Finding my Joy in Liguria

Nearly everyone loves Italy, wants to visit Italy, maybe even live in Italy. I fit into all those categories. My first visit to Italy was in 1971. After 15 more visits, I finally took the leap and moved to Liguria, one of the least known and least appreciated regions of Italy. We who live in Liguria like it that way.

My name is Marilyn Ricci, an American of 100% Italian Heritage (My blood test says 94% southern Italian) and now a dual citizen of Italy and the USA. My family is from the mountainous areas of Abruzzo and Campania. They are beautiful places, and it would have made sense to move to either. But there is no sea in the mountains, no salt in the air, no waves kissing the earth.

Since my second visit to see family, and Italy, in 1974, I dreamed of living by the sea—walking the beach, breathing the waves, and loving it all. Which was strange since I had never been to the Italian seaside. In fact, I’d only been to the ocean a couple times in California.

Still, as I sought my home in Italy, that dream drew me to the sea. In 2016, was asked to review a hotel in Sestri Levante, Liguria. Though I had never heard of the place, I was sea-curious, and so I accepted the offer.

My journey through Liguria began.

Here is a little background on the region. Liguria is the smallest of all of Italy’s provinces, in the northwest area of Italy. 

This tiny coastal region hugs the Mediterranean Sea like a snake with its head far west near the border of France and its tail to the east near La Spezia and Cinque Terre. YES, Cinque Terre is in Liguria, not Tuscany, though many try to fit a visit to the five coastal villages in with a trip to Florence.

The seacoast is 300 KM (186 miles) long and is called the Italian Riviera. Along this stunning, rocky coastline cluster towns sheltered by the hills and mountains to the north. The mountains protect the communities from the worst of winters, creating a microclimate that is most pleasant.

As I traveled north from Tuscany in 2016, my first stop in Liguria was a tiny hillside village on the Gulf of Poets named Tellaro. It was here that I fell in love with Liguria.

I took a taxi from La Spezia (there are buses, but I was feeling up for the adventure of switchback roads) and my driver dropped me right at the door of my tiny B&B, Le Sirene (The Sirens). This B&B features only four rooms. Mine had a patio on the cliff overlooking the sea and islands in the Bay of Poets. It was stunning, especially at sunset.

tellaro, liguria, Italy

Tellaro is a small yet vertical hillside town stretching down to the water. In that way it has a similar feel to parts of Cinque Terre. The colors of the homes are striking and the layout of the main part of Tellaro is inviting, despite the steep areas and narrow backroads. Besides, those backroads are magical.

Everywhere you walk, you see locals chatting on benches together, sunshine and shade intermixing with stunning structures and views. All roads lead to the sea.

You can walk along the rocky shore, visit a trattoria like Osteria La Caletta, or if you want something more upscale, there is Ristorante Delfino, with it's wonderful ambiance. Enjoy the light, white vino of the area with your meal. You can also walk past the small boats and go for a swim! Which is what I did.

Tellaro is a summer town, a place where families have lived for centuries. Yet now, the children have gone off to Milan or elsewhere to find work. They return for the summer and warm weekends in spring and autumn. Otherwise it’s nearly a ghost town. There is no train service nor room to expand. That is why it is a little secret slice of heaven still to this day. It is a member of a select few towns included as I Borghi più Belli d’Italia, the most beautiful towns of Italy.

Portovenere, Liguria, Italy

I took the bus to Lerici, as it was a stopping point on my path to Portovenere. They are both towns on the Gulf of Poets.

As I traveled by ferry and approached this peninsula jutting into the Bay of Poets, my heart skipped a beat.

The ancient castle and church juxtaposed against the tall, thin houses facing the sea is the epitome of Italy to me. Nothing is new in these photos. From 200 years old to who knows how ancient. I was so excited to explore and spend the night.

It is said that Lord Byron once swam from Portovenere to Lerici to visit his friend Percy Shelley who, with his wife, lived in Tellaro. Byron is honored in Portovenere, especially at his grotto, where he loved to think and swim (photo of his grotto below).

After dipping my toes in the water, viewing the castle hanging on the cliff in the background, I heard another set of stairs calling my name.

So upward to La Chiesa di San Pietro I climbed. Originally the church was built in the Romanesque style and was believed to have been constructed in the 4th or 5th Century. Later the original was encompassed in the Gothic style with the striped marble and belfry.

