It may not be as famous or chic as its neighbour just across the border, but the Italian Riviera in many ways has more to offer than the French equivalent. Liguria, to give this stretch of coast and its hinterland its correct title, can be roughly split into two parts, with the regional capital, Genoa, in the centre.
To the west of Genoa, the Riviera di Ponente is predominantly a succession of small, but extremely popular, resorts, where the hotel lined seafront of one blends seamlessly into the hotel lined seafront of the next. The main resorts had their heyday in the stylish era from the 1880’s until the Second World War, when they attracted wealthy travellers from far afield. San Remo, for example, had a significant Russian community, with notable visitors that included The Empress Maria Alexandrovna and Tchaikovsky.
Today, most of those lavish grand hotels had long since faded, and to be fair now look decidedly shabby. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part it’s the more modern hotel complexes which are springing up on the fringes of many resorts that offer the 21st century traveller the expected levels of comfort.
The coast to the east of Genoa – the Riviera di Levante – is generally less hectic, with mostly smaller, prettier resorts, and with a far more scenically appealing rugged coastline. In many places the mountains come right down to the coast, ending with steep cliffs, sprinkled with precariously clinging umbrella pines that plunge into the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean below.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, the relaxed, attractive town of St Margherita Ligure is a good choice. Lazing on the east coast of the peninsular that leads to the ultra-chic Portofino, it’s just far enough from the main coastal road to avoid the constant traffic of it’s larger neighbour, Rapallo, whilst still remaining within easy road and rail reach of Genoa and the rest of the Riviera. The large marina is crammed with gleaming white pleasure boats bobbing gently up and down in the sparkling waters. The bright wide promenade is lined with the orange and yellow facades of grand houses, and interwoven with majestic hotels.
It’s not a big resort, but manages cram in a great deal without feeling overburdened in any way. With the exception of the pretty church of San Michele up on the hill, most of the attractions here revolve around the waterfront. It’s easy to take trips out from here by train (the station is at the north end of the harbour), or by boat. Regular boat services run to other resorts, up and down the coast, and it’s a rewarding way to experience the true beauty of this part of the region. It’s also possible to hire a boat and command your own schedule, of take one of the many fishing or diving trips. St Margherita Ligure is famed for is watersports, and lies on the edge of a stunning underwater treasure chest of colourful corals, and marine life. It’s a protected area, and the guided dives see enthusiasts from across the world.
If you want a different perspective, then head inland from the harbour, on one of the many marked walks across the headland. They offer panoramic views of the coastline, and if you take your time to sit for a while and admire the breathtaking views, it will change before your eyes as the sun plays games with the shadows on the rocks, and the reflections on the sea. The walks head to other small villages and hamlets, or along the coast to perfect coves and hidden beaches. It’s a remarkable feeling that you can be an explorer, ‘discovering’ empty shores in such a popular region.
Around the harbour is a good choice of restaurants, bars, and sublime ice cream parlours. Amongst the best undoubtedly is Skippers, where you can sit at your table on a floating pontoon being gently lapped by the perfectly clear waters of the marina, and sample not only superb seafood cuisine, but absolutely unique. There are particular prawns, for example, only to be found in a small area just along the coast. Choosing the sea bass was a wise decision, as it arrived looking and tasting as close to perfection as you’re likely to find. And if you’re feeling adventurous then give the octopus a try. It not only did wonderful things with the taste buds, it also managed to give a feeling that you were not just floating on the sea, but that you somehow had a deeper bond with it.
We were staying nearby at the excellent Grand Hotel Miramare, which is a perfect blend of old-world elegance and service, combined with modern efficiency and facilities. Balconied rooms, with glorious views across the bay, are well appointed, bright, and spacious. Pine trees and sunbeds laze in the sun-soaked gardens, alongside a large, immaculately clean pool, and across the road is a secluded private sandy beach.
It’s a town that is cosy, and addictive, but when you do decide to tear yourself away to explore more of Liguria, there is plenty of choice.
Genoa is a must for many visitors. Despite being the fifth largest city in Italy, the original heart of this maritime legend can still be seen. The fascinating Caruggi – a labyrinth of medieval alleyways – spread out to the many notable ‘palazzi’. Often housing museums, municipal buildings, or galleries now, these 16th and 17th century architectural masterpieces were once the showpieces of the city’s wealthy merchants.
Even more impressive are the monumental buildings such as the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, which houses a fabulous treasury that is breathtaking to behold, and the churches of San Donato, and Santa Maria di Castello which lies across the coastal highway from the harbour.
There is a delightful vibrancy to Genoa, and even a sense of unfounded danger amid the myriad of small streets near the port. In the more spacious areas around the Palazzo Ducale, and the Piazza di Ferrari – watched over by the famous statue of Garibaldi – tourists snap away, and wander with ice cream in hand gazing up at the impressive architecture.
Seemingly a world away, at the other end of the Riviera di Levante, is a stretch of coast known as The Cinque Terre, or ‘five lands’. It centres on five picturesque villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Maranola, and Riomaggiore – each huddled in a small cove, and surrounded by imposing cliffs. It’s the stuff of dreams for photographers, artists, and walkers.
Stunningly beautiful seascapes, backed by dramatic cliffs, and picture-postcard harbours that have provided a living for local fishermen for centuries, mean that this area gets packed in the peak of summer. There are good walking trails all along this coast, and it’s often more rewarding, (not to mention less frustrating), to park away from the towns and villages, and walk along the spectacular cliff-top paths to reach your destination.
It might be more energetic, but it’s just one more way to get the best out of this endlessly endearing region.
GRAND HOTEL MIRAMARE – Via Milite Ignoto, 30 – 16038 Santa Margherita Ligure (GE) – tel. +39 0185 287013
RISTORANTE SKIPPER – Calata Porto, 6 – Santa Margherita Ligure (GE) – tel. +39 0185/289950 – www.ristoranteskippersml.it
Liguria Tourist Board – www.turismoinliguria.it
Watersports and Dive Trips in St Margherita Ligure – www.europeandc.com