Hidden Gems of the Italian Riviera

Posted: 15th August 2016 | Written by: Rebecca Whitlocke

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The Italian Riviera, the coastal strip of north-western Italy that greets yachts when they cruise east of the French border is a region of contrasts and a classic introduction to Italy.

The Ligurian coastline is roughly divided into two distinct stretches either side of the main city Genoa – Riviera di Ponente and Riviera di Levante – and here you’ll find a region bursting with chic coastal resorts, pastel-coloured fishing villages, chestnut and olive groves weaving up to mountain towns, little coves with pine trees clinging to cliffs and beaches accessible only by yacht.

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If you’re hoping to find an article devoted to yacht charter highlights of Liguria including classic San Remo, Italian holiday spot Finale Ligure, millionaire’s playground Portofino, or the gateway marina at La Spezia to the overworked villages of the Cinque Terre, you won’t find it here.

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Here, you can uncover some hidden gems that still retain character when the region is swarming with tourists in July and August – wildflowers growing alongside wild garlic on old mule tracks in National Parks, orange tree and vine-carpeted hillsides with osterias decorated with check tablecloths and wooden ornaments, inland villages built in spirals as protection from raiders of bygone centuries and traditional festivals that showcase Italy’s pride in its heritage.

Italy 3Riviera di Ponente:
From Monet to Columbus

Dolceacqua, located inland from Ventimiglia on the Nervia River, is a great place to wander with narrow streets overlooked by the Doria Castle. Its crowning glory is the Ponte Romano, a single-span arched stone bridge captured in French Impressionist Claude Monet’s paintings.

For sublime cuisine, take a reservation at Osteria dell’Acqua Dolce and don’t miss trying the local red wine, Rossese di Dolceacqua, or buying some olive oil at the small shop on the right hand side just as you are leaving the town going up the valley.

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Closer to Nice than Genoa, Apricale is suitably sleepy and offers a lovely escape from the crowded beach resorts located a short distance away. With a name derived from Latin Apricus meaning ‘exposed to the sun’, the town of Apricale tumbles down the hillside in a maze of stone houses divided by splinter-thin streets and steep staircases.  Noted as one of the ‘Rock Villages’, the most beautiful villages in Italy, you will find time will pass by as you wander the alleyways and stop to admire the painted doors and murals.

A short distance inland from San Remo, Bussana Vecchia was abandoned in the late 19th century after an earthquake, but has been partially rebuilt and rejuvenated.  Atmospheric to visit, you can see the old church ruins and buy paintings from a number of artist’s studios tucked amongst the crumbling archways.

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Situated half an hour’s drive from Imperia Port, the town of Badalucco may not be an immediate choice for a shore excursion, but foodies come from near and far to eat at Ristorante Ca’Mea.  Propped in a rustic setting surrounded by stone walls and copper pots, the fabled Ristorante Ca’Mea has a set menu featuring dishes with mushrooms cooked every possible way and accompanied by lots of red wine, grappa or prosecco.

Not exactly a hidden gem as they are one of Liguria’s most important sites, geology and palaeontology buffs should make a beeline for Toirano where the Grotte di Toirano (Toirano Caves) are three cave complexes with prehistoric bear prints, stalactites and karst formations.

The Heart of Liguria

Genoa (Genova), Liguria’s main city, had a major facelift in the 1990’s when the State funded renovations to the old port and buildings to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 voyage.  

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As the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, you’d expect a large dose of history here and you’re right – Genoa is filled with spectacular churches, frescoed Baroque architecture and multi-storey Renaissance palazzi that contain art collections to rival any European city. Ensure you visit Christopher Columbus’ house, Via Garibaldi for its beautiful buildings and the triple-palazzi Musei di Strada Nuova to see collections of fine paintings.

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If Rome matched Barcelona, Genoa would be Pamplona – a veritable Running of the Bulls city with its core jam packed with caruggi (narrow medieval passageways) and stairways that serpentine at right angles and confuse both tourists and residents.   

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Stroll around the Campetto area before taking a break in the Piazza di Soziglia at Klainguti, one of the oldest cafés in Genoa.  Try their range of sweet pastries and cakes; composer Verdi used to frequent there and I’m sure he packed away a few torte Zena’s with tasty rum-infused zabaglione cream.

Families on yacht charters will find plenty to entertain children in the port zone including an excellent aquarium, the Biosfera (a small dome with tropical plants and animals), the Grande Bigo (a crane that lifts you up for birds eye views) and a replica galleon, Galeone Neptune, that’s perfect for pint-sized pirates to explore.  

