There’s more than one riviera on Italy’s Ligurian coast. West of Genoa, the Riviera di Ponente blends beaches, mountains and fine food to mouthwatering effect…
Say “Italian Riviera” and most people’s eyes light up. East of Genoa, the rainbow-coloured villages of Cinque Terre and bobbing superyachts of tiny Portofino are etched in travellers’ imaginations. But this is only half the story – the Riviera di Levante half. West of the Ligurian capital, skirting the coast for 150km to the French border, the Riviera di Ponente takes over, revealing beaches and wild mountain scenery every bit the equal of its sibling. And for those in the know, its mix of culture, outdoors and fine cuisine makes it irresistible.
Most visits begin in Genoa, the heart of Liguria. The city rises like an amphitheatre above the old port, surrounded by hills dotted with forts. The views across the Mediterranean from here are captivating, and it’s easy to see how the Ligurians became a seafaring people. Genoa even claims Christopher Columbus as its most famous son.
The Gothic grandeur of Genoa’s Cattedrale di San Lorenzo (Shutterstock)
The city once lay at the heart of a powerful Maritime Republic. Genoa still has one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved medieval centres, which grew fat on the fortunes made from the early Crusades and the empire it built in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. As a result, today’s city museums and galleries are brimming with treasures.
By the late 19th century, the coast around Sanremo and Bordighera was the part of the Italian Riviera in which to be seen. European aristocracy spent their winters here and Sanremo is still full of elegant villas, among them the Villa Nobel where inventor Alfred Nobel (of “prize” fame) spent his final years. It is now a museum dedicated to his life.
There are more than just beaches here. Mountains rise up behind the coast, their foothills dotted with olive trees, vines and dramatic hilltop villages. These valleys are linked to the coast by roads that were only tarmacked in the 1960s. You’ll also find walking and cycling trails that criss-cross a land where each valley favours its own signature dish, made in the same way for generations. This was “Slow Food” long before the term was ever invented.
Indeed, food is a key part of the Ligurian experience, and the local cuisine favours simplicity. Some focaccia bread, a piece of farinata (chickpea-based pancake) and a slice of torta (pie stuffed with vegetables) makes for a fine picnic. And don’t forget the local pasta: a dish of trofie (small cylindrical twists) or pansotti, triangular shapes filled with wild herbs and typically eaten with a walnut sauce the Genoese brought back from Georgia, is not to be missed. This is the riviera that tastes as good as it looks.
Bussana Vecchia was destroyed by an earthquake in 1887 and remained a ghost town until artists took it over in the 1960s (Shutterstock)
From harbour Porto Antico, walk up to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo – in its crypt are some amazing religious treasures. See the Palazzo Ducale and the alleged birthplace of Christopher Columbus, then eat lunch in the city’s Mercato Orientale before strolling along Via Garibaldi, a street lined with palazzos and art galleries. Don’t miss the city views from atop Palazzo Rosso.
Discover the ancient city-state of Noli – its walls once inspired the poet Dante. Then take a dip in the sea at the medieval fishing village of Varigotti, which has one of the best beaches on this stretch of coast, before enjoying an aperitivo and dinner in the walled city of Albenga, known for its medieval towers and purple asparagus.
Stop for a swim at the sandy beach in Arma di Taggia, then visit the late medieval triptychs by local master Ludovico Brea at the Convento di San Domenico in Taggia. Next, drive up the Valle Argentina to mountaintop Triora, known for its 16th-century witch trials.
Visit Bussana Vecchia, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1887. Its ruins are now an artists’ colony. Now explore the museums and galleries of Sanremo, a 19th-century resort town where Europe’s aristocracy once wintered.
From Ventimiglia, drive 20km up the Val Nervia, one of Liguria’s most beautiful valleys, to the “Little Dolomites”. See the 15th-century arched bridge and ruined castle at Dolceacqua and eat in Apricale, a village dug into the rocky mountainside.
