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Italy's Sunny Coast
by

Arnie Greenberg

Italy has become magic for North American travelers and with good reason. The country is filled with hill towns, sophisticated centers and both rolling hills covered in grape vines and giant mountains hovering over clear northern lakes. Venice is like no other place and the Lake District has been drawing people for years. But you can’t see it all on one trip so I suggest you do it in stages.

The west coast or Italian Riviera is a trip unto itself. From Portofino through Cinque Terre, La Spezia, Livorno and Piombino, all the way to Sicily, not to mention a possible incursion inland at any time, the coast offers something for everyone. There are beaches, ferry crossings to exotic islands, theme parks, volcanoes and great cities.

Start from the French border and do only the western coast. Take a week and stop at Pisa so you can return from Florence. Take an extra 5-6 days and return from Rome, or go all the way to the Amalfi drive. You need time. But if that’s not an issue, the rewards will be many.

Of course, those of you with a whole month to spend may want to drive all the way to Sicily and stand next to Etna or the harbor at Palermo. Don’t rush through Sicily. There are many hidden treasures both Roman and Greek. Of course, if it was me, and I had the time, I’d take a ferry all the way to Malta. Now, there’s something to think about.

It’s a long drive from the French border to the tip of Italy. But it’s worth it if you don’t have to rush.

To get into the main areas for beauty and history you’ll have to breeze through the upper highway past San Remo, Savona and Genoa.   I usually travel on the upper through highway and enjoy the waterfront towns from on high. I did once stay in Savonna but it was crowded and not at all memorable. San Remo is larger and OK for a brief visit. It is a throwback to the Edwardian age when aristocracy came here to walk along the seaside promenades. That’s not to say that this coast and the old Via Aurelia aren’t interesting. But it’s very slow going and the towns have lost their charm to gambling and modernity. They are no longer the holiday spots of Italy.

Genoa itself is a mega-city famous mostly as a seaport and center for ferryboats to Corsica, Sicily, Tunis and even Barcelona. It was once called La Superba but that was centuries ago. It is very noisy and often strong-smelling.

But just beyond Genoa things change.

I remember well the first time I turned seaward just before Rapallo after Camoli. As I passed through Nervi, the oldest winter resort on the eastern coast. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Here, 3 km east of the main road, I found Santa Margherita with its crowded beaches, Edwardian style hotels and fast food stalls and traffic everywhere. There were less people during the winter and mostly the resort had closed down. But farther along the seaside rood we discovered one of the prettiest small harbors in the country. We descended into a large square surrounded by multicolored buildings that seemed to hang from the hills. This was Portofino and the walk around the protected harbor is a memory I cherish.

Once a tiny fishing village, the port is edged on three sides by high cliffs. Wealthy Italians discovered it. It was here, on a cold February morning that we found a typical bar where the coffee was hot and the biscotti popular with the few tourists and the locals who dipped theirs in their wine.

Here there are no beaches, few hotels but many bars, boutiques, nightclubs and fishing boats. It is a picture perfect place to spend a few days. The hotels are of high standard but mostly closed during the winter. You can stay in Santa Margherita and walk to Portofino. It’s unusually pretty as the road hugs the Mediterranean shore.

I chose to stay on the seaside road past Sestri Levanto where the Helvetia Hotel faces the Bay of Silence onto the Via Auralia that skirts the famous area called Cinque Terre. These are five small villages or ‘Five Lands’ perched on the mountainside in coves surrounded by vine terraces, looking west to sea. Over the last few years they have become popular with back packers or people looking for romance, seclusion and unbelievable scenery. Monterosso can now be reached by road. The old church is shaped like a boat and seems to be facing the sea. The popular myth is that old-time smugglers would fool the customs guards by playing dumb and telling them they were arriving on boat to try to turn the church back to the shore

The busy port of La Spezia is a typical port with steep streets in the old section. On the heights, you can see the blue Spezia Gulf and Lerici on the one side of the bay and beautiful Portovenere on the other. Many celebrities lived here including Lord Byron, D.H. Lawrence and Shelly who drowned in a sea accident here.

The restaurants all along the coast specialize in seafood, naturally. They specialize in squid, octopus, red mullet which is washed down with local Pigato dry wine.

From here it’s only a short hop to Carrara to the east. When I first saw the jagged mountains, I thought they were covered with snow. I soon learned that they were open pit mines filled with pure white marble. Along the highway the marble depots boast huge slabs of almost every color. It is the mineral content that determines the color. In the town, I visited a few marble manufacturing sites, which specialized in carvings, bookends and colored marble eggs. Carrara is one of the most famous marble centers, which these companies ship around the world. It was from this region that the great sculptors came to select the perfect piece of marble.

I again suggest that you go inland to Lucca. But you’ll need a few days to see this wonderful city with its old fortification wall still in tact.  From here you can take a direct route Via San Giuliano Terme, to Pisa. This ancient sea power finds itself miles from the sea as the water has receded. Not so the moisture under the leaning tower which partly accounts for its instability. However, they now allow people to climb to the top of this beautiful bell tower. Everyone should see it, once. Look for the Field of Miracles in the center of the old tow, Watch out for those aggressive hawkers of junk. They’re everywhere in pisa.

When you get to back to the coast at, Livorno you are due west of Florence. This city is highly recommended. I know no one who ever went to Florence and didn’t fall in love with it, even though it is crowed and often noisy. But you have to make a choice. If this will end your tour, you can fly or take the train from Florence. If you want to continue through Tuscany, many surprises await you. It’s Paradise, especially in the fortified hill cities.

If you want to head south to Rome, you are only hours away. There’s an almost direct super highway via Livorno to Grosetto and the possibility of visiting one of the islands, now connected by road, like Ortobello.

I suggest that you visit the unusual Tarot Gardens with 22 bigger than life statues, executed by the French artist and onetime model, Niki de St Phale. I promise you will see one of the most unusual gardens in and part of Europe. One statue building was large enough for the sculptor to live in.

On the way to Grosotto you can stay on the coast to Piombino. From here it is only a short boat ride to Elba where Napoleon was sent to exile. It’s so close to the mainland you can understand why it was easy for the Little General to escape and retake France.

When you enter the region of Rome, you begin to understand the statement, ‘all roads lead to Rome’. It’s a city you cannot avoid. Again, you can spend time in this rich, historical metropolis, fly home or take a train to almost anywhere.

My suggestion would be to see Rome then continue south towards Naples.

I’m not big on Naples but you are near the great site of Pompeii, buy a cameo for which the region is known, and it’s only a quick hovercraft ride to Capri. Visit the Blue Grotto and go up to Ana Capri, on the top, for lunch with one of the most celebrated views in southern Italy.

Another boat will take you to Sorrento or back to your car at the dock in Naples. From there you can head along the coast past Sorrento to villages built into the hills all the way to Positano and Amalfi. Vesuvius is just behind you. This Amalfi Drive is world famous and worth visiting. It’s slow going but why hurry.

From here you can see Etna and Sicily. But that’s a trip for another time. On the way you can see Salerno, one of the great battle sites of WWII and Sicily is only a few hours away.

From France through Genoa and down to Positano, with stops as recommended could take about three weeks or more, if you can manage it. Do it in stages if you have less time but don’t race through it. There are treasures in each city and you will miss the essence of Italy if you rush.

Then again, you can always come back. Italy, like any historical site takes time.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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