Perched atop a cliff in the Italian Ligurian Riviera, gazing out onto the steady rolling swell of the Mediterranean Sea, Castello Canevaro stands guard over the sleepy town of Zoagli. Today, it operates as a boutique hotel, but this castle enjoys a storied history. Its modern name derives from its owner, Giuseppe Canevaro, who purchased the castle in the mid-19th century, while serving as counsel general for his majesty, Giuseppi Giralbaldi.
I’ve got this history on my mind, because I’m a Canevaro, and I’m trying to find out: Could it be that I come from royalty? Let me explain: Like many Americans, my heritage can be traced back to Europe, with ancestors from both my mother and father’s side of the family coming through Ellis Island in the late 19th-century. My Great Grandfather, Nicholas Canevaro, was from the Genovese region of Italy where Zoagli is located.
I had been doing some research on the Canevaro lineage, knowing that we were Genovese, and that it was a fairly common name in the region. When I came across Castello Canevaro, and the vaulted history of the first Duke of Zoagli, I knew I had to go and see if I just didn’t happen to be one of the heirs of ole Great, Great, Great, Grandpa Giuseppe.
En Route to Zoagli
My wife, Deborah, and I arrived in Genoa by train, and from there rented a car, making the lovely drive along the coast, passing through coastal cities and towns like Santa Margherita and Rapallo.
After a 40 minute drive from Genoa, we arrived in charming Zoagli. Sitting on a bay that opens up to the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the beach bleeds seamlessly into the open piazza, surrounded by an array of little restaurants and cafes.
Aperol and Campari Under the Bridge
The piazza has fountains in the middle, pleasant places to sit about, and the entire area is secluded by a hillside that features stately homes overlooking the town. Above the main square, there’s a unique train bridge that towers over the piazza. The three arches of the structure frame the views from the square to the beach, with the beautiful shimmering sea in the background.
Around the bay, cliffs rise, with Castello Canevaro situated atop the western ridge, overlooking the beach and town. But we were down on the square where kids were playing soccer and adults were sipping Aperol and Campari Spritzes, the waves providing the perfect soundtrack. Occasionally, the train would rumble by on the bridge overhead, adding to the old-world European feel. Sitting in the heart of the piazza, we noticed a large statue dedicated to old Giuseppe, with the street behind it guiding us straight to the Castle. The street was aptly named Lungomare Canevaro.
Excited to check in for our castle stay, we finished our initial tour of the town and made our way there, through the entrance gate, and down the private driveway to be greeted by sweeping views. From that height, the Mediterranean Sea lays out before you—from many different vistas on the property—with Portofino and its customary fleet of Super Mega Yachts bobbing in the distance.
While a bit of a hodgepodge of architectural styles, Castello Canevaro is nevertheless charming, and the history of the building is fantastic—even if you’re not potentially related. The castle served as Giuseppe’s residence for several periods of his life—during his years of service and as Duke. And his two sons Felix Napoleone and Cesare also spent time at the Castle. Both men were decorated military veterans. Felix Napoleon, who served in the Navy for close to 60 years, rose to the rank of Vice Admiral, was a senator in the Parliament of the Kingdom of Italy (1895-1897), and later followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming Duke of Zoagli.
Throughout the years, the castle was used for formal town meetings and lavish parties. In 1943, a good portion of the lower manor was destroyed when the railway bridge next to the property was bombed during The Second World War in an effort to knock out supply reinforcements. More recently, the property hosted weddings and special events and is, now, of course, a storied hotel.
Walking out the back gate of the castle, under the elevated railway bridge, it takes all of three minutes to get to the heart of Zoagli’s main square. Passing Giuseppe’s statue again, we headed for happy hour to the first restaurant off the beach, a festive little place called Cocoloco, which serves up a fine Aperol Spritz at outdoor tables with Mediterranean views.
For dinner, we’d recommend Tordo Rosso on the main square, where our spaghetti alle vongole and pesto hit the spot on a perfect summer evening. It was a Friday night, and that main square turned into a live music venue. By the end of dinner, we had front-row seats to a full band playing everything from Elvis to Johnny Cash to the Stray Cats. It was all very Americana, which was amusing given we appeared to be the only Americans in the piazza that night.
Mornings Near the Med
A bevy of stylish cafes and restaurants offer coffee, as well as an assortment of delicious, fresh pastries for breakfast—well worth a morning stroll from the hotel. The coffee, as you can expect from Italian standards, is exquisite. The Bagni Silvano Bar Ristorante , located right on the waterfront, has been owned for multiple generations, and has its own unique story, including suffering damage from the same bombing that destroyed part of Castello Canevaro.
From the patio of the Bagni Silvano, you can watch this old-time Italian town come to life before your eyes. On hot days in this little haven, the townsfolk flock to the beach to cool off. The small bay provides mellow water for swimmers, and there is even a walkway built on the side of the cliffs above the water that allows you to walk to different parts of Zoagli. Many residents use it to sit and enjoy the sea views, or even dive off in some areas.
It’s striking to look upon the clear sense of familiarity that’s present in this little slice of the Italian riviera. It’s clear that virtually everyone on the beach knows one another, living as part of a tight-knit local community. Multiple lifeguards stand watch, helping elderly Italians in and out of the water when needed. Family members of all ages would sit in the sun for hours, chatting, laughing, eating, then join in the festivities happening in the water.
While Zoagli is not a huge town, there is still more to explore, including small businesses further up the hill, the train station, San Martino Church, and most notably, the cemetery. It was quite an experience walking around the cemetery, and seeing so many tombstones etched with the name Canevaro. led to us trying to track down town records to see if we could track previous residents.
Unfortunately, Zoagli has no such office, and if such records existed, they would be housed in Genoa. But, returning to the Castello, unbeknownst to me, my wife had reached out to the owners prior to our arrival, and we would be receiving a much grander tour with a personal history of Giuseppe’s family over the years. The current owner of the castle is a direct descendent of Giuseppe, and was happy to provide a personal tour of the grounds.
Gracious with his time, he walked through a detailed history of the building, and the lineage as it’s been passed down to himself and previous members of the family. He also confirmed that while the Canevaro’s were prolific in Zoagli many years ago, their family is the last remaining Canevaro’s in town.
Ultimately, we were unable to track down exactly where my great grandfather came from in or around Genoa—and we couldn’t track down any official connection to Zoagli. But the trip was not for nothing. Zoagli itself—pleasantly absent throngs of expats or the cruise ship crowds—is a fabulous town to visit, where you can slip away, relax, and enjoy the Italian Riviera like a local.
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