Liguria (Genoa/Cinque Terra)
A narrow strip of land on the Tyrrhenian Sea surrounded by the Maritime Alps and the Apennine Mountains, Liguria is renowned for its beaches and mild year-round climate. Populated since the first millennium BC, Liguria was led by the Romans and then by a succession of rulers from the Byzantines, the Franks and the Lombards. After a series of invasions, Liguria was split into several territories, all ruled by the Republic of Genoa. However, internal conflicts pulled the republic apart thus allowing a period of domination by France and Spain as well as a brief domination by Sardinia that ended in revolt by the Genoese. Liguria joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Although Liguria is one of Italy’s smallest regions, it is an agricultural center, producing an abundance of flowers, olive oil and wine. The consistent yearly rainfall and mild climate make Liguria ideal for gardening: the colorful flowers and houses in the seaside towns and medieval villages of the region are just one of the reasons the area is popular. The Ligurian Coast is stunning, with beautiful pebble beaches and cliffs in the forefront and the peaks of the Alps looming in the background. The region’s capital, Genoa, is both lovely and fascinating and the resorts along the Riviera di Ponente are well worth visiting, both for relaxation and for their historical significance. The famed and gorgeous Cinque Terre is in the southern end of the region and represents perhaps the best feature of the small and beautiful Liguria: despite the popularity of the beaches and the draw of tourists, the essence of the small towns, villages and ports remain untouched and preserved for all to appreciate and experience.
Genoa started as a small fishing town in the Mediterranean but today has grown into a significant port-of-call, Liguria’s capital and a beautiful, historic city. Ruled by Rome, Genoa was completely destroyed by the Carthaginians in 209 BC but was rebuilt and subsequently ruled by the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards and then the Franks only to once again face destruction by pirates. The small fishing village rebuilt once more and Genoa grew to become a major trading port during the 11th century. The town entered a period of growth, marked by the construction of beautiful villas and palazzos. After gaining independence as a city-state, prosperity increased but an age of decline was looming; the plague decimated the population and ongoing internal conflicts and a feud with Venice burdened Genoa’s already weakened economy. While native son Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas brought him substantial money from Spain, which he donated a portion of to aid Genoa, a change in the trading routes left the port city with diminishing economic prospects. But as Genoa had done time and again, the city rose after a surge in population in the 1960s and, with the advent of tourism, is now a major destination in the Mediterranean.
With one of the largest old towns in Europe, Genoa’s historical significance is evident in such remarkable Baroque landmarks as the Palazzo Bianco, Palazzo Grimaldi, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo del Principe, all located in the district Via Garibaldi (previously known as Strada Nuova). Another renowned monument is the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, a basilica showcasing Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance influences that houses a wonderful art collection. In the center of the city is the Piazza de Ferrari, Genoa’s main square, which features the principal opera house, the Teatro Carlo Felice. The Palace of the Doges has an entrance onto the Piazza and the home of Christopher Columbus is close-by as well. Genoa’s old harbor, the Porto Antico, was renovated into a modern mall and now has Europe’s largest aquarium, the Acquario di Genova, and is an extremely popular destination. There are a host of villas, castles and palazzos throughout the city with stunning gardens and grounds to explore as well as a large number of public parks. A historically fascinating city as well as a modern, picturesque Mediterranean port, Genoa is a multi-faceted destination.
Located on the coast southwest of Genoa, Santa Margherita is both a popular resort town as well as a working fishing village. This lovely municipality’s ability to host the many tourists who come to experience the beauty and simplicity of the town’s shore and to maintain the livelihood of the local fishermen is part of its appeal. Once a small Roman settlement that was destroyed twice in its early years, first by the Lombards and then the Saracens, Santa Margherita joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. With the introduction of a railway and the end of World War II, the town saw a spike in tourism and the beginning of its renown as a resort destination.
