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The sparkling Riviera di Levante, the coast from Genoa to La Spezia, is one of Italy's most famous. It features a host of picturesque fishing villages, the most renowned of which is Portofino.
Extending about 110 miles, with the sparkling Mar Ligure on one side and sun-bathed hillsides on the other, this is one of the most famed itineraries in all of Italy. The road winds over rocky cliffs, around wind-swept promontories, through ageold pine forests and past colorful fishing villages on its way to the tiny cove at Portofino and the vast bay at La Spezia. As spectacular as it is, in summer it is a maddening snarl of holiday traffic, complicated by tour buses and commercial vehicles, which perhaps is why it is so easy to travel from town to town by boat in this part of the world. We suggest you leave your car (in Genoa, Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, Levanto, Portovenere or Lerici) and travel by water, stopping in Camogli, the first of many charming villages you'll see on this trip. No great museums or exquisite churches here, just a peaceful fishing civilization that has existed pretty much unchanged for centuries. Get out and walk through the ramshackle streets and stairways, watch the workmen on the beach, linger for a granita di caffè at one of the cafes. Then take the boat (or walk the three-hour trail, marked with blue dots) to San Fruttuoso, an isolated fishing village reached only by sea or on foot. You can visit its recently restored abbey, which has a 13th-century church and a lovely Romanesque cloister. Then hop on the next ferry to Portofino or, if you're in fairly good shape, take the beatiful 2-hour hike instead. A well-marked trail winds around the headland, past countless wild flowers and sweet-smelling herb bushes.
For decades, Portofino (pictured at left) was Italy's premiere seaside resort town. There's now a wider choice of favorites, but this tiny multicolored village and its miniature cove are still among the most beautiful spots on earth, and certainly no traveler to Liguria should miss the sight. However, summer crowds can be atrocious, so you may not care to linger in town for a long time. Some relaxing alternatives are the walk to San Giorgio church, a stroll in the gardens surrounding castle Brown, the 20-minute walk to the lighthouse (signposted as "al faro") or the longer hike to Monte Portofino, a protected nature reserve just beyond the village. Or walk three miles in the direction of Santa Margherita Ligure, to the beach at Paraggi.
Ferries travel often from Portofino to Santa Margherita Ligure, a pleasant town that makes a great base, and to Camogli (pictured at right) or Rapallo, another fine resort town with a Roman bridge, a Baroque cathedral, a frescoed leper house and some great lace shops. There's a fairy-tale castle in the middle of the harbor, and a breathtaking cable car that goes up to the 16th-century sanctuary of Montallegro.
From Rapallo you can take a ferry to the picturesque fishing village of Sestri Levante, which faces onto two bays divided by a narrow strip of houses. Rising above the town is a rocky promontory crowned by the church of San Nicola. Boats leave from here for Monterosso al Mare, a starting point for exploration of the Cinqueterre, or travel farther on to Portovenere, a captivating town on the northern headland of the Bay of La Spezia, where Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and its strategic location accounts for its fortified nature, which culminates in the Genoese castle overhanging the very tip of the promontory. Next door, the 13th-century church of San Pietro has many 6th-century elements inside. The 12th-century church of San Lorenzo, above the port, has a romanesque façade. Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence loved this haunting spot, which is often overlooked by foreign travelers.
Lerici If you have driven to Portovenere, or if you aren't tired of boats yet, take one to the island of Palmaria to see its wonderful blue grotto, or visit the 11th-century abbey on the island of Tino, or Isola Tinetto's 6th-century monastery. Then head south (by boat or car) to the other side of the bay, where you'll find the lively resort town Lerici (pictured at left). Above its busy yacht harbor is a beautifully preserved 16th-century castle that is said to have inspired Shelley's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, to write Frankenstein. It is definitely worth a visit. Afterwards, relax in one of the town's many cafes, watch the boats come in and out, wait for sundown and then get ready to enjoy some of Lerici's fun-filled night life.
If you have time for one more side trip, make it the four-mile drive to Sarzana, a lovely hilltown with two medieval fortresses, a handsome set of 15th-century ramparts and a Renaissance cathedral. On the way back to Lerici, treat yourself to lunch in Ameglia, at one of Italy's most renowned restaurants, the nationally acclaimed seafood haven called Paracucchi.
