This is the first in a series of articles about coastal towns in Liguria and before we get to Santa Margherita Ligure itself, a few words about the general area might be helpful. The coastline of north west Tuscany, with the mountains always nearby, continues as you travel north into Liguria, only more so. From the Cinque Terre onwards, all the way to Genoa, there’s only sea and mountains and rarely any flat usable land between them; the mountains here rise up directly from the sea.
This makes for a challenging environment for everything. Throughout history vertiginous terraces had to be carved out of the steep slopes for houses, roads, olive groves and vineyards and there certainly wasn't any space for the autostrada, which came much later. It had to be built half way up in the hills utilizing tunnels more than open road. Houses here were built tall and narrow and your driveway or small patch of garden was also your neighbor’s roof, such is the claustrophobic nature of the terrain.
This is the Riviera di Levante, where the taxing geography however makes for a spectacular place to visit, full of stunning vistas and interesting hidden places, many well known but others not so much. It’s a confusing coastline that requires some local knowledge and proper planning because when a lot of people decide to come here at the same time the topography can get the better of you. The first and most important consideration is whether to come by car or train.
Driving is difficult for those not accustomed to steep Italian hillsides and parking is a nightmare for everyone except local residents with permits.
Even though we have learned to copy Italians and park semi-legally (in Italy there is a grey area between legal and illegal which typically does not result in a ticket), on two occasions over the last few years we have been completely unable to park anywhere near our destination and were forced to change towns and lunch plans at the last minute.
The other consideration in favor of the train is that all the stations along this coastline are located right in the center of the towns and are often much closer to where you need to be than the non-resident car parks. If you couple that with the cost of a rental car, the not inconsiderable tolls and gas expense then using the train should make room in your budget for a fair amount of add-on taxi fares. However a car gives you much more flexibility, especially when it comes to reaching the places with the fabulous views.
This coastline is within easy weekend reach of several large cities with Genoa very close, Pisa and Lucca less than two hours away and Milan, Turin and Parma not much further, so at weekends and anytime in the summer it’s advisable to make dinner reservations ahead of time and booking accommodation is essential, or you’ll end up driving up the mountain in the dark to find something.
It’s best to approach Santa Margherita Ligure from the high road between Camogli and Rapallo before turning right along the seafront. Just before the descent you can pull over and catch the best views of the town and its surroundings at the foot of the Portofino Regional Park (top photo). I’ve always believed that that this stretch of the Italian Riviera is much nicer in every sense than most of the French Riviera and despite the occasional crowds it retains an old world charm that’s been missing from the French Riviera for a long time.
The impossible landscape and the boundaries of the Portofino Regional Park probably saved it from being ruined by the hideous apartment blocks of the 1950s and 1960s visible on the periphery of many other coastal towns in Italy.
Sant Margherita Ligure is really the grande dame of the entire coastline and has its fair share of Belle Epoque era hotels which opened in the first few years of the 20th century and most of them sit on an exclusive promontory as you enter the town (photo below).
Santa Margherita Ligure never acquired the luster and glamor of the French Riviera, at least for international visitors, and has been little used by Hollywood film makers, but the Eden Palace Hotel was the setting for the 1961 film ‘Come September’ with Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida and Bobby Darin and it was on the film set that Darin and Sandra Dee first met.
Even today, though very well known and appreciated by both Italians and the more discerning visitors to Italy, it certainly doesn’t get the sort of attention that the Amalfi coast gets and that’s fine by us because we would choose this area every time. Nearby Portofino is of course internationally famous (or perhaps just famous for being famous) but our idea of an authentic Italian fishing village does not include Gucci and Louis Vuitton shops and ugly mega-yachts instead of fishing boats, as we described here.
