Travelling the Ligurian coast
Liguria’s famous coastline is beautiful and diverse. The Italian Riviera and mountainous hinterland are a stark contrast to the historical port city of Genoa – yet each has its own unique attractions.
Bordering Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and France; Liguria is Italy’s third smallest region. Here, the mountains meet the Ligurian Sea to produce a famously mild climate. This, combined with its many beaches, has seen Liguria continue to attract tourists for many centuries.
Genoa is not only the region’s capital, but also Italy’s major port, with a trade volume of 58.6 million tonnes a year. The coast to the east of this city is called the Riviera di Levante, home to the stunning cliff side Cinque Terre and the popular beachside village, Portofino. To Genoa’s west is the Riviera di Ponente, which includes the charming town of San Remo. There are four provinces in the Liguria region: Imperia, Savona, Genoa and La Spezia.
Located in the Imperia province in Liguria’s far west, Ventimiglia is on the border of France. Known for its seaside resorts, gardens and beautiful monuments and churches, the town is a hotspot for tourists from the neighbouring Piedmont and Lombardy regions during the summer months. Ventimiglia is split into two parts by the Roia River, which flows into the Ligurian Sea. The area to the right of the river has many medieval characteristics, while the area to the left has a more modern flavour.
Also in Imperia, San Remo is often a main port of call for tourists travelling to Liguria. Known as the ‘Town of Flowers’, San Remo is famous for its flower production and these blooms are exported around the world. There is an abundance of flowers to be found on every corner – adorning residential streets and buildings, decorating churches, and lining gardens and parks. Each year, the city hosts the San Remo Flower Parade on the last Sunday in January. The Italian Song Festival is also held annually in San Remo at the Casino.
La Pigna, which translates to the Pinecone, is the oldest town in San Remo and is rich in history. Historic buildings, churches and squares have been lovingly restored to their original beauty, offering an insight into the past. The Madonna della Costa Sanctuary adorns the town’s hilltop and is visible from all over San Remo. The sanctuary dates back to the 17th century and features an elaborately decorated alter and organ, as well as beautiful paintings and statues.
An abundance of steep and narrow winding streets in La Pigna, together with countless covered alleyways, mean that travelling by foot is the best option in order to experience all that this town has to offer.
Further east is the province of Savona, where Christopher Columbus once lived. To the discerning visitor, Savona may appear to be just another port town – it is, after all, home to one of Italy’s major ports. But, by venturing a little further you will discover a vibrant history. Savona has experienced a turbulent past and suffered extensive damage during World War II. As a result, many areas of Savona underwent significant rebuilding. Despite this, however, many parts of the medieval centre remained virtually unscathed.
Savona is also well noted for producing two popes – Pope Sixtus IV was elected in 1471 and his nephew Pope Julius II, became pope in 1503. In fact, it was Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned the Sistine Chapel, and it was he who it was named after. The city of Savona houses its own ‘Sistine Chapel’ as part of the Cathedral.
Several towers can be seen within Savona, including the 14th century La Toretta tower at the entrance of the harbour. On the Rocca di San Giorgio, the Priamar fortress, which was built by the Genovese in the 16th century, overlooks the Ligurian Sea and is home to several museums, an art gallery and a hostel. Aside from its historical significance, Savona also boasts many beaches, restaurants, bars and shops.
Venturing further east to the region’s centre, is Liguria’s port city and capital Genoa, which is often overlooked by travellers to the region. It boasts an eclectic mix of modern and historical architecture. The Genoa city centre is easily accessible via Genoa Airport.
Genoa’s significance as a port dates back centuries, and the town has plenty to see and do, including one of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Le Strade Nuove. Despite its name, which translates to ‘new road’, the site is far from new. Le Strade Nuove represents an innovative form of urban planning during the 16th to 17th centuries. Beautiful spacious streets were constructed above the old town. Comprised of Via Garibaldi, Via Balbi and Via Cairoli, Le Strade Nuove is well noted for its aristocratic houses and palaces (Palazzi dei Rolli). The palaces, which were built by local noble families, were used for official representative purposes by the Republic of Genoa, to host dignitaries staying in the town and are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.