San Fruttuoso's Abbazia di Capo di Monte is open 10 - 1 and 2 - 6. In Rapallo, the leper house (Casa di San Lazzaro) is in Via Bana; the cathedral is at Via Filippo Neri 1. Portovenere's castle is open daily with a midday break in summer, and from 2-5 pm in winter. Paracucchi is located at Viale XXV Aprile 60, 19030 Ameglia.
La Riviera di Ponente: From France to Genoa
Ponente means "spot on the horizon where the sun sets," which in northeastern Italy corresponds to the narrow strip of coast and precipitous alpine foothills that you first encounter upon arriving from Monte Carlo or the French Riviera. This part of Liguria is also known as La Riviera dei Fiori (the Flowering Coastline), cut flowers being among its most lucrative exports. The air is alive with the heady scent of some 20,000 tons of roses, carnations and mimosas exported annually. Silvery olive groves or terraced grape vines blanket the hillsides. Whitewashed walls are draped with purple bougainvillea and flaming trumpet flowers. Palm trees shade the broad seaside promenades. Originally brought here from Egypt by St. Ampelio in the fourth century, there were once as many as 20,000 of them in just the half dozen miles from Ventimiglia to Bordighera alone, and it is the latter town that supplies the Vatican with fronds every year on Palm Sunday.
In such a fertile environment it is hardly surprising to find Villa Hanbury, the vast, extravagant gardens that a 19th-century Englishman built just a few miles from the French border. With more than 6000 species of plants, it is now considered one of the most important spots in Europe for the cultivation of exotic plants.
If you are traveling in summer, you may wish to use the A10 autostrada for this itinerary, because local traffic can be extremely slow. But if it's any month other than July and August, or if you are a patient sort, we suggest you drive along the Aurelia, one of the ancient Roman consular roads, which skirts the coast and passes through all the elegant resort towns and ancient fishing villages. Traveling east from Villa Hanbury, take a detour onto the provincial road that follows the Nervia River north about five miles to the picturesque town of Dolceacqua. A lovely arched bridge spans the river at the foot of the small town, which is dominated by the ruins of a 12th-century castle. Stretch your legs for a stroll past colorful pastel houses and a peek at the lovely Romanesque church, then cross back over the bridge to the Gastone restaurant for lunch, accompanied by a glass of rossese, the renowned local wine.
Returning to the autostrada, drive three more miles to the noble turn-of-the-century resort town Bordighera. The small medieval quarter is worth a visit, but plan to spend an hour or more strolling along the palm-lined lungomare (seaside promenade), soaking in the Belle Époque atmosphere of the resort, with its large ornate buildings in the art nouveau style (called "Liberty" in Italy).
San Remo The next autostrada exit is at San Remo (pictured at right), the famed resort town which springs to life each February for the pop music festival that is about as popular a media event in Italy as the Oscars are in the US. Climb the hill to visit the medieval quarter, a warren of winding streets and staircases nicknamed La Pigna. The houses are protected from earthquakes by adjoining arches and the benevolent protection of the Baroque Nostra Signora della Costa church. Back by the shore, stop in at the Casinò, where you can try your luck at the games or just watch the high rollers from all over Europe and the Middle East. By the way, if you ask for directions be sure to emphasize the accented "ò" at the end of "Casinò." The English pronunciation of the word means "house of ill repute" in Italian.
Alassio Now drive two miles east on the Aurelia, to Bussana Vecchia, a medieval village that was leveled by an earthquake about a hundred years ago and is now being carefully restored by a group of artisans. If you have chosen the A10 option, get off next at the Andora exit and continue east on the Aurelia, reveling in the beautiful coastal views of rocky outcrops, sandy coves and broad bays. Alassio (pictured at left) is the perfect place for an afternoon dip, with two miles of fine sandy beach (though it's crowded in those nasty months of July and August). Albenga Just beyond it is Albenga (pictured below), a thriving market town with fifty brick towers and western Liguria's most important early Christian monument, the 5th-century baptistry in the 13th-century cathedral. Behind the church is the charming Piazzetta dei Leoni. Albenga has a trio of museums, one for prehistoric relics, one for naval history and the other for Roman artifacts.
