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.Read More
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
Liguria may lie in the north of Italy, but its benign Mediterranean climate, and to some extent its cooking, belong further south. Traditionally, the recipes from this region make something out of nothing, and the best-known Ligurian speciality is pesto, the simplest of dishes, invented by the Genoese to help their long-term sailors fight off scurvy, and made with chopped basil, garlic, pine nuts and grated sharp cheese (pecorino or parmesan) ground up together in olive oil. It’s used as a sauce for pasta (often flat trenette noodles, or knobbly little potato-flour shapes known as trofie), and often served with a few boiled potatoes and green beans, or stirred into soup to make minestrone alla genovese. Look out also for pasta, usually pansotti, served with a creamy hazelnut sauce – salsa di noci; and other typical dishes like cima alla genovese (cold, stuffed veal); tomaxelle (veal meatballs); cappon magro (basically a seafood and vegetable salad served over hard, ship’s biscuits); torta pasqualina (a spinach-and-cheese pie with eggs); sardenaira (a Ligurian pizza made with tomatoes, onions and garlic); and, of course, the ubiquitous golden focaccia bread, often flavoured with olives, sage or rosemary, or covered with toppings. There are lots of things with chickpeas too, which grow abundantly along the coast and crop up most regularly in farinata, a kind of chickpea pancake displayed in broad, round baking trays that you’ll see everywhere, and in zuppa di ceci.
Otherwise, fish dominates – not surprising in a region where more than two-thirds of the population lives on the coast. Local anchovies are a common antipasto, while pasta with a variety of fish and seafood sauces appears everywhere (mussels, scampi, octopus and clams are all excellent); you’ll find delicious polpo (octopus), usually served cold with potatoes, good swordfish, and dishes like ciuppin or fish soup, burrida di seppie (cuttlefish stew), fish in carpione (marinated in vinegar and herbs), or just a good fritto del Golfo (mixed fish fry-up). Salt cod (baccalà) and wind-dried cod (stoccofisso) are also big local favourites. Many restaurants in Rapallo and along the Tigullio coast serve bagnun, a dish based on anchovies, tomato, garlic, onion and white wine, and in Cinque Terre and Levanto you’ll often see gattafin – a delicious deep-fried vegetable pasty. Liguria’s soil and aspect aren’t well suited to vine-growing, although plenty of local wine – mainly white – is quite drinkable. The steep, terraced slopes of the Cinque Terre are home to some decent eponymous white wine and a sweet, expensive dessert wine called Sciacchetrà, made from partially dried grapes. From the Riviera di Ponente, look out for the crisp whites of Pigato (from Albenga) and Vermentino (from Imperia), as well as the acclaimed Rossese di Dolceacqua, Liguria’s best red.
The Alta Via dei Monti Liguri
The Alta Via dei Monti Liguri
The Alta Via dei Monti Liguri is a long-distance high-level trail covering the length of Liguria, from Ventimiglia in the west all across the ridge-tops to Ceparana on the Tuscan border above La Spezia in the east – a total distance of some 440km. The mountains, which form the connection between the Alps and the Apennines, aren’t high – rarely more than 1500m – meaning that the scenic route, which makes full use of the many passes between peaks, is correspondingly easy going. The whole thing would take weeks to complete in full, but has been divided up into 43 stages of between 2 and 4 hours each, making it easy to dip in and out of. Trail support and maintenance is good, with rifugi dotted along the path and distinctive waymarks (red-white-red “AV” signs).
Unfortunately, access from the main coastal towns to most other parts of the Alta Via can be tricky, and requires juggling with route itineraries and bus timetables. A sample walk starts from point 26 – Crocetta d’Orero, on the Genoa–Casella train line: heading east from Crocetta, an easy route covers 7.8km to point 27, Colle di Creto (2hr 30min, and served by Genoa buses), with a diversion along the way to a lovely flower-strewn path in and around the deserted hamlet of Ciatti.
For information on the Alta Via, your best bet is the Associazione Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, which produces a full-colour wall-map of the route, along with detailed English descriptions and timings of all 43 stages (plus hotels and restaurants along the way). Books and an eight-pamphlet guide to the trail are on sale in bookshops. The same information is at wparks.it. Club Alpino Italiano offices in the major towns have information on rifugi, and the Federazione Italiano Escursionismo (FIE) publishes detailed guides to all the inland paths of Liguria.