If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Liguria region of northern Italy, commonly known as the Italian Riviera. This thin strip of land lies on the Ligurian Sea, not far from Monaco and the French Riviera. While Liguria is by no means 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 west of Genoa, or as the locals call it, Riviera di Ponente (The Riviera of the Setting Sun.) Be sure to read the other articles in this series: eastern Liguria, Genoa, and Cinque Terre, five little seaside villages that just might steal your heart.
We start our just west of Genoa at the seaside town of Pegli. We continue southwest down the coast to the Albisola Marina, Savona, Finale Ligure, Imperia, Bussana Vecchia, San Remo, Bordighera, Ventimiglia, and finally the Giardini Botanici Hanbury just west of the French Border.
As Liguria’s capital Genoa grew it almost swallowed little Pegli. You can walk around and see vestiges of its past. Its two main attractions are Villa Doria and Villa Durazzo Pallavicini. The Sixteenth Century Villa Doria is now home to the Genoa Naval and Maritime Museum honoring the world’s most famous sailor, Christopher Columbus. The Nineteenth Century Villa Durazzo Pallavicini houses the Museo Civico di Archeologica Ligure (Ligurian Civic Archeological Museum) with a beautiful park, lakes, grottoes, and a medieval-style castle.
Albisola Marina, population fifty-five hundred, is famous for ceramics. I am told that experts can identify Albisolan ceramics from their shape, designs, and colors. In any case walk down the Lungomare delgi Artisti (Artists Seafront) near the beach and you’ll find beautiful souvenirs of Liguria. Stop by the luxurious Eighteenth Century Villa Durazzo-Faraggiana to see. Make sure that you look down to see its floor tiles. It’s close to the Baroque Parish Church of Nostra Signora della Concordia (Our Lady of Harmony).
Savona, population just over sixty thousand, is an important industrial seaport. In a sense it competes with Genoa only thirty miles (forty five kilometers) away. In the Sixteenth Century their competition was hotter, Genoa feared the Savona port and rendered it useless by sinking vessels filled with large stones. Unfortunately the Fifteenth Century Palazzo della Rovere (Della Rovere Palace) is not open to the public. The Palazzo faces the somewhat newer Cathedral. Right nearby is the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel), not to be confused with the Pope’s residence in Vatican City. Savona is home to some medieval towers, open only by appointment. On Good Friday of even-numbered years, the city hosts a major Easter Parade.
Finale Ligure, population twelve thousand, was originally settled some six thousand years ago, when people lived in caves and dinosaurs did not roam the earth. If you want to enjoy the seaside go to the Finale Ligure Marina (Finalmarina) part of town. The traditional center of the town is called Finale Pia (Finalpia). Finalborgo, the third part of Finale Ligure, located further inland is an old walled medieval town.
Finale Ligure has lots of churches, some dating back to the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Its Fourteenth Century Santa Catherina (Saint Catherine) Church, originally built as a convent, now hosts a paleontology and archeology museum. The countryside near Finale Ligure is known for unusual plants and animals.
Imperia, population forty thousand, is really two cities in one. Oneglia is an oil refining and pharmaceuticals center. So why would you want to visit there? Its Museo dell’Olivo (Olive Oil Museum) is devoted to that most delicious of oil, spanning nations and centuries. The location is quite fitting; at one point little Oneglia controlled the oil commerce for all Europe. Imperia’s other city, Porto Maurizio, has a medieval city center and some palaces. The relatively recent Cathedral, completed in 1832, is the largest church in all Liguria. The city hosts the Naval Museum of Western Ligura known for its collection of shipbuilding tools.
Bussana Vecchia is an artist’s colony that emerged from a ghost town. In 1887 an earthquake destroyed a village in the Ligurian hills east of San Remo (see below). The survivors built huts near the entrance to the village but abandoned them after seven years. For more than six decades this entire area was abandoned. Then in the early 1960s an Italian artist started the Colonia Internazionale degli Artisti (International Artist Colony) for dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers. As true artists they respected the medieval characteristics of the buildings, used bricks and stones reclaimed from the rubble, and left the original facades. Don’t miss it.