If you like winding mountain roads, spectacular views and friendly villages, drive up the provincial road toward Cisano, then return and continue east to Capo Noli (pictured at left), then on to Finale Ligure to visit the castle, the colorful old quarter of Finalborgo, or the very nice beach.
From here to Savona, suspense mounts as the road goes through one tunnel after another, past the old fishing villages of Noli and Spotorno and the world-class golf course at Garlenda. If you're ready for an art museum by now, make it Savona's civic picture gallery, which has a nice collection of 14th- to 18th-century Italian works.
Between Savona and Genoa, the coast is crowded with the kind of industrial activity that always heralds a major harbor, so we'll travel inland from Albisola on the provincial road to Sassello, a lovely hill town with two fine churches. From here, take a deep breath and start off on the small road toward Urbe and Tiglieto. You'll be rewarded with wonderful views across the valleys, close encounters with out-of-the-way villages, perhaps even a glimpse of a wild boar or roe deer. After about thirty miles you'll come to Rossiglione, where you'll want to visit the astoundingly ornate church of Santa Caterina and the lovely Nostra Signora Assunta. Follow route 456 south to Campo Ligure, which has an unusual museum dedicated to the art of metal filigree, as well as a haunting castle. Farther south is the medieval town Masone, where the quaint local museum is dedicated to iron working tools.
Villa Pallavicini At this point, you'll have earned yourself a brief spell on the A26 autostrada, which heads south to Voltri to reconnect with the A10 or the Aurelia. Lovers of regal country villas should stop off in Voltri to see Villa Duchessa di Galliera, then at Pegli for Villa Pallavicini (pictured at right), which has a glorious park complete with artificial lake. Genoa is just two miles away.
Villa Hanbury is in Mortola Inferiore. Closed Wednesdays. Gastone restaurant is at Piazza Garibaldi. San Remo's Casinò Municipale is at Corso degli Inglesi 18. There is a dress code and admission fee for the gaming rooms, open 2:30 pm to 3 am. The slot machine rooms have no dress code or admission fee and are open 10 am to 3 am. The museums in Albenga are in Piazza San Michele. All are closed Mondays and for three hours at midday. Garlenda Golf Club (Via del Golf 7, Garlenda) is an 18-hole course that closes on Wednesdays from September through June. Pinacoteca Civica (Via Quarta Superiore 7, Savona). Open Tuesday-Saturday 9-1 and 4-7, Sunday morning. Halfway between Bordighera and Genoa, the Hotel Splendid (Piazza Badaro 3, 17020 Laigueglia), is in the heart of a charming seaside resort town and close to its own private beach. A renovated monastery, it features antique furnishings and vaulted ceilings in all the rooms. There's a private garden and swimming pool in back, and the beautiful beach of Alassio is just 2 miles away. Moderate. Open Easter-September.
Convent Life in Liguria
Staying in a monastery can be a low-cost, unique way to experience Italy. There are some rules to follow, however. Start the "booking" process well in advance. You can try writing, but telephoning is always more effective (and if you know a priest or bishop, don't hesitate to mention him). Be very clear about what kind of accommodation you will receive: some monasteries have private or even double cells, while others have only dormitory rooms. Ask whether you need to bring your own bedding and towels (Devo portare la biancheria?). Also, find out if there's a set fee or merely a voluntary donation.
Once you are there, remember that you are in a house of God. Assume nothing, as many places have very strict rules about speaking, fraternizing and attending Mass. The best rule of thumb for a convent stay is to approach it as a spiritual experience. If you do, your expectations will not fail you.
Abbazia di Santa Maria della Castagna (Via Romana della Castagna 17, Genova Quarto). Built on the spot where Napoleon imprisoned Pope Pius VII in 1809, this elegant villa is surrounded by a cedar forest about a mile from the sea, just south of Genoa. The 26 monks in residence are Sublacense Benedictines, members of an order that was founded in the nearby monastery of Finalpia. Single and double rooms are available in the convent's guest quarters.
Santuario di Nostra Signora del Monte (Genoa). There has been a convent on this enchanting spot, overlooking the city and harbor of Genoa, since remote times. The present building was completely restructured in 1655, and is entirely surrounded by a beautiful garden. In the cloisters is a painting of the Last Supper dated 1641. Up to 60 guests can be accommodated in single, double or larger rooms.
