Liguria is king of the coast if you’re talking Northwest Italy

October 27, 2009

If you talk to people about the northwest of Italy, most folk will think you mean Tuscany, or Toscana as the Italians would have it. They have heard of Tuscany mainly because of Florence, with its plethora of churches and arty things, and Pisa, with its ubiquitous tower, yet few seem to have heard of Liguria, which lies to the north and west of Tuscany.

From a sailor’s point of view, Liguria has a lot more to offer than Tuscany. Sanremo at the western end is a friendly town, has a very efficient marina and is a good place to get work done. Sanremo is often the first stop for yachts coming from the west. The main marina is Porto Sole. It does get busy, but the friendly and extraordinarily helpful staff will squeeze you in if it is at all possible. (, +39 0184 5371)

There are three shipyards capable of hauling yachts in Sanremo. The largest is Cantiere Navale Riviera. They are able to haul yachts up to 60 meters and can do most work. We have hauled there three times and have always been well satisfied. (, +39 0184 505117)

Sanremo is an easy place to get fuel. We have used Serizio Mare many times. They are located just inside the port, between Porto Sole and Porto Vecchio. They can take vessels up to about 100 meters. The manager, Frederico, is helpful. (+39 0184 546363, +39 0184 505 123,

Sanremo is also the home of the agents All Services. We have used them extensively for help not only in Sanremo, but also elsewhere in Liguria. Vivien Goldsmith is a fount of knowledge and what she does not know about Liguria she can find out. They not only offer the usual agency services of clearance and berths, etc., but they also offer an efficient provisioning service if you need that special thing and do not have time to shop. (, +39 0184 533533)

There is a scattering of marinas between Sanremo and Genoa. Marina Aregai near Santo Stefano is a nice enough marina for smaller boats, but it is in the middle of nowhere. Without a car, or at least a bike, it is a rather boring place to be. (+39 0184 481006)

Imperia is undergoing building work and promises to be a better place to berth soon. Imperia is an unspoiled old city built on the side of a mountain, and is an interesting spot, off the normal tourist map. To find out the latest situation for berths, call the port office on +39 0183 60977 or try an e-mail at All Services from Sanremo has an office there now, and it may be worth contacting them for an update if you cannot get the information from the port itself. (

Genoa is a big city. It is worth a visit to explore the old town, despite an unreasonable amount of paperwork that a visit there entails. There are a couple of marinas right in the old town, and a new one that has been recently built out near the airport. This is handy for meeting people but a long way from town, and several people have complained about the noise, not just of the planes coming and going, but of the regular explosions that are used to chase birds off the runways. This marina can take boats up to 70 meters. (+39 0106 143420, remarkable feature of the architecture of Rapallo is the large number of buildings that are painted with trompe l’oeil. The shutters in this photo are real, but the rest is painted. PHOTO/CAPT. JOHN CAMPBELL

The biggest marina in Genoa is the Marina Molo Vecchio, just to the south of the aquarium. It has berths up to 150 meters, but is often fully booked far ahead. (+39 0102 7011, This marina is home to one of the original yacht agencies, Pesto. If you need a berth here, it is perhaps better to contact Pesto for help. (+39 010 270 1305, Pesto also has an office in Portofino.

To the north of Molo Vecchio is the Marina Porto Antico. This cannot take the very large yachts, but may have space if Molo Vecchio is full. (+39 010 2518552,

For hauling or repairs, Amico has its huge facility to the southeast of Molo Vecchio. There is little that this yard cannot haul, repair or make. (+39 010 2470067,

While in Genoa, make sure to visit the aquarium. It is one of the best I have ever seen. The Maritime Museum is also worth a visit, as is the old town.

Portofino, about 15 miles to the southeast is very pretty, but in the summer it is ram-jammed full of people wanting to see and be seen. To get a berth in the tiny port in the summer, you will need an agent, a lot of luck and possibly a large “fee” to stand any chance at all. It is forbidden to anchor outside the port.

Rapallo I have always liked. It is a no-nonsense market town, with a nice old town. One remarkable feature of the architecture of Rapallo is the large number of buildings that are painted with trompe l’oeil. There is a large marina for smaller boats, Porto Carlo Riva (+39 0185 6891, If there is no space, or your boat is too big for the marina, it is easy to anchor off the town, or elsewhere in the bay.

Between Rapallo and Portofino is the town of Santa Margherita Ligure. It, too, has a small marina and there is scope to anchor nearby the town. It is less cosmopolitan than Rapallo, but less “chic” than Portofino. It has a Victorian feel to it, and a good selection of restaurants. There is a signed walking route to Portofino from Santa Margherita. It is about 6 kms and a pretty walk along the coast if you feel you have to see Portofino but cannot get a berth there.

To the southeast of Rapallo are the twin towns of Chiavari and Lavagna, laying either side of the mouth of the river. Each has its own marina, with that of Lavagna being slightly larger. Both are rather industrial towns and there are several boat-building companies in this area, so it is a good place for supplies, but not great for sight-seeing. There is plenty of space to anchor off either marina, depending on the wind direction, but when approaching, be careful of a few poorly marked fish-farms that are anchored off the towns.

(Incidentally, I was warned by an Italian friend to be careful writing or pronouncing Chiavari. If you get one letter wrong, it becomes a rude word relating to what a non-Italian friend terms “women’s bits.”)

The marina at Chiavari is officially called Marina Amm. Luigi Gatti. It is pretty much limited to boats of 25 meters or less. (+39 0185 364081,
Lavagna Marina is also mainly for smaller boats, but sometimes they will let a bigger yacht squeeze in alongside the outer wall. (+39 0185 312626, Even if you cannot get into either marina, they do provide good shelter for anchoring, provided the wind is not from the west.

