an authentic coastal journey on the medditeranean
The Italian Riviera, also knows as Liguria consists of San Remo, Imperia, Genova, Portofino and all of the beautiful villages in-between
The home of the famous Casino Municipale San Remo, this seaside city is well worth a stop on your trip through Liguria. Sporting lively night life and a great restaurant scene there are no lack of things to do. At the heart of the city is a large pedestrian only area, filled with wide open paved areas and narrow alleys. Here you can shop till you drop, sip Italian coffee or ingest an inappropriate amount of pizza (we won't judge you). Like most of Italy the shops are open well in to the evening and a late lunch easily slips in to aperitivos and on to a pasta and wine filled feast. If you plan on taking the night a step further then Victory Morgana Bay is the place for you. Situated on the water front, it is a little on the expensive side but the local DJ will have you raging well into the night. For surfers, if there is a mistral blowing (a local weather system that sits of the south of France and pumps swell into the coastline) then you are in luck. There is a fun little wave at the east end of the city. Hang a right at the yellow surf shop (it will be the second one you see on your right, heading east) and drive right out along the sea wall until you almost get to the end. In the right conditions it's a punchy little wave and on a decent day it'll hold 6-8 foot.
Fun Fact: There used to be a law in effect that if a mistral blew for more than two weeks it was legal to murder your wife, but that's medieval France for ya...
Between San Remo and Imperia there is an amazing cycle way installed over the old coastal railway lines. With bike rentals located throughout, it is an easy hour and a half ride along the beautiful coast through railway tunnels and amongst pastel buildings. The east end of the trail does end in San Lorenzo with only a short 10 min bus ride to Imperia. You can rent return or simply pick up a bike at one end and drop it off at the other. You just need to let the bike rental know before hand. There are single, tandem or quad cycles and the prices are very reasonable. Just look out for the red and yellow Niccolo Bici signs!
Along the same stretch of coast you will find a village called Bussana and if you look a little more closely, it's medieval and much more exciting counterpart. Bussana Vecchia (which literally translates to 'Old Bussana') is perched atop the hill behind the modern township.
I wouldn't recommend tackling the climb on a bike unless you consider yourself extremely fit, or you want to arrive at the top as a sweaty mess. However there is the option of a bus or if you are self driving you can park right outside. The town was built in the second half of the 9th century and left to ruin in 1887 after being struck by an earthquake. It was re-inhabited by a group of artists in the 1960s, building ramshackle homes and galleries amongst the ruins. See Wikipedia for more info on it's colourful history. Dotted with galleries and restaurants it is a perfect afternoon trip with a great vantage point to watch as the summer sun drops low on the Mediterranean horizon.
There is a commune nestled into the side of the old fortification wall, built by the original founders of the artist movement. Here you will find open arms leading you to interesting conversation, wine, and traditional food. Pigs and chickens roam free and the grounds are littered with fig and olive groves. Nothing is asked in return but that you enjoy yourself, stay open-minded or if you like give a small donation. Wether it be physical, monetary or even just some of your time, it will be greatly appreciated by the caretakers of this compound. There are even accommodations provided for those in need or those who would just like to stay a little longer. It is quite a magical place, one where it feels as if you have stepped in to another world detached from the one outside the gate.
Imperia is probably not in the top list of names that pop into your head when you think "Italy" and if it hadn't been for the chance of work placements neither of us may have ever had the opportunity to discover it. Luckily though we did and it quickly became a place we now hold close to our hearts. While tourists from all over the world come to discover Italy through it's larger more iconic cities, the Italians tend to do the opposite and get away from them. For many of them Imperia is their vacation destination.
The city is split into two sections; Porto Maurizio (also known as "Old Town") and Onegila with a 20 minute walk separating the two. Porto Maurizio, built on a hill with the town cascading down around it, filled with restaurants, cafés and gelato bars. At the bottom of the hill the land is met with beaches ranging from the main sand beach with it's sun loungers for hire, to smaller more private pebble and rock slab beaches. If the sun is so much as peaking out, the beaches are covered with sunbathers and families. If your driving parking is at a premium and it is best to park just outside of town, under the crane near the port. From here it is a 5 minute walk to the main beach along the water front, where you will find anything from classic wooden sail yachts to modern 200 foot super-yachts.
As you reach the esplanade you will see a large art deco style building come in to view. Known as Altra Maria, this cafe is the perfect place for a beachfront nibble. In the evening if you are looking for something more along the lines of a drink/ beachside lounge then Molleto's would be the place. With a family of Italian brothers behind the bar, it is nestled in to the sea wall of the port looking out over the main beach on towards the old town perched on the hill above. The vibe is super chilled with beach chairs everywhere until Friday night when it can turn into a party.