San Remo, population under sixty thousand, is the largest resort in western Liguria. Tucked in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Maritime Alps it enjoys an excellent climate. During the off season San Remo is probably the only animated site in western Liguria. It is an international flower center, dispatching an estimated twenty thousands of tons of flowers (who measures flowers by the ton?) per year. But like the old grey mare, San Remo ain’t what it used to be. I’m told that royalty no longer hangs its hat in these parts. Is that a reason not to visit?
For example, you should see the Russian Orthodox Church of San Basilio built less than a century ago by expatriate Russians. If you like the gambling life, hit the tables at the Art Nouveau San Remo Casino. Who knows what great person you may see there? The casino theater hosts the annual San Remo Music Festival that has been running since 1951. The initial festival attracted only three singers. I’m not naming names, but one famous (at least to Italians) contestant commited suicide after realizing that his song was eliminated from the competition.
La Pigna, the historic center of San Remo dates back about a thousand years and still maintains a lot of its unique character. Pigna means pine cone; the streets here curl around the little hill like the scales of a pine cone. You start with the Fourteenth Century Gothic stone arch Porta di Santo Stefano (Saint Stefano’s Gate) and then keep discovering more and more of that good old stuff, churches, villas, palaces, and the like. Maybe royalty and their hangers on just don’t know what they are missing.
Bordighera, population just over ten thousand, has long been a popular winter resort, especially for the English who at one time outnumbered the local residents. It’s well known for flowers and palms, proudly used in Rome’s St. Peter's Basilica on Palm Sunday. Bordighera was the first city in Europe to grow date palms, well before global warming. According to legend the local date palms grew from Egyptian pits planted at the beginning of the Fifth Century. The Lungomare Argentina (Argentina Promenade) has an excellent view of the French Riviera and other churches. The Seventeenth Century parish church of Santa Maria Maddalena, has fine bell tower and holds the relics of Sant'Ampelio, the patron saint of the town. He’s the one said to have first planted those Egyptian date pits.
Ventimiglia, population twenty-five thousand, is only about four miles (seven kilometers) from the French border. It includes remains of a Roman theater and the old city walls. This is all new potatoes when compared to Ventimiglia’s caves. One of them contained skeletons of three Cro-Magnon individuals, a man, a woman, and a child, dating back ten thousand years or so. The well-preserved medieval city center is perched on a hill overlooking the new town.
They believe in recycling here. The Church of San Michele is erected on the foundations of a pagan temple. The Eleventh Century Romanesque Cathedral is built on the ruins of an earlier Lombard church, itself built on a Roman building, possibly a temple.
Our last stop in this part of the world is the Giardini Botanici Hanbury (Hanbury Botanical Gardens) located on a small steep peninsula sloping down to the Mediterranean Sea. At about 44 acres (18 hectares) is one of the largest in Italy, but presently only about half the property is cultivated. You can find specimens from five continents, including palms, but may only see the villa from the outside.
What about food? In spite of such a long seacoast, Ligurian cooking isn't nearly as seafood intensive as one might think. The Ligurian coast does not offer as rich a variety of seafood as does Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast or its Mediterranean coast further south. Instead of crying about it Ligura developed their own specialties including a vegetable pie that was a favorite of sailors, surely a change from that same old fish.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Pansoti con Salsa di Noci (Ravioli with Walnut Sauce). Then try Polpe e Patate (Stewed Octopus with Potatoes.) For dessert indulge yourself with Castagnaccio (Chestnut and Pine Nut Tart.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Liguria wine. Liguria doesn’t have a lot of room for wine grapes. It ranks 19th among the 20 Italian regions for the acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. About 34% of its wine is red or rosé, leaving 66% white. The region produces eight DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. About 14% of Ligurian wine carries the DOC designation.
There are three DOC wines in the Riviera di Ponente region. The Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC may be produced almost anywhere in western Liguria. It is always dry but may be red or white and comes from a variety of local grapes. The dry or sweet Pornassio/Ormeasco di Pomassio DOC is produced in a small area north of Imperia from the local red Ormeasco grape, called Dolchetto elsewhere. This grape is said to resemble Gamay, so if you like Beaujolais there’s a good chance that you will like this wine. The Rossese di Dolceacqua/Dolceacqua is produced in a small area at the western tip of Liguria from a local red grape. It is Liguria’s best-known wine. Liguria exports very little wine to North America so you may have to go there to taste the wines. To tell you the truth, there are many better reasons for visiting this lovely area.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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