with WWII only a few years away, things would soon take another turn for the worse.
In the 45 years of its existence, the cable car company never once turned a profit and was finally rescued from insolvency only by a takeover from the municipal government in 1966 – merely a temporary retrieve, as it turned out.
Going to San Romolo today is no longer convenient – it involves a 15 km road trip – but no less exciting. Actually, the journey is an adventure in its own right. Almost throughout, the road – like many mountain roads in Italy – is so narrow that two cars can only pass each other with a good deal of mutual manoeuvring, and only when both drivers are willing to drive with two wheels through the bushes on either side of the road. Provided there are any such bushes, that is: sometimes, there is a rock on the right and a hard place on the left, and driving in between them is like … well, you get the idea.
On the way up the hills from Sanremo, you can still see the pylons, standing forlornly and bereft of their original purpose in the countryside, and even the ruins of San Romolo’s old cable car station are still there.
You can find them along a path that winds up the small hill on the left of the village green, the prato, when you face it with San Romolo church in your back.
Go there, by all means – it is well worth the short walk, not least because the place looks and feels as though it had been abandoned not 30 but 3000 years ago, having served the purposes of an alien civilization for a brief while before these invaders returned to their home galaxy.
The village of San Romolo is small, so small that I would not even call it a village if it were not for the church on top of the hill. (I seem to recall having read somewhere long ago that a church is what distinguishes a village from a mere hamlet.)
From this church, you get a great view of Sanremo harbour and the Mediterranean …
… but the main reason people used to (and still) come here is the near-by Parco Naturale di San Romolo e Monte Bignone, a large nature reserve with animal enclosures, a wide variety of plants and trees and an extensive network of hiking trails.
At the far end of the prato, there is a map which indicates several of these trails, failing, however, to provide you with instructions of how to find the individual trailheads.
Fortunately, one of these trailheads is located on the right side of the prato, just in front of the seemingly defunct Al Prato restaurant.
Abandonment is actually something like a leitmotif of San Romolo. The Sanremesi may get misty-eyed about the loss of the cable car service, but one can only guess what it must have meant to the local citizens and their economy.
San Romolo has seen better days, so much is clear, and up to a point, the same could be said about the network of trails in the nature reserve. The trails are not easy to find and, once you have found them, confusingly marked, while panels that were clearly erected to provide some information about the forest, perhaps even featuring an orientation map, are today just idly standing around. Much like the pylons of the defunct cable car service, come to think of it.
Any exploration of the Mount Bignone nature reserve has to take account of practicalities. If you have come here by car, you have the time to hike all the way up to the summit of Mount Bignone, if you don’t mind a bit of a sporty challenge: you can get there in approx. 2 hours from San Romolo (to which you then will have to add 2 hours for the return, of course), but be warned that the trail goes pretty much uphill all the way (from 800 metres above sea level to 1300 metres).
If you have come here by bus, however (taking line no. 11 from Sanremo Autostazione on Piazza Colombo in the centre of town), you will have to cut your hike to the cloth of the bus schedule.
Since there are only five buses a day from Sanremo to San Romolo (that immediately return the other way), the safest way to proceed is to count the available hours until your preferred departure time and then reserve half of this time for the way into the forest and half for your return. This will not give you much more than a first impression of the nature reserve’s wild beauty, but on the other hand you will not want to run the risk of missing your bus and having to wait another 2 or 3 hours. There are places on earth where three hours of waiting time, having just missed your connection, can be spent profitably, but believe me: San Romolo is not one of them.