Three of the palaces – Palazzo Bianco, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Tursi – have been grouped together as the Musei di Strade Nuove. These buildings, located on Via Garibaldi, are used to display the town’s best art collections; including Filippino Lippi, Veronese, Rubens and many local artists.
One of the most celebrated towns in the Genoa province, however, is Portofino – a resort town frequented by the rich and famous. Pastel coloured houses line the shores, overlooking stunning green water, with yachts aplenty. Notable sites include the medieval castle Castello Brown, San Giorgio church and the lighthouse on Punto del Capo.
The stunning natural beauty of the Cinque Terre is another impressive sight. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 due to its exceptional scenery, which pays homage to the traditional way of life that has continued to exist for a thousand years, the Cinque Terre is located in the La Spezia province between the towns of Levanto and La Spezia. Cinque Terre translates to ‘five lands’ and the name is given to five towns of close proximity – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
The Cinque Terre extends for around 15km of the Ligmian coast, with colourful houses staggered at varying heights. Given the size of the towns and their proximity, the best way to venture through the Cinque Terre is by foot or bicycle. Cars and motorbikes are prohibited in this tourist area, however there is a train service that runs through the towns.
Monterosso is the largest of the five towns. It is surrounded by rolling hills laced with vineyards and olive groves. The town is divided into an old and new part separated by the Aurora Tower on the hill of San Cristoforo. Stone steps provide access from the old village to the port and seaside promenade.
The next town is Vernazza which is widely regarded as the most beautiful of the Cinque Terre. Even as far back as Medieval times, the town had a strong and stable financial footing, thus paving the way for the construction of numerous valuable buildings including churches, towers and terraces – many of which can still be viewed today. The Santa Margherita di Antiochia church, built in the 13th century, is still intact and remains an impressive sight, along with the Doria Castle which was constructed in the 11th century and restored during the 20th century.
Vernazza is followed by Corniglia. This is the only Cinque Terre town without an accessible beachfront, so it is generally less busy than the other towns. What it lacks here, it makes up for with the view. Perched high above the sea, the town can be reached by a series of steps called Lardarina. The Lardarina is made up of 33 flights of stairs and almost 400 steps. Another way of reaching this town is by following the main road from the train station.
Further east is the small town of Manarola, situated above the valley of the Groppo stream and filled with many vineyards. To one side of the town is a small harbour and to the other is a small church piazza. Colourful buildings, a boat ramp and swimming hole can all be found at the harbour. Rather than a beach, this town is noted for its deep water swimming. A ladder is located on the rocks and there is also a shower at the top.
Riomaggiore rounds off the Cinque Terre. Located in the valley of the Rivus Maior stream, which is now covered, Riomaggiore’s history dates back to the eighth century when the town was founded by a group of Greek fugitives wanting to escape prosecution. The town features the St John the Baptist Church, constructed in the 14th century, and the Oratorio dei Disciplinari with origins dating back to the 15th and 16th century.
Liguria’s popularity as a tourist destination means that it is quite easy to get to. The Genoa Sestri International Airport in Genoa is built on over 130 hectares of land and operates throughout the year. There are regular flights to this airport via main Italian airports and other European cities.
A second airport is located on the plain of Villanova d’Albenga in Savona. It provides services to the tourist areas of the Riviera di Ponente in the region’s west. Another tourist airport is located in Luni in La Spezia.
The rail network also serves Liguria well. There are rail links that run from Turin on the Savona and Genoa route, from Milan on the Genoa route, and from Parma on the La Spezia route. Liguria is also accessible via international rail lines from countries including France, Germany and Austria. Regular ferries also operate between cities.