Further to the southeast is the area called Cinque Terre. In my opinion, this is the jewel in the metaphorical crown of Liguria. Cinque Terre literally means Five Lands, but really it boils down to five villages: from north to south, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

The five villages, the hills around them and the coast between them all form the national park of the Cinque Terre. This is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The good part of this is that the area is protected and will be preserved forever. The bad part, selfishly, is that you cannot anchor off the coast in this area.

However, all is not lost. All the towns except Corniglia, which is at the top of a flight of 368 steps, are easily accessible by tender, or indeed by the ferries that run regularly from La Spezia and sometimes from Portovenere and Rapallo.

There are many Web sites covering the Cinque Terre; gives a lot of general information, shows the boundaries of the protected area where anchoring is not allowed.

Monterosso can be reached relatively easily by road, and this has resulted in much more development than the other four villages, which are almost impossible to drive to. Although there is a well preserved old town in Monterosso, reached via a tunnel from the newer part of town, and a nice beach and promenade, to me, it is the least attractive of the five villages.

Although Monterosso is the only village that you can drive to, if you cannot or do not want to visit the others by boat, all can be reached by train. There is a regular train service between La Spezia and Rapallo, with some trains coming from Genoa as well. It is an interesting ride. Much of the way is through a series of tunnels carved through the high, steep cliffs. From time to time the train pops out of the tunnel, like it needs to catch a breath, before diving deep underground again.Riomaggiore may have a substandard harbor but it earns praise for being attractive.  PHOTO/CAPT. JOHN CAMPBELL

Vernazza has the largest harbour after Monterosso, but that is still quite small as harbors go. There is a fleet of small fishing boats that lay on moorings across the harbor. There is a piazza built right beside the harbor, and in the winter, or if inclement weather threatens, then all the fishing boats are pulled up into rows outside the church. The main catch of the boats here are the anchovies, for which the area is renowned.

You can walk between all the villages. There is a path that varies from easy to quite steep. For some sections of the path you need to buy a ticket; these are available from tourist information offices and the railway stations. Whether coming from north or south, to get to the next village, Corniglia, you have to brave a flight of 368 steps. It is the only village without its own harbor. There are some small vineyards in the mountains around the village and they make their own special wine here.

The next village south is Manarola, and it has the smallest harbor with a narrow entrance. Really, it is little more than a landing place, somewhat sheltered in a gulley, with a small, rough breakwater across the entrance. If there is any swell running, it would not be safe to enter by boat at all.

However, since it is beside the sea, the village has a fishing fleet. The boats are stored on a broad ledge above the landing, and are launched by crane as required. Those that do not have space on the ledge are stored on trolleys along the main street, in front of the shops. The village itself huddles on a small area of relatively flat land, with the steep mountains close behind.

The southernmost village, Riomaggiore, is my favorite. Although it has perhaps the worst of all the harbors, little more than a slipway in fact, to me it is the prettiest. The pastel-colored houses appear to be heaped one on top of the other, as they cling to the impossibly steep cliffs. Against the odds, they too have a fishing fleet. There is no space for storage at the water’s edge, so the boats are lined up on wooden steps along the very steep main street. When it is time to go fishing, and the swell is not too big, they are wheeled to the slipway and slid down into the sea.

Although they are not easy to reach, and despite the fact that there are lots of tourists in the height of the summer, the Cinque Terre is well worth a visit. I plan to go back one day with time enough to complete the walk along the cliffs, between all the villages.

Farther south, coming toward the end of Liguria, is the Gulf of La Spezia. The Italians call it the Gulf of Poets, thanks to the goings-on of the poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in the early 19th century. Shelly had a house in Lerici, on the eastern shore, and Byron was a regular visitor. Byron is commemorated by a plaque near the castle in Portovenere, commemorating the time that he swum from Portovenere to Lerici to visit Shelley.

Portovenere is at the southwestern tip of the gulf. It is one of my favorite towns. The tall, narrow, pastel-tinted houses cling to the sides of the hill encircling the small harbor. Cars are kept away from town and it is wonderful to amble through the narrow streets, making your way gently up the hill to the castle and 12th century church. The port can take vessels up to 50 meters on the south side of the harbor, but it is not easy to get a berth. You can try calling (+39 0187 793042) but you may have more luck if you use an agent.
A look down the main street in Manarola. PHOTO/CAPT. JOHN CAMPBELL
If you cannot get a berth, you will have to anchor out. The area immediately in front of the harbor is now a protected area, and anchoring is forbidden, but there is plenty of space farther out. Portovenere is well worth a visit, and to my eyes, it is as pretty as Portofino, but without the swarms of people and outrageous prices.

Much of the western side of the gulf is given over to a naval base, and several enticing bays are unfortunately off limits. There is a big marina in La Spezia called Porto Lotti. It lies at the head of the gulf, handy for the city. It can cater to vessels up to about 60 meters, but it is often full. (+39 0187 5321)

There are several smaller marinas close to La Spezia, but they tend to be more for small, local boats. If you cannot find a berth, it is usually possible to find a sheltered anchorage not too far away, depending on the direction of the wind.

La Spezia is a big and bustling town. I imagine it has some nice areas hidden away somewhere, but I find it a bit too big and too commercial to be interesting. However, there are several large yacht-building companies in the area, and there is little in the way of supplies or parts that cannot be sourced in and around La Spezia.

Once farther south, we get into Tuscany, with its well-know tourist areas. Liguria is well worth lingering over; there is something for everybody. Do not leave this corner of Liguria without trying their pesto, which is said to have originated in Genoa. One of the specialities of the area around La Spezia is a type of gnocchi called trofie. They are supposedly all hand-made and have pointed ends. Trofie are usually served smothered in pesto sauce. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.


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