Santa Margherita has wonderful shops, cafes and restaurants, much like its neighbor Portofino, but is a quieter, less crowded option on the Riviera. The harbor is the heart of the town: the local fishing fleet can be seen unloading the daily catch and people can be seen enjoying the sunshine on the shore or on the water. The town also has some lovely historic landmarks that are well worth taking the time away from the waters of the Mediterranean to explore. The 17th century Basilica of St. Margaret of Antiochia, constructed from an existing 13th century church, is a wonderful architectural monument and the Villa Durazzo, another 17th century creation, contains statues, paintings and other fine artworks as well as a stunning park containing a citrus grove and lovely gardens and woods. The Castle, Santa Margherita’s most well known monument, was built to defend the town from pirates in 1550 and was restored after it was damaged in World War I. From Santa Margherita’s beautiful shoreline, authentic nature and historic landmarks, this sleepy resort town offers a glimpse into a quieter side of the Italian Riviera.
Named originally “Port of the Dolphin” for the numerous dolphins populating its harbor, Portofino is one of the most desirable destinations on Italy’s northwest coast. Perched above the sparkling Mediterranean, this small fishing village, now international hot spot, is an icon for the Italian Riviera. The Romans originally founded Portofino, a half-moon shaped harbor on the Tigullio Gulf east of Genoa; fishing supported the local economy but the limitations of the small harbor prevented the town from becoming a major trade city. After joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, an influx of wealthy European families began populating the picturesque town, building homes and villas and tourism eventually supplanted fishing as the mainstay of the local economy. Today Portofino boasts incredible shopping, restaurants and elegant hotels but still maintains the serenity of its small-town roots.
While the photogenic beauty of the pastel houses built along the shore over the crystalline bay is site enough for most, Portofino has much more to offer. The town’s most famous site is the underwater statue “Christ of the Abyss”, placed in the bay in 1954 in memory of Duilio Marcante, one of the fathers of underwater diving, and is said to protect the scuba divers and local fisherman. There are several historic vantage points that afford remarkable views of the harbor and coastline: the San Giorgio Church and the nearby Portofino Lighthouse on Punta del Capo are a lovely walk from the center of town and provide a well-earned view of the Tigullio Gulf. Continuing on, the Castello Brown, a 16th century castle built above the town, is another historic landmark that showcases both beautiful gardens and stunning vistas. The town’s regional park also has several trails that reward hikers with amazing views and can help work up an appetite for the local seafood. It is not difficult to understand the international appeal of this beautiful Riviera resort; Portofino is the ultimate destination.
Located on the Mediterranean along a particularly rugged section of the coastline lies a string of small villages known as Cinque Terre, the “Five Lands”. Linked only by boat, path or train, the terraced villages of Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Riomaggiore and Vernazza are unreachable from the outside world, protecting these stunning towns from modern development and subsequently preserving their original integrity and charm. Now protected as the Cinque Terre National Park and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this tranquil region was once a heated battleground. Because of its position along the coast, the area was much desired by various tribes as well as by the Byzantines and the Lombards, who fought violently to control the strategically located coastline. Once the region grew more settled, farming and fishing became the backbone of the local economy and, eventually, peace prevailed along the coast and hillside. Olives, citrus and grapes are still grown in the region and Cinque Terre produces two wine varietals from local vineyards as well as the Italian favorites, grappa and limoncello. A popular trails system links the five villages and affords the foot traveler perhaps the best understanding of the steep hillside, the remarkable terraces and architecture, the lovely painted houses along the coast and the well-preserved lifestyle of Cinque Terre.
Unlike the other four villages of Cinque Terre, Corniglia is located on a promontory overlooking the sea but is not directly adjacent to the water. The smallest of the villages, Corniglia can be reached by a series of 377 steps on 33 flights of stairs, the Lardarina, or via a small bus that runs intermittently from the train station up a small access road. The village was named for the purported original owner of the town, a Roman farmer named Gens Cornelia whose prosperous estate produced wine from the local grapes. Because Corniglia was settled on a steep hillside, the town’s economy relied much more heavily on agriculture rather than fishing. The closely stacked houses of the village have inspired artists for years; Corniglia also features a terraced vantage point from which the other four towns of Cinque Terre can be seen. There are several churches, St. Peter’s church, St. Mary’s chapel and the church of San Bernardo, which are lovely to visit and the ruins from a cliff-side stronghold that date back to1556 are a fascinating landmark. With its distinctive nature and unique location, the long stairway to Corniglia is worth the walk.
