Liguria may be third smallest of the Italian regions, after the Valle d'Aosta and Molise, but it is vibrant and diverse and has a great deal to offer the visitor. Forming an arc from Ventimiglia, four or five miles from the French border, to La Spezia, bordering Toscana, this narrow strip of land on the northwest coast is known as the Italian Riviera. As well as outstanding natural beauty, Liguria is home to several glamorous resorts, a myriad picturesque fishing villages and Italy's largest commercial port (Genova).
This is a colourful region, exceptionally attractive even by Italian standards, and this, combined with its mild climate and ease of access, makes Liguria a popular holiday destination for people from all over Europe.
What to see and do in Liguria
Enjoy the mountains
With both Alps and Apennines in the region, there is a lot more to Liguria than the seaside, spectacular though that is. If you go into the mountains, you'll find wonderful natural parks (such as the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Alpi Liguri), unspoilt landscapes and invigorating nature trails that you can follow on foot, by bike or on horseback.
Enjoy the sea
Liguria's curving coastline offers many wonderful beaches of all varieties but mostly rocky and/or shingly. They tend to be quite narrow, because the cliffs come so close to the sea, but they are also, therefore, sheltered. The Ligurian sea is some of the cleanest around the Italian peninsula and the swimming can be marvellous.
Explore the cities and towns
Practically every conurbation in Liguria is worth visiting. Here are some suggestions:
- Genova (Genoa), Liguria's capital, is a thriving port and plays an important part in Italy's economy. It is famous for being the birthplace of the explorer Cristoforo Colombo / Christopher Columbus, whose childhood home you can visit. Other attractions include the 12th-century Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and the modern and wonderful aquarium.
- Ventimiglia, close to the French border, is made up of the old town, on top of the hill, and the new town at the bottom along the sea. It is well known for its Friday street market.
- Bordighera, a few miles further into Italy, is a gracious old town. At the end of the 19th century, it was almost an English colony and it still retains some of that feeling.
- Sanremo is another town with a medieval part and a modern part. The latter has developed into a thriving resort, with a famous casino and a thumping nightlife. There's a good, long beach and an abundance of beautiful flowers. Every year since 1951, Sanremo has been host to a hugely popular music festival, a forerunner of the Eurovision Song Contest, which has launched the careers of many Italian singers, including Andrea Bocelli, Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini.
- Finale Ligure is a beautiful town with a lovely long sandy beach.
- Portofino, on the eastern side of Liguria, is a bijou resort for the rich and famous.
- La Spezia is a fairly ordinary city in many ways but it has a good atmosphere and its harbour is beautiful. If you're going to visit the Cinque Terre (see below), La Spezia makes a nice base for your day trip.
Visit the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre, or Five Lands, are a series of fishing villages, built into steep cliffs and coming right down to the sea. They form an extraordinarily beautiful national park - another of Italy's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Although, particularly if you haven't got time to explore beneath the surface, the villages are rather over-touristy, they offer such a feast for the eyes that you really have got to experience it.
If you get the boat from La Spezia, which is what I did, I recommend you set out early in the morning and check the timetable carefully to plan your day. You can get off at all but one of the villages (Corniglia) but the length of time you can spend at each one is governed by when the boats run, so, as I say, do plan your day in advance rather than just going with the flow. And don't be afraid to check as you get on the boat where it's actually going. There are a lot of boats around and it can be all too easy to follow a crowd and end up in the wrong place.
I wouldn't suggest you drive to the Cinque Terre but there is a good train service. If you want to drive in from further away, you can park in La Spezia and take either a boat or a train from there. Most of the parking is on meters, so bring plenty of change. If you park on the far side of town from the sea, you will find the meters cheaper - or, at least, this was the case in summer 2009, when I was there.
The Gulf of La Spezia, along the coast of which the Cinque Terre are positioned, is also known as the Gulf of the Poets (Golfo dei Poeti). This is because it has attracted, over the years, a wide range of poets, both Italian and English. Among them are Dante, Petrarca, Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy and Mary Shelley.
Eating and drinking in Liguria
The most famous element of Ligurian cuisine has got to be pesto genovese. Made from basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil, this sauce originated, as indicated, in Genova, but these days it is widely used all over the world.
Fish and seafood are more common than meat in this region, although you will find cinghiale (wild boar) on the menu.
Other Ligurian specialities include chestnuts, mushrooms and honey.
Because the Ligurian landscape is so steep and difficult to cultivate, not much wine is produced in this region. However, what there is is very good, so keep an eye out for locally produced wines. The white wine made in the Cinque Terre, for example, is a rare treat.
Recommended reading (and viewing) from or set in Liguria
The postmodernist writer Italo Calvino grew up in Sanremo. His work is largely experimental and, as such, not everybody's cup of tea. However, for those more interested in ideas than narrative, his books are stimulating, mind-expanding fare. Among the most famous of Calvino's 'novels' are Le Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities) and Se una Notte d'Inverno un Viaggiatore (If on a Winter's Night a Traveller).
Other views of Liguria
A book I have loved all my life is The Five Fathers of Pepi, a light, funny, heart-warming tale about a young boy in Finale Ligure after the Second World War.
Colin Firth's 2008 film Genova has had mixed reviews for its storyline but the portrayal of the city is universally acknowledged to be glorious.
For more information about Liguria...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Liguria.
Check out these websites:
Regione Liguria - official website