You can stretch your legs by heading up a walking path that cuts through the cliff face from the main beach heading West and ending in an area known as Prino. On the way you will find a paved board walk with al fresco dining for lunch or dinner. It is a stunning walk, overlooking cliffs tops as they fall away to the ocean. As you drop back down to the waters edge, before you cross the river take a quick turn to your right. This will take you up the hill and into the heart of Old Town. You will cross the road on to Via Cascione which is the main shopping centre for this side of town. Continue to your right up any of the pedestrian paths and you will find yourself eventually at the top of the hill. If you make it this far you'll be rewarded with the finest views this city has to offer, looking out over the Mediterranean and the marina below. From the lookout you can head down to the western side of the hill, through a narrow alleyway and you will find yourself next to the old monastery in a passage formed of high curving archways looking out towards San Remo.
The other side of town (Onegila) is a little larger with a range of Italian boutique shops as well as traditional weekend markets. The atmosphere is in many ways the same but with a slightly faster and more modern feel. It also hosts the biggest party spot in the area - KOKO's. During the day Koko beach has it's large white sun pads out. Guests are welcome to lounge and enjoy a drink right on the water's edge with waves crashing up against the sea wall below. As evening rolls around the music gets louder, the dance floor fills up and it become what could be described as a Miami style beach club. Just imagine St. Tropez and Cannes but without the price tag. The same can be said for this entire section of coastline in general (bear in mind it is open in summer only, from around mid May to late August).
If you continue along the promenade past Koko's, there is a beach that is a local favourite. Far less crowded, it is covered in pebbles keeping the water pristine and clear. And of course for the more adventurous among you there is a rock spine with the top spot sitting 4-5m above the water perfect those go-pro backflip shots.
Hidden away up in the mountains is a water hole known only to locals. You need a car to get there and even then it is a bit of a mission. Once you finally do find the right path you leave the car and then walk towards a stream. Finally you will reach a beautiful deep rock pool with a stick swing and a small cliff (from the side on the hill you walk down) where if you are feeling brave you can jump in from. Around it is dense bush, the sound of birds and running water. The water is a little chilli so if you do go, a warm summers day is better.
Now, last but not least! We know what you really came for... The food!! We have mentioned a few restaurants already, but having lived here for a year and a half it has given us the opportunity to sample many of the areas best dining experiences . Rather than trying to fit them all in to this article we have compiled a list of favourites with a short description of each here
Travel Tip: The only warning about Imperia is that like a lot of Italy it is seasonal and becomes very different in the off season. Most things shut down in the winter so if you are planning a trip go between June and November
As you head further along the coast toward Genova you'll find yourself in a beautiful town called Diano Marina, with much the same vibe as Porto Maurizio. At the east end there is a famous medieval settlement known as Cervo. It is of a similar era to Bussana Vecchia however it has been maintained to it's original status with a magnificent cathedral and a Michelin star restaurant. It is not to be missed.
With many picturesque villages for you to explore at your leisure, the next major stop on the road is the city of Genova. Home to a rich history of sea farers and a major port used by the Romans. Genova is a colourful city where you can find anything from a prison that once held Marco Polo to a shadier side of life where the night takes hold and the red light districts are in full view and full swing. If you are traveling by train you will mostly likely find that all roads (or tracks) lead you here. Genova Principale is a major train station and junction point for many of the main lines running through Italy. It is well worth taking a day to explore the area. The water front is dominated by a commercial port but there is a charming promenade lined with restaurants and bars making it easy to hop along and enjoy your night with a bit of variety. At the west end you'll find the maritime museum. Highly recommended, it will have you constantly engaged with displays of the rich maritime culture of the region, sporting a full scale walk through ship and many interactive exhibits.
An hours drive east will see you in the famous seaside town of Portofino. Playground of the rich and famous, this peninsula is filled with sprawling villas. The town is accessible by car but not by train. The closest stop is Santa Magherita and from there it is a quick bus ride or walk out to the peninsula. This is a beautiful spot to spend the afternoon/evening dining, shopping or just taking in the atmosphere and artistry on display. There is also a favourite restaurant of local Italians, hidden just off the main walking road. While most of the restaurants rave of their Shrimp Scampi, Da O Batti is hands down the winner. The secret family recipe handed down generation to generation combined with the perfect service and atmosphere makes this hidden gem a must do.
Another hidden gem of the Italian culture among the smaller villages are the Sagras held once a week throughout summer. Each time changing from one village to the next and focusing on a different Italian dish every time, making no two Sagras the same. Set up in an area with a lot of space it becomes a massive gathering of locals sharing in dinner seated on long bench tables set out all over the hillside. There are usually bands playing, drawing onto the dance floor grandmothers and children alike. It is welcome to locals and foreigners both although it's rare you'll find any of the latter, given that most travellers don't know when or where unless they know to ask around. If you look, you may find posters around town giving the details.
Similarly there is a festival held annually called La Notte Bianca which means the sleepless night. If you are around any main centres it is worth making your way there for it. The entire city transforms, hosting gypsy type vendors all through the winding streets. There are singers and bands at every other corner and the aroma of delicious food follows you with each passing vendor, not to mention all the sweet goods for sale. It seems that every single local plus some is out and the city is more alive than ever before.
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