Holiday in Liguria
Drive across the border from France into Italy and, as you head away from the chi chi spots of the French Riviera, you hit what we shall call the Italian Riviera. One for the connoisseurs, this side of the border has (to our eyes at least) more interesting and rugged landscape, a much more interesting cuisine, and towns that are more culturally and historically interesting than the likes of Nice and Cannes. Holidaymakers in Genoa, the Cinque Terre, Rapallo and the rest (and you'll find our holiday accommodation here) will find a fascinating mix of cultures, making this narrow strip of Mediterranean litoral an exciting Italian vacation destination.
First some history though. Liguria has traces of occupation dating back to prehistoric times (the Palaeolithic period to be exact). It became an administrative region of Rome during the second century AD, and this was merely the start of Liguria's tradition for inward immigration. Much of this is down to Genoa's long-time status as a major port (and in its time a republic in its own right). This, and the sheer amount of Ligurian coastline (the shallow region is mostly coast and mountain) has seen centuries of visitors arriving by sea.
Liguria vacations - some history
The typical Ligurian is hardly indigenous in fact. The physical type, slight, with black hair and olive skin, supposedly originates from Greek settlers who came here in pre-Christian times. Whatever the truth of that, there has been much immigration since ... it's one of the things that makes this such an interesting and diverse region. The Barbarians came early on, then the Lombards (who gave their name to neighbouring Lombardy). Normans and Saracens colonised Liguria and Napoleon took the region in 1796. Bonaparte's invasion saw the end of the great maritime republic of Genoa - he was to similarly humiliate once-mighty Venice - which had ruled the region and the seas since the thirteenth century.
Following the fall of Napoleon, Liguria was absorbed into the Kingdom of Savoy and Sardinia, one of the many kingdoms and principalities that were to form the unified Italy. That came with the victory of Garibaldi and his army in 1861 ... when the Duchy of Genoa became merely the Italian region of Liguria.
Holiday in Liguria - a mix of cultures
But let's not say merely, because this is one of the most interesting and unusual regions of Italy. The multifarious cultural and racial groupings who have squeezed themselves into this narrow strip of land betwixt mountain and sea have created something quite remarkable. The cuisine, which we'll get too below, was fusion food long before fashionable chefs coined the phrase.
Some geography then. Go to your atlas and you'll see the curious topography of the region. Two thirds of it is mountainous and most of the rest is hills. To the east lie the Maritime Alps, to the west the Mediterranean (known in the curve of France and Italy as the Ligurian Sea). To the north and west (the Riviera di Ponente) where Liguria meets France, the land flattens, dropping gently to the Mare Ligure; resorts and towns here include Savona, Imperia and San Remo. From Genoa south to the coast of Tuscany, the descent is steeper, the land climbing to the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Appennines: this rugged stretch is dubbed the Riveria di Levante.
Liguria - a lush, fertile region
The steep climb from beach to mountain causes precipitation of course. Liguria is a rainy region, though this only makes a temperate climate more pleasant ... it has none of the sultriness or dry heat of some Italian regions, and is rarely cold in winter. And the rain makes the slopes of Liguria beautifully lush. This land may be too steep to rear much livestock, but the region is rich in olives, grapes, vegetables and fruit.
There are fascinating towns. Noli and Albenga are unspoiled by tourism and each retains its medieval centro storico. There are the stunning Cinque Terre, shoehorned into folds of the rugged Ligurian cliffs. And you can head away from the well-trod tourist routes along the shore, up into the hills and the likes of Santo Stefano d'Aveto, which offer breathtakingly good hiking.
Eating and drinking in Liguria
We mentioned the food, and the cuisine of Liguria bears, like many of the people, the stamp of elsewhere. The food shares elements with its northern neighbours such as Lombardy and Piedmont, but owes as much to the southern Mediterranean, even north Africa. The Ligurians and Genovese have a reputation for meanness, let's be more charitable and say they are not wasteful. Meat is scarce and what there is gets used in its entirety!
So don't turn your nose up at ventresca di vitello piena. If you've tried haggis you can try stuffed calf's stomach, crammed with minced tongue, pistachios, vegetables ... and anything else that comes to hand. The result is quite delicious. Offal features large, and the Genovese have wonderful ways with tripe. With so much coastline it would be surprising if fish were not a staple, and you will enjoy anchovies, salt cod (baccala), cuttlefish stew (burrida di seppie) and marinated fish dishes. The signature dish of Liguria is pesto, the simple yet delicious paste of basil, garlic, pine nuts and pecorino. For puddings, watch out for rice cakes (torta di riso) flavoured with rosewater.
You'll enjoy DOC white wines (mainly from the Riviera di Ponente) including Cinque Terre, Bianchetta Genovese and Vermentino. And ensure you check out the Cinque Terre's rich Sciacchetra dessert wine.
Liguria ... must sees
Genoa - or 'Genova' in Italian. This superbly eclectic, and slightly disreputable port rather evokes Marseilles. Both its people and its cuisine are a marvellous mix of the many cultures that have built this lovely old port. Henry James described it as 'the most winding, incoherent of cities', and Genoa sprawls for miles along the Gulf of Genoa. Once a great maritime empire, home to Columbus, the port from which Garibaldi launched his unification of Italy ... Genoa has a mighty and historic past. Now being lovingly restored (it was European City of Culture 2004, many holidaymakers are discovering its marvellous mix of Mediterranean Europe with Arab flavours. The home of pesto and with a feast of seafood on the menu.
Cinque Terre - impossibly picturesque, the 'five lands' are a handful of villages shoehorned into the dramatic, rugged, folded coastline, between the beach resort of Levanto and La Spezia to the south. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore were originally fishing villages, but have since turned to producing some rather good white wines. The most famous vintage is the Sciacchetra dessert wine, heavy with the flavour of raisins. Most of all though, these stunning villages are beloved by visitors for their beauty. You can walk between the five, enjoying fantastic views of the Gulf of Genoa below.
San Remo - a marvellous slice of old-world Riviera grandeur, San Remo was a hugely fashionable resort around the turn of the twentieth century, rivalling Nice on the French side of the Riviera. It has a casino to rival that in Monte Carlo and still has some superbly ritzy hotels. The heyday of the early 1900s saw the glitterati descend from all over Europe ... there was a sizable Russian emigre community and Tchaikovsky composed Eugene Onegin here in the 1870s. A very classy way to enjoy the Italian Riviera.
Portofino - another resort with that Riviera touch, Portofino has long been fashionable with what we once called 'the jet set'. Originally a billet for Genoa's merchant seamen, by the turn of the twentieth century it was a quiet, though very beautiful, fishing village. To add to its mystique, Portofino has a history buried in myth. Pliny the Elder claimed the Romans founded the town, naming it Portus Delphini, or Port of Dolphins, because of the large number that frolicked in the Tigullian Gulf. Slightly more prosaically, Portofino has been recreated as the Portofino Bay Resort at the Universal Studios in Florida.
Discovered by German and British holidaymakers in the 1920s, by the 1950s tourism had supplanted the fishing boats. Portofino thus became a favourite with, among others, Princess Grace and Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. Set within an area of stunning natural beauty, the protected Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino, the town today is a chic berth for the yachts of the rich and famous.
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A map of Liguria:
FEATURED ACCOMMODATION IN LIGURIA
Sleeps 1 to 10+, map
Italy - seaside bedsit and holiday apartment rentals between The Cinque Terre and Portofino, Liguria