The older part of this convent amounts to little more than a 14th-century belltower and part of the original apse. However, there is a large 12th-century crucifix in the church, symbol of the Barefoot Carmelite monks' century-old dedication to their faith, and the location is unforgettable. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea some 3000 feet below, it has a secluded garden with some of the most spectacular views you could ever hope to see. The well-managed guest quarters have 90 rooms with bath and sea view. July and August are the best months for families, whose children will meet many Italian playmates (minimum stay, 10 days). Book well in advance, as this is one of Italy's most popular religious retreat spots.
Genoa: City of Delights
In early April my wife, son and I arrived in Italy by car, from Valence, France. It was a rainy day, but even so the views from the Autostrada were magnificent (next time we go it won't rain, and the views will be even better). Our first stop was San Remo. What a lovely place! We arrived in early afternoon, yet managed to find a nice place to have a very good lunch even as most of the town took its afternoon rest. After, we walked down to the Mediterranean Sea; the town docks were filled with fishing and pleasure boats, and the water was clean. It was almost as if we had somehow slipped into a movie set; it was that simple and pretty. On our way back to town, we had to wait for the train to pass; the gates were down. Most people and all drivers waited patiently, although a few people did slip under the gates. As soon as the train passed, suddenly there was a bevy of motion.
Such awaited us in town. Afternoon rest was ending, and San Remo was coming back to life. As we walked the streets in search of a place to have coffee and pastry the city came back to full life. Streets began to fill with Vespas and cars, sidewalks with pedestrians and shoppers and tourists. We found a pleasant shop, went inside, and ordered three cappuccinos and three canolis; the entire bill came to 13,000 lire (six and a half dollars, which for New Yorkers, was amazingly low). It was an inkling of what we were to find: the dollar is very strong in Italia. The food was good.
We went on our way, intending to get to Genoa by late afternoon. We turned right, onto the main street in town, then turned left, following a sign for the Autostrada. We climbed, and climbed. Five, ten minutes later our son said the Autostrada seemed to be below us, so we had obviously missed a turn somewhere. I found a local man, and asked him if he "parla Inglese". He did not. I spoke to him in Spanish, and managed to be understood. You must go back, he indicated. Only when I turned the car and headed back did I realize that driving down this steep hill would be more difficult than it had been to drive up. Two more times we stopped and I asked Italians in Spanish for directions, and each time they were glad to try and help. Somehow I did not fully understand them; it seemed that the most difficult words to understand were the most critical ones to get. Still we managed to finally get all the way back down to nearly where we'd started and found a petrol station. There we filled up the car with Oilgas (diesel) and got help from two young lads who were quite glad to help. We finally found the Autostrada.
Rain fell. We managed to reach Genoa just at rush hour, and followed the signs for the Aeroporto, near which we would find our hotel. Alas, it was not to be. Suddenly we lost signs for the airport, and we wound up near the sea. This area looked as if it'd be beautiful in June, under sunny skies; we were there in April, in the rain. Lost again. Frustrated. We drove around and looked for HOTEL signs, but could not find anything. Finally I saw a sins for the Carabinieri, and decided to take a chance to ask for help. This was a base, and I had to run up to the front gate house, about 100 yards from the street. When I got there a young carabinieri looked at me strangely, but heard me out. Si, he spoke Inglese, but very little; no, no Spanish. yet I managed to make myself understood. He wanted to help. He went into his log book, ripped out a page, and drew me a map of how to get back on the Autostrada; once there, follow signs for Aeroporto, he said, and later, ask for more help (he made it clear he could not be more helpful).