Hanbury Botanical Gardens (Shutterstock)
Get a taste of the Via Alpi dei Monte Liguri, a 440km footpath that runs the length of Liguria. From the top of Monte Beigua, above the seaside resort of Varazze, there are beautiful views across the sea and the Alps to the north. The dense forests are home to roe deer, foxes and wild boar. It is also a great spot for birdwatching and outdoor sports. Buy amaretti biscuits and dried mushrooms in Sassello. parcobeigua.it
Visit the Pelagos Sanctuary to see the whales and dolphins that live in the western Mediterranean. The Ligurians are a seafaring people, and a whale-watching trip offers grand views of the coast. Excursions go from Savona and Loano. whalewatchliguria.it
Near Latte, you’ll find the oldest botanical gardens on the Riviera. In 1867, Londoner Sir Thomas Hanbury came here to recover from bronchitis and fell in love with the place. As a silk and spice merchant, he brought back rare and exotic plants from his travels that flourished in the mild climate. giardinihanbury.com
Palazzo Reale (Shutterstock)
The wealth and opulence of this palazzo are in contrast with the rough and tumble of Genoa’s old town. Alongside Domenico Parodi’s frescoes of mythical gods is an impressive collection of paintings by Old Masters, including Van Dyck and Tintoretto. The gilded Hall of Mirrors glitters with golden stucco work and the views across the port are a reminder of where all the money came from. palazzorealegenova.beniculturali.it
Discover a magical world of stalactites and stalagmites in Toirano. Deep in the cave is an atmospheric pool, and in the Grotte della Bàsura there are remains of extinct cave bears and traces of Palaeolithic man, who hurled balls of clay at the cave walls. toiranogrotte.it
Construction began on this pretty, onion-domed church in 1913, at a time when the Russian aristocracy and royal family spent their winters in Sanremo. The exiled king and queen of Montenegro were later buried in the crypt, before their bodies were eventually returned home in 1989. chiesarussasanremo.it
The tiny walled town of Noli huddles beneath the forested slopes of Monte Ursino (Shutterstock)
An atmospheric boutique hotel in the historic old town with frescoes, friezes and marble floors. More information: hotellenuvole.it
Cosy B&B on the seafront next to the old town. Bike and scooter rental are available. More information: cadetobia.it
Family-run hotel in a country-chic style. Choose from rooms in the main hotel or in the village. More information: relaisdelmaro.it
A short drive from Albenga, this hotel has an excellent restaurant, pool, large garden and golf course. More information: lameridianaresort.com
A Belle-Époque hotel built in 1897 beside the Orthodox cathedral. Free bike hire. More information: hoteldeparissanremo.it
Hotel with rooms scattering a beautiful mountain village. Cookery classes and wine tastings are available. muntaecara.it
Taste history in Genoa, which is famous for its candied fruit, a delicacy that originally arrived in the city during the Crusades and is the key ingredient in the Genoese cake pandolce. Try this fruit in the atmospheric Pietro Romanengo, which was founded in 1780. The composer Verdi was once a customer.
Learn more about the region’s long history of seafaring traditions in the city’s maritime museum, the Galata Museo del Mare. Afterwards, take a boat trip around the port and visit La Lanterna, which was rebuilt in 1543 and remains one of the oldest working lighthouses in the world.
Buy some Taggiasca olives, a key part of local cuisine in Ponente. Afterwards, you can enjoy some slow tourism by taking a drive through the groves behind Imperia and visiting a family-run olive-oil mill, then discover the history behind the crop at Imperia’s Museo dell’Olivio.
Pedal the impressive 24km cycle route from Ospedaletti to San Lorenzo – arguably one of the best short-distance bike rides in Europe. It follows a former railway track along the seafront and passes scenic beaches and coves. Bikes can be hired in both San Lorenzo al Mare and in Sanremo.
Grotte di Toirano (Shutterstock)
International dialling code: +39
Currency: Euro (€), currently around €1.20 to the UK£.
Getting there: Ryanair flies regularly from London Stanstead and Manchester airports to Genoa (2 hours); return flights from £16. If you’re visiting the western end of Liguria, it is worth flying to Nice, which has direct flights from several UK cities.
Getting Around: Fly/drive is a good option, especially to explore the mountainous hinterland, but parking can be an issue on the coast in high season. Car hire is available at Genoa airport.
Weather: Summers are hot on the Riviera Ponente, so spring and autumn are best for hiking, but this is a year-round destination.
Further Information: lamialiguria.it
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