Genoa Crane Flikr
Nearby, behind the highway overpass, you can see Palazzo di San Giorgio with an impressive façade of St George slaying the Dragon and the historical claim to where Marco Polo was once imprisoned. Don’t miss capturing a night photo of Lanterna di Genova, Genoa’s landmark lighthouse.

Italy is a gastronomic pleasure and Liguria has many specialties.  You’ll see farinata (a chickpea pancake) sold everywhere in Genoa, but the best known specialty is pesto alla Genovese invented to help sailors keep scurvy away – stop in at the Ristorante Santa Teresa where you can eat the best pesto in town.

Naturally, seafood is prominent in Genoese cuisine including anchovies, scampi, clams, burridda di seppie (seafood stew), biachetti ravioli and bacalà (salt cod).  If your yacht chef has missed the fish market, book a table at Antica Osteria del Bai where the fish is so fresh you can swear it just jumped out of the sea.

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Liguria has beauty that reaches far beyond the coast; around one hour from Genoa is the Parco Naturale dell’Antola. A protected area with flora and fauna that includes orchids, lilies, wolves and European green woodpeckers, you can head there for hiking in pastures and beech forests or rock climbing. More seasonsed hikers can tackle the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, an extensive trail that stretches the length of Liguria.

Riviera di Levante: Coastline and Cuisine

Italy 11Recco is worth a visit if only to eat at Da O’Vittorio, a family-run restaurant serving tasty focaccia al formaggio and seafood pasta.  Nearby, you’ll find a down-to-earth atmosphere in Camogli where the brightly coloured buildings reach to the waterline and it serves as a good base to visit the Benedictine Abbey at San Fruttuoso. 

Yacht charter guests have much to see and do in this region and you don’t even need to go ashore. The waters here are part of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals and are home to whales such as long-finned pilot whales as well as various dolphin species, seen most regularly between June and September.


Many charter itineraries are increasingly opting for visits to Santa Margherita Ligure which is less expensive and tourist-laden than Portofino, but has many of the same attractions including picturesque buildings and a trendy port. Visit the 16th-century castle and Villa Durazzo before enjoying a sundowner at the floating pontoon at Ristorante Skipper.

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Even the name of the town rolls off the tongue, and Rapallo is certainly a place that will create memories on your tastebuds. Ride the cable car up to the Sanctuary of Montallegro before returning to Parla Come Mangi, a fantastic salumeria-cum-wine shop with window displays of towering cheese wheels and giant jambon chunks. Stop in to buy Ligurian olive oil, handpicked Taggiasca olives, cured meats and wines from small producers.

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Sestri Levante, is split by two bays – Baia de Silenzio (Bay of Silence, known locally at Portobello) and Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fables) – and is another town that acts the understudy to popular Portofino however this means it’s less busy, but still with immense charm.  

Italy 14Baia delle Favole was named in honour of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish writer who lived there in the 19th century and who is celebrated at an annual town festival in May with street performers, music and a children’s literature competition.

Sestri also upholds another traditional custom involving anchovies, a Ligurian specialty. Each July, the town hosts Sagra del Bagnum, a festival that showcases one of the oldest recipes for bagnum which is a tomato-anchovy soup laced with parsley, garlic, onions, olive oil and white wine.

Wine aficinados may already be familiar with Baia de Silenzio.  In 2009, an ambitious project inspired by the preservation of bottles on board galleon shipwrecks, resulted in 6,500 wine bottles being submerged in cages off the coast at a depth of 60 metres. The counterpressure, constant temperature and lack of light gave rise to Bisson Abissi Spumante, literally Bubbles from the Abyss, a bottle-fermented sparkling wine and an innovative lifecycle between terroir vines and the sea.

For luxury yacht charter along the Italian Riviera, contact Bespoke Yacht Charter.

 

 

 

 

 

*Image credits: Manorola:Pixabay; Porte Venere:Pixabay; Window view Pixabay;Dolceacqua:PixabayBussana Vecchia:Flikr CC By ND 2.0
Genoa fountain: Pixabay; Genoa lion: Pixabay; Genoa rooftops:Flikr CC By 2.0; x 
Pasta:Pixabay; Camogli:Pixabay; Portofino:Pixabay; Rapallo:Pixabay;
Genoa port:Flikr CC By SA 2.0

 

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