Glass visits Lovely Liguria, one of Italy’s smallest regions

MOUNTAIN valleys, blue vistas and medieval townscapes, artisan food and wines – western Liguria is off the tourist radar for many and all the better for it.

Liguria, one of Italy’s smallest regions, is split in two by Genoa and it is the hinterland behind the narrow coastline that heads towards France that quietly enjoys its low profile on the tourist landscape. The Italian Riviera to the east of Genoa is well travelled but western Liguria is waiting to be explored. Forget herds of escorted tourists following little flags on a stick, mammoth tour buses and beeping mopeds, long queues to see famous artwork – think instead of winding roads in forested valleys and medieval walls around ancient villages perched above crags.

Genoa, where tumble dryers are unnecessaryGenoa, where tumble dryers are unnecessary. Photograph: courtsey of Liguria tourist board

The main town in western Liguria is Sanremo and its fine old buildings, including a grandiose casino, reflect its popularity with affluent visitors in the late 19th century. Alfred Nobel retired and died here and the pretty gardens of his house – plus the laboratory where he experimented with nitroglycerine after inventing dynamite – are an attraction but so too is the atmospheric old town quarter of La Pign: narrow walkways and  a maze of arches  take you back to an olde-world Italy, not yet gentrified.

Art Nouveau villas dot the smaller town of Bordighera, an enclave for well-off English holidaymakers in the Victorian age, but set your GPS on the Nervia valley accessed a little further westwards. The first of the valley’s rocky hillside villages, Dolceacqa (‘sweet water’), retains the charm that attracted Claude Monet when he spent nearly three months around here in 1884.

A small arts and craft shop in Dolceacqua's old quarterA small arts and craft shop in Dolceacqua’s old quarter. Photograph: Sean Sheehan

Monet, mesmerised by the light, colours and greenery of Liguria, found Dolceacqua, with its half-ruined castle and high-arched, 15th century bridge, especially evocative: “petite ville extraordinaire de pittoresque” he wrote to a friend and worried that it would require “a palette of diamonds and precious stones” to capture the Mediterranean light.

The town square of Apricale in the Nervia valleyThe town square of Apricale in the Nervia valley. Photograph: courtsey of Liguria tourist board.

A short drive from Dolceacqua brings you to Apricale and its ancient dwellings  that look to be tumbling down the side of a ravine. One of them, a cellar restaurant  called Da Baci, feels like being in an upmarket catacomb; its street address, Via Roma, must be a joke given its secretive location down a winding, cobbled alleyway. The local pizza is called sardenaria, a  cheese named Bruzzo is surprisingly spicy and Rossese di Dolceacqua, a red wine made from the tempermental rossese grape, is  earthy, unsophisticated, very Ligurian.

All roads lead to Rome, including this narrow thoroughfare in western Liguria's hinterland.All roads lead to Rome, including this narrow thoroughfare in western Liguria’s hinterland. Photograph: Sean Sheehan

On the other side of Sanremo, there is another valley worth discovering – Valle Argentina – and stress-free Badalucco suggests itself as a base here. This is the homeland of the sweet and fruity taggiasca olive and just before entering town look for the ROI oil mill on your right. Less than ten people collect the olives in autumn and the mill’s shop sells what is  made from the oil (including gin, beauty products and a vegan pesto). L’Adagio offers rustic but stylish accommodation on the olive farm: five suites with kitchens, a spa and a sauna. Offering an experiential holiday, autumn packages will have you shaking the olive branches with long poles to help bring in the harvest.

The  road up Valle Argentina leads to the mountainous village of Triora. Hapless victims of witch trials were burnt here in the 16th century and this  has led to some kitschy marketing but ignore this in favour of the walking trails that branch out from the village. Past Triora, the road climbs and winds its way  through spruce and fir trees to tiny Realdo, with a population of less than twenty, where glorious views, a bar, restaurant and accommodation transport you away from our unquiet world.

 Genoa is a busy and buzzy city but its old quarter is old-school Italy where Genovans buy their groceries and chocolates in wonderfully preserved shops,  established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and still in the same families. Some are architectural gems and can be located using a map of them from the tourist office; a fun way to get lost in the nooks and crannies of the old city.

Festa della Trasumanza; Mendatica; Imperia; Liguria; ItalyLocal ingredients add authenticity to the food at The Blue Lounge. Photograph: courtsey of Liguria tourist board.

Liguria’s best restaurants are in Genoa, like the Blue Lounge in the Meliá Genoa, where local favourites – like focaccia col formaggio (focaccia with creamy stracchino cheese) are readily available even if not on the menu of pizza and pasta dishes. Meliá Genoa has a striking marble exterior and the bedrooms have the original parquet from when the building was constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Western Liguria is lovely, opening a new window on what makes Italy such a desirable holiday destination, and getting there is easier now than ever before.

by Sean Sheehan

Fact File

Either fly to Nice, from where it’s less than 50km to Bordighera, or to Genoa  and start your trip there. For accommodation in Badalucco, see here; for The Blue Lounge in Genoa go  here The useful Bradt Guide Liguria covers the western region in detail.


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