Sheltering on the seaward side of the mountains that divide Piemonte from the coast, Liguria is the classic introduction to Italy for travellers journeying overland through France. There’s an unexpected change as you cross the border: the Italian Riviera, as Liguria’s commercially developed strip of coast is known, has more variety of landscape and architecture than its French counterpart, and is generally less frenetic. And if you want to escape the crowds, the mountains, which in places drop sheer to the sea, can offer respite from the standard format of beach, beach and more beach. Teetering on slopes carpeted with olives and vines are isolated mountain villages that retain their own rural culture and cuisine.
The chief city of the region is Genoa, an ancient, sprawling port often acclaimed as the most atmospheric of all Italian cities. It has a dense and fascinating old quarter that is complemented by a vibrant social and ethnic mix and a newly energized dockside district. Genoa stands more or less in the middle of Liguria, between two distinct stretches of coast. To the west, the Riviera di Ponente is the more developed, a long ribbon of hotels and resorts packed in summer with Italian families. Picking your route carefully means you can avoid the most crowded places, and in any case there’s nowhere really overcrowded as long as you avoid August. San Remo, the grande dame of Riviera resorts, is flanked by hillsides covered with glasshouses, and is a major centre for the worldwide export of flowers; Albenga and Noli are attractive medieval centres that have also retained a good deal of character; and Finale Ligure is a thoroughly pleasant Mediterranean seaside town. On Genoa’s eastern side is the more rugged Riviera di Levante, a mix of mountains and fishing villages, some formerly accessible only by boat, which appealed to the early nineteenth-century Romantics who “discovered” the Riviera, preparing the way for other artists and poets and the first package tourists. It’s still wild and extremely beautiful in places, although any sense of remoteness has long gone, and again you’d do best to visit outside peak season. Resorts like Portofino are among the most expensive in the country, although nearby Santa Margherita Ligure makes a great base for exploring the surrounding coastline by train or car, as does the pretty fishing village of Camogli. Walks on Monte di Portofino and through the dramatic coastal scenery of the Cinque Terre take you through scrubland and vineyards for memorable views over broad gulfs and jutting headlands.
In a car, the shore road is for the most part a disappointment: the coast is extremely built up, and you get a much better sense of the beauty of the region by taking the east–west autostrada which cuts through the mountains a few kilometres inland by means of a mixture of tunnels and viaducts. Fleeting bursts of daylight between tunnels give glimpses of the string of resorts along the coast, silvery olive groves and a brilliant sea. It’s ten times quicker, too. However, the real plus of Liguria is that so many of the coastal resorts are easily accessible by train, with regular services stopping just about everywhere, and, because the track is forced to squeeze along the narrow coastal strip, stations are invariably centrally located.