That did not work. We still had no hotel. Now it was late. We were hungry, tired, frustrated. We looked for hotels, and still could not find any. But I did see a sign for a police station. Pleased that the carabinieri had been helpful, I figured a cop would be, too. The station was closed to the public (it was Sunday evening), but the polizia at the front desk buzzed us inside. Parla Inglese? No. Aw, shucks. But he did understand my Spanish enough to know we were looking for a hotel. He tried to explain himself, but could not do so well. Suddenly an off-duty officer came into the lobby. He did speak enough Inglese to say that we had to be careful where we went. The other officer (dark-haired, dark-skinned, incredibly handsome in his uniform) kept looking in the yellow pages whilst the second officer (fair hair, blue eyes, light skin) kept trying to explain himself. My son had his Europe book, and showed it to the officer. What about the train station? A, a good place, yes, but you must be careful: one train station is a nest of pickpockets, the other fine. How do we get there? He tried to explain, and got frustrated he could not make us understand. Finally, he said, follow me. We went outside, he got into his car, waited for us to get behind him, and led the way. Now it was raining hard. We followed him for five minutes, and he deposited us near the train station. When he stopped for a traffic light he ran out of his car, over to us, and said, any hotel around here will be fine. We looked around, and found the Hotel Astoria.
Inside the Astoria looked classy, but a bit run down. The tariff for a triple was 220,000 lire. We took a room. We would have to deposit our car in a garage for a small fee. We accepted. We took out our bags and went inside, checked in, and felt relief. As I went to get the car a man came out of the hotel; he would turn out to be bellhop, assistant manager, dining room attendant and all-around do-whatever-needs-to-be-done" wizard. No, no parking lot, he said; park the car in front of the hotel. He had two guests move their cars, and I put ours there.
Inside the Astoria was magnificent. Old, a little frayed at the edges, but clearly a hotel that once had been a glorious place. It is being restored and will look magnificent once again. Trump d'oleil on the ceilings, a cage elevator. Eighteen foot ceilings. Marble floors in the room. What a grand place. We slept well, and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast the next morning. There, we saw our friend from the night before: he was cleaning up tables, washing dishes, stacking clean plates. Later, he would give us directions for getting to Firenze.
The previous night we stumbled upon an incredible restaurant where we had what has to be one of the finest meals anyone can have. All I can recall is that its name contained the word Rooster (Gallo). It is past the Four Star President Hotel, which sent us there; the restaurant is hidden away in a corner, near a piazza. Find it and enjoy the hospitality and food. We had fabulous antipasto (including a pate which if the French find out about, they will sue the restaurant in an EU court, I'm sure), delicious main dishes, and great desserts. My son and I had tiramisu that has to be rated a 10. My wife ordered espresso and zambuca, and there was a mixup, so her coffee arrived before the zambuca, and once the liqueur arrived, her coffee was cold. My son's tiramisu was also late. We complained (mildly, yet firmly) and the owner came over to apologize for the problem. My son's dessert arrived, then my wife's zambuca, too, and a fresh espresso was given to her, as well. Our neighbours, an Italian couple that was having a long, elaborate and slow Italian meal, as well as smoking many cigarettes, turned out to be a married couple celebrating her birthday. He was friends with the owner, as well as maitre d'hotel at another restaurant in Genoa. He spoke good English, and communicated the owner's apologies to us. We graciously accepted. Still, the owner was not happy, so he came over with a bottle and three glasses, and served us each a glass of Limoncello to express his regret and give us a favour. We accepted, and our neighbours joined us in a toast. Our neighbour the maitre d' then offered to buy us a whiskey. My son declined, as did my wife. I accepted. He gave me a drink of Glen Grant, a single malt ("only five years old, but still good" he explained). It warmed me. He offered me a second, but I could not accept. He invited us to visit his restaurant next evening, insisting he would make sure we good another good meal.
Alas, we could not accept his gracious invitation. We were off for Firenze, for two days of visiting museums and other sights, and then for two days of visiting the city of Venezia (which has to be ranked among the most beautiful places in the world, without any doubt). We stopped for lunch in Verona as we drove from Firenze to Milan, where we would catch our flight back to New York (via London). All of Italy was a fabulous experience for us: Lido, dueling orchestras in Saint Mark's Square at night, Renaissance art, even the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but nothing could match the warmth and grace of Genoa and its citizens. I shall never forget those wonderful Italians of Columbus's home town. The young carabinieri, the polizia, the hoteliers, the restauranteurs. After a long and frustrating wet afternoon, we needed a balm, and the Genoese made everything alright. More than that, they made that wet Sunday in April a grand and magnificent day. Viva Genoa!