Exploring Italy’s northwest coast
Italy conjures up a host of sensory images: The smell of fresh pasta; the taste of Chianti; the feel of the sun. Rome, Florence and Venice host the majority of Italian tourists, but to experience Italy a bit slower, and tastier – head to Liguria.
“Liguria is a wonderful land, thanks to its sea cliffs and to the hinterland with its lush Mediterranean scrub,” believes Francesca Montaldo, who works for the In Liguria Regional Agency for Tourism. “It offers beautiful natural landscapes and hidden corners which allow anyone the chance to spend time outdoors, immersed in nature, with the seaside just a day trip away.”
The region stretches east from France, in a narrow ribbon along the coast. Genoa is the main city – a harbor town boasting a beautiful port and historic medieval center. The European Capital of Culture in 2004; the city is home to numerous art museums plus 47 Palazzi dei Rolli palaces that have been listed as World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Architecture fans will want to gaze a while upon the Priamar Fortress of Savona; a massive complex where medieval, Byzantine and pre-Roman architectural elements overlap. Genoa offers lots to do for a full weekend, including the biggest aquarium in Europe, Acquario di Genova and as Montaldo recommends, a fascinating wander through the city’s old town.
‘The best way to discover Genoa is along the vicoli, the small streets which descend from the heights of the Castelletto down towards the Porto Antico (Old Port) and which hide some true treasures,” she suggests.
The palazzos are an important part of the old town’s character and are now home to many of the city’s art museums. Montaldo says the Palazzo Rosso (Red Palazzo) and Palazzo Bianco (White Palazzo) should not be missed; nor should the two national galleries: Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria and Palazzo Reale.
Genoa is “small” compared to some of Italy’s other major cities, but maybe you are looking to go even smaller. The region is home to some of the country and Europe’s loveliest villages – proof is that 13 of them in Liguria have been named “most beautiful Italian villages.” This means they offer architectural gems as well as citizen preservation of the city’s design heritage and a livable quality of life for its residents. For visitors, it means the chance to experience life in an Italian medieval village, complete with picture perfect sea views and a variety of charming treasures. A visit to Albenga is a must for craft lovers, or those who like stairs – the village boasts seven towers. Go way back in agricultural history with a visit to Varese Ligure, a round village where all farming is organic. Liguria is not only about the sea –Santo Stefano d’Aveto is nestled in the mountains, amongst pine trees and near a large sparkling lake.
One of the region’s most known attractions is the Cinque Terre; a string of five fishing villages connected by walking paths. It’s a UNESCO protected region which offers the sea stretching out below sheer cliffs, vineyards, charming historic villages and panoramic trails. Millions of people come every year to hike the paths; and it can be extremely crowded in the summer months. Staying in one of the villages is best – once the sun starts to set, the paths clear out and it’s just you; the sound of the sea, a glass of wine and a plate of pasta. Which brings us to another important point about visiting Italy: the food. Ligurian cuisine won’t disappoint. It’s pesto country – Genoa actually holds a World Pesto Championship every April. Nearly every dish begins with the extra-virgin olive oil the area is known for. If you choose to walk through the Cinque Terre, or other areas of Liguria you’ll no doubt wander through many olive groves. The oil enhances the flavor of Genoese focaccia, which is impossible to escape. But the best culinary reason for visiting Liguria has to be its pesto – made from fresh-grown local basil and of course the wonderful olive oil. You’ll find it on focaccia, on pasta, at nearly every meal. Running a close second in popularity to the pesto would naturally be seafood. If your trattoria offers the cappon magro or the orata, a local fish cooked with olives and potatoes – get it. Wines from the region include the Rossese of Dolceacqua (an excellent red,) the Ormeasco of Pornassio, the Sciacchetrà of the Cinque Terre (there’s a museum dedicated to this sweet white wine in Manarola) and the Vermentino of the Colli di Luni (a good white choice.)
For those looking for a bit of style with their pesto – head to Portofino. This is the glam village of the region – popular with yachters and beach-goers. Shoppers looking for Italian labels will find most of them here as well as other boutiques offering more unique goods. Strolling, seeing and being seen are the big pastimes in Portofino.
Liguria is a truly lovely region of Italy to experience – the food and wine are tops; the people are friendly and the pace is slower…allowing one to absorb and digest all its charming style.
48th International Boat Show, October 4-12, 2008, Genoa www.salonenauticogenova.it
Pesto and Co., First half of October 2008, Genoa www.pestoedintorni.org
Science Festival, October 23 – November 4, 2008, Genoa www.festivalscienza.it
Genoa is the region’s largest city and airlines that fly into it include Alitalia, Air France, and Lufthansa. You can also fly into Milan via Sky Europe and take a 2-hour train ride to the region.
Regional Agency for Tourism
Cinque Terre National Park