Known by locals as Manaea, the small town of Manarola is purported to be the oldest of the five villages of Cinque Terre. Linked to the village of Corniglia by trail, Manarola can also be reached via train, which runs through a tunnel and emerges to present an incredible view of the cliffs and Mediterranean below. Built on a ravine, the buildings of Manarola look as though they could spill into the small harbor, home to the town’s deep-water swimming hole. The San Lorenzo church, built in 1338, is located at the top of the town and is a lovely landmark and vantage point. Vineyards are scattered throughout the town and help to produce two local wines, Cinque Terre white and Cinque Terre sciacchetrà. In 2004 the town square, the Piazza Capellini, was built and has become a spot to gather with friends and family. The town also has Cinque Terre’s sole youth hostel, built at the top of the village and provides a view of the sea, the village and the beautiful vineyards. However, no visit to Manarola is realized without experiencing the Manarola Vineyard Walk, a beautiful walk that showcases the stunning flowers and trees of the area as well as the remarkable stonework of the dry stonewalls that support the vineyards. The rugged landscape of Manarola is a wonderful juxtaposition to the quiet, lovely lifestyle found in this charming village.
Monterosso al Mare
Known as the resort town of Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare is the only village of the five built on flat land, which also makes it the only town that can be driven directly to, though it is largely pedestrian. Monterosso is divided into two distinct sections: Centro Storico (the old town) and Fegina (the new town). Connected by a pedestrian tunnel, the two separate sections showcase the mixing of the modern amenities, such as shopping, luxury hotels and an active night-life with the historic charm of the original character small storefronts and pastel-colored houses of the old village. One of Monterosso’s most distinct features is its beautiful sand beach. The only stretch of beach along Cinque Terre, it provides a view of the other four villages, a particularly lovely sight at night when the villages are lit up and sparkling by the Mediterranean. There are a few historic landmarks, a 16th century lookout tower, the church of John the Baptist and the ruins of the town’s castle, and the town’s wonderful lemon trees are plentiful. For a livelier, more modern Cinque Terre experience, Monterosso al Mare has much to do and see.
The southern-most village of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore was first established in the 13th century and, due to its precarious perch on a hillside overlooking the Gulf of Genova, has a large number of staircases linking its buildings and alleys. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for some climbing while exploring the town. A colorful and delightful village, Riomaggiore is renowned for its zoos and aquariums, which are stocked with indigenous animals and sea life. While all five villages are linked by a trail system, the hike between Riomaggiore and Manarola is a particularly famed section of the trail; known as Via dell-Amore, or Love’s Way, the cobblestone walkway features benches to sit and enjoy the view (or your loved one) and is one of the easier sections of the trail system. Riomaggiore also has some remarkably historic landmarks, including the town’s castle, built sometime in the 15th or 16th century, which is perched on a crag above the town and has stunning views. The Church of San Lorenzo and the Church of San Giovanni Battista feature Neogothic and Gothic characteristics and the Guardiola Tower, reachable by path, has the best vantage point to enjoy the beautiful vistas. The town has wonderful cafes, restaurants and pizzerias that provide sustenance for exploring the village or for a snorkeling or diving adventure. Riomaggiore’s pastel houses are a welcoming flag of color and represent the charm of this hillside village.
With its small, protected beach and nearby plaza, Vernazza is a lovely spot to quietly spend time by the ocean while watching the local fishermen come and go. Still a true fishing village, Vernazza is incredibly picturesque and enforces a no car policy that has helped to preserve the town’s charm and integrity. The Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia, built in 1318, still contains religious icons from this period and features a beautiful organ and lovely stonework. Another religious landmark worth visiting is the Shrine of Santuario di Nostra Signora di Reggio, reachable by a wide, steep path with the Stations of the Cross along the way. Once the most prosperous of the five villages of Cinque Terre, some of the architecture of the town’s buildings are more elaborate, indicative of this period of wealth. The Doria Castle of Vernazza, located on the southern side of the village, is one of the town’s more prominent architectural features and has a distinctive tower. The pier is popular for fishing and provides a protective barrier for the beach, which is a perfect spot for young and old alike to enjoy the Mediterranean. A true port, Vernazza maintains its roots as a fishing village and delights with its historic landmarks and local flavor.