The doors show incredible workmanship. And opened to a church, perfection as a place of reflection.

From there, above the ocean, I watched the boats dance around one another on the deep blue sea and wondered if I could live here. I could play here for weeks, absolutely.

But could I live here year-round—no train service—ferries and busses only? I continued my hunt for a home in Liguria since my heart had already moved in.

Next stop, Cinque Terre. “The Five Lands” as they are translated into English, are five beautiful seaside villages connected by walking paths for centuries (trains and ferries now are available too.) and are now quite famous. From May to October, tourists swarm over them like ants. It can be very crowded. I suggest visiting off-season.

My friend and I chose to visit Corniglia next. She had an automobile which made it simpler as Corniglia is the one town that is not on the coast but up above. The restaurant and apartment hotel is called La Posada.

Chef Christian prepared a masterpiece for us. And it came with a gorgeous view. I would highly recommend La Posada as well as a visit to Corniglia, the least busy of the five towns.

vernazza, cinque terre liguria italy

We drove to Monterosso al Mare next, the beach town of Cinque Terre. In the town, away from the sea, I saw La Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista built in the 14th Century. It is lovely.

Next, I visited Vernazza, a very vertical town in Cinque Terre and a favorite of many visitors.

But the sea is the draw in this town. People love Vernazza, surrounded as it is by the rocky land, the hills, the colorful structures and the water for fishing and playing.

manarola, liguria italy

I do love Vernazza but my favorite town in the Cinque Terre is Manarola. I love the colorful homes surrounding and above the bay, and the stone foundations. It is so enchanting. And for a real thrill, go above, climb the stairs to Nessun Dorma, a trattoria with incredible views and tasty treats. Try to get there early and wait for the sunset as my friend and I did. All the colors morph into other hues. Even the stone itself transforms. And the sunset...wonderful.

We have barely touched the towns of Liguria. Andiamo a Sestri Levante!

Sestri Levante, Liguria, italy

Sestri Levante is famous for two beautiful beaches and Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Sestri Levante for a part of his life. Both beaches were named for him—the Baia delle Favolethe Bay of Stories (the first beach people usually locate after walking from the train) and the Baia del Silenzio, The Bay of Silence (a smaller, calmer beach area surrounded by stately homes).

On my first visit in 2016, I stayed across from the beach at Hotel Grande Albergo, a traditional hotel that had once been Palazzo Giustiniani, a bishop’s home. The hotel features a fabulous restaurant, Il Delfino Bianco.

I loved Sestri Levante, and considered making it my home.

But then I spent an hour in Chiavari.

Chiavari is about an eight minute train ride from Sestri Levante. It is half the size and for me, twice the character. 30,000 people live year-round in Chiavari. That number now includes me.

Chiavari is a city of porticos and 18th- 19th Century painted ladies. With astonishing views of the sea.

All around there is the sound of waves crashing into the breakers. Such power, such unpredictability.

Even away from the sea, Chiavari is gorgeous. Each piazza is distinct and beautiful (and well-maintained), and I love the art nuovo style of the buildings. And I just must mention again how much I love these porticos.

In Chiavari, I’ve discovered parades and festivals. And always men chatting outside shops as laundry dries above, waving in the ocean breezes.

And at sunset, what’s not to love in Chiavari?  If you are looking for an authentic town that has almost zero American tourists and usually only has any tourists on the beaches in June through August, you will enjoy my home. Great train service, excellent food at many restaurants including a favorite of mine, Lord Nelsons, where you enjoy your meal on the promenade by the sea.

Rapallo an 8-minute train ride along the sea and is more well-known than Chiavari. There are more English-speaking expats in Rapallo because it’s cheaper to anchor a yacht here than in the famous Portofino. Yes, you can walk to Portofino from Rapallo.

Chiavari from the hills above

There is a fort right in the water in Rapallo. Until October of 2018 and the horrible storm that severely damaged the coast of Rapallo, you would find many yachts docked here. Hopefully, by next year they will return.

The funiculare in Rapallo takes you up one of the hills surrounding the water to the Sanctuary of Montallegro. The views are spectacular. You can also hike a path to Portofino (lucky me, I can take a short ferry ride to hobnob with the rich and famous in their fancy yachts).

Many tourists visit Portofino by day and sleep in the hotels of Rapallo by night, since the difference in cost for both restaurants and hotels is significant.