Part of Portofino’s fame is due to the brightly colored Ligurian style houses around the harbor but there is no shortage of these either in Santa Margherita Ligure or many of the other nearby coastal towns, so that’s not a reason to go to Portofino. In fact there are excellent examples in Santa Margherita Ligure (above photos) with lots of arches, architraves, porticos and balustrades painted in pastel colors and often in the trompe-l’oeil or faux style pretending to be three dimensional architectural decorations, but in reality just paint. Sometimes you have to study a window for a minute or two to determine whether it's real or not.
Santa Margherita Ligure is a great place to base yourself for a few days or even a week because there’s plenty to do and see. We’ve spent many long weekends here over the years and always discover something new that we didn’t have time for on a previous trip. This time it was the Villa Durazzo on the hill in the middle of town. A 17th century villa surrounded by a beautiful mature palm garden and a Ligurian mosaic cobblestone terrace called a risseu, the inside space has an art collection and Murano glass chandeliers. If you’re looking for a peaceful haven away from the busy streets or just somewhere to sit and recover from a long lunch, this is the place.
We’re going to describe the walks in the Portofino Regional Park in the new sub-section we’ve added in Travel called ‘Walking and Cycling’ but suffice to say that this is a real paradise for both recreational walkers and more hard core hikers. There’s a variety of well-marked paths of different lengths, different levels of difficulty and elevation changes. All of them come with jaw-dropping views and from our experience there’s always a few other people walking so you don’t feel too isolated, but at the same time it’s never crowded because there are just too many miles of trails.
Another great advantage of this part of the coastline is the availability of boat trips to get you around the perimeter of the park and also between different towns, but you’ll need to plan your day carefully to take full advantage. It's also possible to reach the Cinque Terre from here by boat either the whole way or part of the way, depending on the time of year. However we much prefer this area to the always overcrowded Cinque Terre.
And of course there’s also a beach here. Santa Margherita Ligure is not a beach resort and in any case it’s mostly shingle not sand, but there’s room to relax and swim if the mood takes you. Beyond the beach, in the Gulf of Tigullio, there's a protected marine area used for diving and snorkeling as well as for Genoa University marine science purposes and this is a perfect location for sailing and kayaking so there's no shortage of water based activities.
If you’re anything like us, a large part of a holiday in Italy is taken up by food and wine. If we’re not actually eating then we’re looking for food or reading about the local specialities and generally planning our next meal. Santa Margherita Ligure is no slouch when it comes to food, nor is Liguria as a whole especially if you like seafood in all its forms. The speciality here is a large deep sea variety of shrimp that is a bright red color. They are expensive with a delicate flavor and Ligurians often eat them raw with oil and a little salt. There are two other food items that Liguria is justifiably famous for: pesto genovese and focaccia in its various forms. We’ll talk about both of these in separate articles because they are both deserving of more space.
A good place for focaccia in Santa Margherita Ligure is Pinamonti and if you find yourself staying somewhere where you’re able to cook dinner then head straight to one of the best food shops on the entire coastline that has everything you could possibly wish for, including many local products. It’s a food lover’s paradise called Seghezzo and it’s in the middle of town.
Restaurant recommendations are always more subjective and things can change quickly but our most recent dining experience in May was at La Cambusa right on the front where the mussels were excellent and also the grigliata mista di pesce, which included some of the delicious local shrimps.
Restaurant prices in Santa Margherita Ligure are no more than similar restaurants in Lucca but accommodation here is definitely more expensive. Some of the other towns nearby have cheaper places to stay and we'll cover them all in the months ahead.
For any eagle-eyed Englishman reading this article who noticed the cross of St George flying over the old castle in the second photograph from the top, it should be noted that Genoa adopted the St George’s Cross as its flag and St George as its patron saint during the Crusades. The symbol and flag were then adopted by England around 1200 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genoa fleet. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege but some centuries later apparently the payments ceased.
A few years ago the mayor of Genoa, Marco Bucci, was quoted as saying that he was thinking of writing to the Queen with a request for back payments and interest. He was probably joking but given the European Union's antagonistic posture towards England (and more recently Switzerland) in recent months it's surprising that someone in Brussels didn't think of adding this to the Brexit divorce bill.