If you are thinking about a European tourist destination, why not consider the Liguria region of northern Italy, commonly known as the Italian Riviera? This thin strip of land lies on the Ligurian Sea, close to Monaco and the French Riviera. While Liguria is hardly undiscovered, its crowds are much smaller than those next door. There are many little towns or villages, and one international port city almost smack dab in the center of the coast. This article explores Liguria east of Genoa, or as the locals call it, Riviera di Levante (The Riviera of the Rising Sun.) Be sure to read the other articles in this series: western Liguria, Genoa, and Cinque Terre, five little seaside villages that just might steal your heart.
We start our tour just east of Genoa at the seaside town of Nervi. We continue southeast down the coast to the Portofino Promontory and the towns of Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino. Then it’s back to the main coast and several destinations: Rapallo, Moneglia, La Spezia, and finally Lerici.
The little town of Nervi near Genoa has been a resort for well over one hundred years. Swimming there is not recommended because of Genoa’s pollution. You may want to visit in July when Nervi hosts the International Ballet Festival. Nervi’s highlight is its mile-long (1.5 kilometer) Passeggiata (Promenade) Anita Garibaldi named for the wife and comrade-in-arms of that famous Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, the founder of the modern Italian state. I’ll return to this great promenade, but first let’s talk about Madame Garibaldi. She was born in pre-independence Brazil to a poor family and raised by a single mother. She married at age 14. It is said that when Garibaldi first laid eyes on her he could only whisper, “You must be mine.” And she was. She taught the sailor Guiseppe about the gaucho culture of her homeland and fought by his side in many battles. The couple had four children and she died where carrying their fifth child several years before the independence of Italy. In 1860, when Garibaldi rode his horse to greet Victor Emanuel II as King of a United Italy, he wore Anita’s striped scarf over his gray South American poncho.
The rock hewn mile-long (1.5 kilometer) Passeggiata (Promenade) Anita Garibaldi is full of palm and orange trees in its 300 acre (120 hectare) park. Be sure that you visit the Parco Villa Grimaldi with its magnificent collection of roses. And don’t forget Anita Garibaldi.
Santa Margherita Ligure, population about ten thousand, is an old, upscale resort town. There’s a Sixteenth Century castle, and a few churches and villas to visit. If you have the money you can stay in a top of the line hotel, costing a lot less than in neighboring Portofino, which is such a famous tourist attraction that it has been recreated, so to speak, in Japan and at the Portofino Bay Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Portofino, population about five hundred, not counting the very numerous tourists is considered one the most beautiful Mediterranean ports. Be sure to see the Castello di San Giorgio (Saint George Castle) old enough to be restored in the Sixteenth Century, with its lovely gardens, views and exhibit showing famous visitors including Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Prince Rainier at play. When you have seen enough of these pictures walk out to the lighthouse and view Portofino’s villas from afar. Stop in for a coffee and watch the fishing boats and ferries go by. Then walk or ferry to the Tenth-Eleventh Century Abbazia di San Fruttuoso now a conservation site that occasionally has exhibits.
Portofino and its surroundings are safeguarded by the Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino ( Regional Natural Park of Portofino) and by the Area Marina Protetta di Portofino (Protected Marine Area of Portofino). Visit them both to enjoy the local flora and fauna on land and on sea.
Rapallo, population about thirty thousand, was initially settled in the Eighth Century B.C. perhaps by the Greeks or by the Etruscans. During World War I it hosted an important conference and subsequently became the site of two peace treaties including the Russian-German Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. We all know how well that worked out. Rapallo was once a major resort area but has not kept up with the times. Be sure to visit the Eleventh Century Cathedral of Santi Gervasio e Protasio with a great bell tower and interesting paintings. The Church of Santo Stefano, the first parish church in Rapallo, is the oldest building in town. It was constructed prior to the Eleventh Century. Other churches include the Church of San Francesco, the Sixteenth Century Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Montallegro (Our Lady of Montallegro Sanctuary), and the Thirteenth Century Monastery of Valle Christi, abandoned for over four centuries because of the pirates. Visit the local castles that were built to defend against pirates. For another view of life visit the Museo del Pizzo a Tombolo (Bobbin Lace Museum of Rapallo).
Moneglia whose population numbers approximately twenty-seven hundred is a quiet resort town that is less expensive than its better-known neighbors. It hosts the Niccolo Paganini International Guitar Competition. Moneglia is linked to the outside world by a long series of old tunnels. With a little bad luck you can easily be stopped for a quarter hour before the light turns green. Imagine if it were more popular.
You may decide to skip La Spezia, population ninety-five thousand, because of its relatively large size. You shouldn’t. For example, its Thirteenth Century Abbey Church of Santa Maria Assunta (Our Lady of the Assumption) has quite a collection of artwork, often originating in other churches demolished over the years. La Spezia is home to at least eight museums ranging from the Museo Tecnico Navale (Technical Naval Museum) to the Centro Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, often known by its Italian acronym CAMeC. Don’t miss the recently restored Castello di San Giorgio (Saint George Castle) with its Museo del Castello that houses Roman and pre-Roman artifacts.
Lerici, population about eleven thousand, marks the end of our Riviera di Levante tour. Unfortunately, it also marked the end of the English poet Shelley who drowned in the Bay of Spezia while returning to his beloved Lerici. He actually lived in the nearby village of San Terenzo. The Golfo di Lerici was renamed Golfo dei Poeti in honor of Shelley and his friend and fellow poet, Lord Byron. Make sure to see the Thirteenth Century Castello di Lerici (Lerici Castle) that commanded the bay for centuries and now hosts a paleontology museum. What about food? Liguria has quite a seacoast and so you can always find a seafood restaurant. One favorite is anchovies, eaten as antipasto or as a main dish. Popular fish include Swordfish, Tuna, Sardines, and Sea Bass.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Zuppa di Pesce (Fish Soup). Then try Pescato del Giorne a la Mode Ligure (Catch of the day, Liguria style – with Potatoes, Olives, and Pine Nuts.) For dessert indulge yourself with Canestrelli, literally little boxes (Doughnuts with Confectioners Sugar.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude this article with a quick look at Liguria wine. Liguria doesn’t have a lot of room for wine grapes. It is 19th among the 20 Italian regions in both the acreage devoted to wine grapes and the total annual wine production. About 34% of its wine is red or rose, leaving 66% white. The region is home to eight DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Some 14% of Ligurian wine carries the DOC designation.
There are three DOC wines in the Riviera di Levante region, not counting Cinque Terre to be discussed in a separate article. The Golfo del Tigullio DOC is produced near Portofino from a wide variety of local grapes in a wide variety of styles. The dry Colli di Luni DOC is produced both in Liguria near La Spezia and in neighboring Tuscany in numerous styles from the white Vermentino grape, the red Sangiovese grape, and several local grapes. The Colline di Levanto DOC is a dry white or red wine based on the white Vermentino grape, the red Sangiovese grape, and several local grapes. Liguria exports very little wine to North America so you may have to go there to taste the wines. Really there are many better reasons for visiting this lovely area.