In Portofino, you can window shop for everything under the sun that has a known label. You can have an aperitivo by the water. But do not make the mistake I did. Ask FIRST, what the cost is. We paid a fortune.

Lots of tourists visit Portofino

As beautiful as Portofino is, I rarely visit anymore. It is costly and touristy. I prefer to travel other places, along the water and less touristy.

Next along the train line is my favorite place to visit, Camogli. The City of Camogli, or Camoggi in Genovese, has always been a fishing town. The name originally meant the “wives’ homes” When their men went out on their fishing boats, the wives waited and prayed for their return. It is said that their houses were painted in many different bright colors so that their husbands could find them even in a storm. 

I love the colors and the Trompe l’oeil, or faux painting, on the homes. Visitors are often fooled by what looks like windows on a building, but is actually a solid wall painted to look like it has windows. Fascinating!

I love the laundry hanging out and the shadows of laundry on the faux painted home to the right. The top photo shows window trim painted to create an illusion. It is not there, whereas the green shutters below are.

The Basilica in Camogli is a Baroque Masterpiece well worth visiting. After exiting, you will be only steps away from  the Dragonara, the 12th century Dragon Castle or fortress. I see a dragon in the stone below. Do you?

We once again descend to the water level and spend time just soaking up the sun and the seascape before enjoying an authentic local lunch at Xodo’s.

 We feasted on the best pansoti I have yet to experience in Liguria. It is a pasta stuffed with greens in a walnut and oil sauce. Don’t count the calories, just do it!

Time to say arrivadercito Camogli. By the way, there is an elevator back up to train station level for those like me.

My other favorite pace to visit is Genova, or as we say, Genoa. Piazza Ferrari is the heart of much of Centro Storico in Genoa. Hang by the fountain to cool yourself in summer. Meet your friends there. Everyone can find it.

genoa piazza ferrari liguria italy

The opera and ballet are nearby, guarded by Garibaldi—often with a bird on his head. An original, medieval gate is nearby. As is the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. Built in the gothic style between the 11th and 14th Centuries, it is flanked by two exquisite lions. The entry and rose window above are remarkable. All the workmanship including the marble fascia, is spectacular.

In Genoa, you’ll find narrow, winding streets, called caruggi. Wandering through them, even getting lost, is a captivating way to while away an afternoon.

Striped marble porticos with corbelled arches are truly amazing if you stop to look at them. And incredible faux painting can be found near the port. Ahh, the port.

It is a lovely area for a cool break, a walk, people watching and also catching ferries all over, including Sardinia. A replica of an ancient sailing vessel like the one Christopher Columbus used, is there to explore too. There are even elevators and funiculare to take you above the city proper for stunning views.

Genoa also has palaces that open to the public twice per year. As a major city, Genoa is adept at mixing the old with the new, and you can find modern installations throughout the city.

Surprisingly, there are hardly any American tourists visiting this Grand old City. I need weeks to explore it properly. But I have time, as I can arrive there by train within a half hour.  You really must come to discover this beauty. It is the home of pesto, great chocolate, delectable meals everywhere.

I haven’t discussed anything beyond Genoa as, in the 2 ½ years I have lived here, I have only visited Celle Ligure beyond Genoa. I will explore further and would be happy to share it with you either here or on my own blog at www.takemehomeitaly.com/blog.

Visit Liguria soon, before it becomes more popular and filled with people all the time. I work in the travel industry and appreciate tourism. However, it does change a place. See it now before McDonalds and Starbucks are everywhere. I would be happy to help you fall in love with my Liguria.

marilyn ricci liguria

Marilyn Ricci was born into a Minnesota Italian-American family during a snowstorm in the '50s. Raised Italian and Catholic in a Scandinavian area, she somehow found her Italian heart and soul, became a dual Italian and American and moved to Italy.  Currently, her business, Take Me Home Italy, assists other Italian-Americans to travel in Italy and find their town of origin. She also creates completely unique travel plans for anyone seeking a visit to the Bel Paese, and take home a piece of Italian Soul. 

Every day she reads, she writes, she laughs and she sings. 

Visit her website for more information and for her blog posts. Also, visit her on Twitter at @TakeMeHomeItaly. You can also write to her directly at Marilyn@takemehomeitaly.com.

Have you been to Liguria? What tips do you have for fellow travelers? Let us know in the comments and make sure you share this post with your friends!