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, draped with terraced vineyards and olive groves and speckled with pretty old villages, offer respite from the standard format of beach, beach and more beach.
The chief city of the region is Genoa, an ancient, sprawling port with a fascinating, labyrinthine old quarter complemented by a newly energized dockside district and a vibrant and ethnic mix. Genoa straddles the apex of Liguria's arching coast and marks the midway point of the Italian Riviera, dividing it in two distinct halves. The Riviera di Ponente to the west is the more developed stretch, a long ribbon of hotels and resorts packed in summer months – particularly with Italian families. 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; while Finale Ligure is a pleasantly laidback seaside town with plenty of outdoor activities.
On Genoa’s eastern side is the more rugged Riviera di Levante, a mix of mountains and fishing villages, originally accessible only by boat. Drawn by its remoteness, the Romantics “discovered” the Riviera in the early nineteenth century, 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. Resorts like Portofino are among the most expensive in the country, although nearby Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo make great bases 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. At the far end of the Riviera is the bustling mercantile port and naval base of La Spezia, its shimmering Golfo dei Poeti bookended by the picturesque coastal towns of Portovenere and Lerici.
In a car, the shore road is overall a disappointment as the coast is extremely built up, but you can get a much better sense of the region's beauty 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, the views are wonderful and the stations invariably located in the centre of town.