Glamorous and colourful, picturesque and tranquil, there is no shortage of adjectives to bestow upon the Italian Riviera. This earthly beauty, a crescent-shaped coast known as the region of Liguria, stretches from the border of south-eastern France down to the edges of Tuscany. It might not be as well-known as the likes of Cannes and Monaco, but there’s plenty hidden away under its belt to rival these French hotspots – which should make your discovery of Italy’s Riviera all the more sensational.
The capital of the Liguria is the historic port city of Genoa. Once famed as the centre of a medieval empire – a history which has left its mark on the charming Old Town – and the birthplace of Christopher Colombus, it’s now most widely thought of as the gateway to the Riviera. And indeed, while the cultural brilliance of its Palazzo Reale and the weighty architecture of the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo warrant a visit, the real gems of this region lie among its surrounding towns and villages.
Only a short train ride away is the romantic fishing village of Camogli. Its promenade is a feast of Mediterranean colour, beautifully balanced by the blues of its sky and sea. Whether you’re facing out from the water or in from the shore, the view is spectacular. For an even more expansive panorama, you can walk up to the church at San Rocco (the steps are worth it). There’s also the nearby Punta Chiappa, a small corner of rocky paradise where you can swim in glorious quietude, and the enclosed beach at San Fruttuoso abbey, a unique spot.
Further along the coast and easily accessible by boat is Portofino, another fishing village of unparalleled charm. Pretty and pricey, its scenic cobbled harbour, complete with seafood restaurants and extravagant boutiqes, make it a favourite destination for well-heeled and high-profile visitors. For excellent views out onto the Ligurian sea, you can walk up to the lighthouse, Faro di Portofino. It’s also a close walk to the resort town of Santa Margherita, where the seafront bursts with palm trees, yachts and yet more vivid hues.
Perhaps the slightly more prominent area of Liguria is Cinque Terre, a walkable string a five seaside villages which dot the rugged coastline. There’s the particularly attractive Riomaggiore, famed for its wine produced by the town’s vineyards; walk along the famous “Love’s Trail” and you’ll reach the steep village of Manarola. Next is Corniglia, the smallest of the villages and situated 100 metres above sea level on a promontory. From here is a rewarding walk to the quaint Vernazza, which extends into the sea in dramatic excellence. The final village is the more resort-orientated Monterosso, which offers the only sandy beach of the five.
It’s no surprise to hear the extent of creative and artistic imaginations inspired by this part of Italy. This eastern part of the Ligurian coast, reaching up to the castle-famed towns of Portovenere and Lerici, is also known as Gulf of Poets. Keats, Byron and Shelley (who drowned just off the coast of La Spezia) spent much time stimulated by this area, as did other writers. Guy de Maupassant referred to Portfino as ‘the little village which envelopes like the arc of the moon around this calm basin’; even Genoa was described by Gustav Flaubert as having ‘a beauty which tears the soul’.
Nothing completes the experience of travelling around Italy more than food, and Liguria is famed for two specialities in particular: pesto and focaccia. Pesto in fact originates from this region, but is made slightly differently – alla Genovese – using a very specific combination of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, coarse salt and grated cheese. Focaccia also forms for staple part of a local’s diet, made with a slightly tougher and crustier base than you might experience elsewhere.
The Italian Riviera cuts to the very heart of what makes Italy such a terrific country in the first place, and true to the style of the romantic poets, it’ll foster the most spirited kinds of appreciation in all of its visitors. But most of all, in light of its sheer allure and grandeur, there’s something extraordinarily under-known about Liguria: be the first to experience it, or you’ll kick yourself that you haven’t already.