Portfino and the Cinque Terre: Secrets of Italy’s Historic Ligurian Coast

Italy’s Liguria Coast, also known as the Italian Riviera, all the way from San Remo, passing through Savona, Genoa, Portofino, Sta. Margherita Ligure, the Cinque Terre and La Spezia represent a very special area in Northern Italy that is not immediately associated with yacht charters.

Perhaps not as celebrated or trendy as the French Riviera or even Italy’s Amalfi Coast, it is nevertheless an amazing adventure and a favorite destination for those “in-the-know”. A yacht charter in the Cinque Terre region would typically start in the port city of Genoa.

San Remo, further to the west and closer to Monaco, is famous for its music festival has been a vacation hotspot over the centuries for such notables as the emperor Nicholas II of Russia, The Empress Sissi of Austria and Alfred Nobel the founder of the Nobel Prize. For the purposes of this destination page, however, we will ignore San Remo and start our charter itinerary suggestion in Genoa.

Genoa is a splendid city and the sixth largest in Italy, founded possibly by the Greeks or the Etruscans over 2000 years ago. Genoa has been nicknamed la Superba (“the Proud one”) due to its glorious past and impressive landmarks. Part of the old town of Genoa was inscribed on the World Heritage List (UNESCO) in 2006. The city’s rich cultural history in notably its art, music and cuisine allowed it to become the 2004 European Capital of Culture. It is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and composer and violin artist Niccolo Paganini. A day or two in Genoa before your charter would not be misspent.

A short distance to the east from Genoa will take you to the celebrity watering holes of Italy’s one percent – Portofino, Sta. Margherita Ligure and Rapallo. These historic ports are old-Italy at its finest. Genoa and Milano’s ruling classes have spent and continue to spend their summers on the Portofino peninsula since Roman times.

As your yacht points south east and down the coast from St. Margherita, you’ll find Sestri-Levante and Moneglia and then of course, the five unique and historic villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore which represent the “Cinque Terre” or five lands. Each of these villages constitutes a very distinct history and unique charm. You can end your charter in the port of La Spezia.

If you’d like more time on the yacht, run down a little further to Viareggio which is Giacomo Puccini’s birthplace. Huge deal if you like opera, especially La Boheme, or Madame Butterfly. If you have more time or you’re on a fast motor yacht, you can continue south to Livorno, Piombino and the island of Elba (of Napoleonic fame), finishing up in Civitavecchia, which is the Port of Rome.

Accessing Genoa and the Cinque Terre

It’s pretty easy to access Genoa since it is a major Italian city and has flights into Cristoforo Colombo airport from most major European cities.

You can include Genoa and the Cinque Terre on a longer itinerary on a fast motor yacht, if you are starting your charter in The South of France or whether you are coming northwards from the Amalfi Coast.

For Foodies Only: A Guide to Northern Italian Cuisine

Northern Italian cuisine is characterized by a lesser use of olive oil, pasta and tomato sauce and a heavier reliance on butter (or lard), rice, corn (for polenta) and cheeses for cream sauces. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules such as the renowned olive oils of Liguria and the Lakes region, which figure greatly in the cuisines of these areas. Pasta in the north is by no means non-existent, but it has to share time with delicious risotto and polenta. Northern Italian main courses often reflect people’s pride in their unspoiled countryside, and are likely to include some sort of game or wild fowl such as rabbit, quail or grouse. Seafood and shellfish are very popular on the coast, and rivers and streams provide carp and trout. Of course, the overall rule is “if it grows or lives well in the area, then it can make it onto the Ligurian table”.  Typical Northern Italian or Ligurian dishes include:

Focaccia: Ah, focaccia! This Ligurian bread has made its way around the world, and it’s no surprise: It’s delicious either on its own, dipped in sauce, or with a spread. A flattened bread (like a pizza without tomato sauce), it’s meant to be eaten hot from the oven. It might be flavored with anything from just olive oil and salt to cheese and sausage. And it’s a street food, so don’t feel as if you have to be sitting down at a restaurant to enjoy it.

Farinata: Another Ligurian street food, farinata is a bread made from chickpea flour. As with focaccia, of course, olive oil and other flavorings (often rosemary or onion) are added in. It’s also best eaten piping-hot and fresh out of the oven.

Latte brusco: Also called “frittura di crema,” this dish involves browning parsley and onion; adding flour, milk and egg yolks; and letting it all cool and harden before dipping it in egg whites, bread crumbs, and deep-frying the whole concoction in olive oil. Eaten hot, it’s a crusty, delicious snack, especially on a cold day!

Carciofi violetti: Rome isn’t the only place famous for its artichokes Liguria is, too—particularly Albenga. These tender-yet-crunchy artichokes pop up in sauces, pies, and frittate, and you might even see them eaten raw.

Minestrone: Legend has it this famous soup was invented in Liguria, although, of course, we can’t be sure. But the story goes that soldiers from Genoa, serving in the First Crusade, made a meal by taking vegetables and herbs from the locals… then cooking them as a soup in their army helmets. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s certainly a fun story!

Ciuppin: Ever heard of “cioppino”? Well, that’s a dish that was developed by Italian immigrants in California in the 19th century—and it’s based on Genoa’s ciuppin. The original version, made up by fishermen on Liguria’s coast, was meant to use up the fish that were too small or damaged for anyone to buy. The fish are slow-cooked for up to two hours, making for a delicious soup. There’s also much less tomato than in the Italian-American version.

Cappon magro: This dish looks like a salad… but it’s much more complicated! Hard-tack biscuits (yes, a holdover from Liguria’s seafaring times) are soaked in olive oil and salt water. They’re layered on top in a pyramid with a mixture of fish, shellfish, olives, and eggs, and dressed with a sauce flavored with anchovies and capers. It’s a traditional dish to eat on Christmas Eve.

Ravioli: Ravioli, or stuffed pasta, are said to have been invented here in Liguria—in the town of Novi LIugre, in particular. It’s unclear how true this is, but we do know that ravioli was served to sailors. That’s because, at the end of a meal on board, anything left over would be chopped and mixed altogether, stuffed into envelopes of pasta… and served at the next meal.

Ravioli alla genovese: Just one kind of ravioli you’ll find in Liguria, this “Genovese ravioli” is stuffed with veal, egg, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, chard, nutmeg… and sweetbreads, udder, and brains! It’s all a part of Liguria’s cucina povera, in which no part of anything would go to waste.

Pesto alla genovese: In short, while there are lots of kinds of pesto in Italy (“pesto” can refer to any paste of herbs that’s mashed up with a mortar and pestle), pesto alla genovese is the most famous. It’s D.O.P. protected, meaning it can only be made in a very precise way, with specific ingredients (including D.O.P. basil from Genoa), to be considered the “real thing.” The ingredients themselves are simple–basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, garlic, salt, and olive oil—and when it’s done properly, it’s absolutely delicious over penne or another pasta!

Pacciugo: An ice cream that hails from the area near Portofino, pacciugo includes bitter-chocolate ice cream mixed with whipped cream, fresh fruit, cherries, and a coulis of raspberry or strawberry. It got its start in the 1930s, and became an instant hit, especially with Portofino’s many tourists.

Ravioli dolci: Like ravioli, but not! These “sweet ravioli” are envelopes of sweet egg dough, filled with a pesto of citrus peel, candied squash, citron, and beef marrow.

Meringhi genovesi: Cake soaked in rum or another liquor, filled with apricot jam, and topped with vanilla meringue, this is a cake for those with a serious sweet tooth!

Great Wines of Liguria

Vines have been grown in this area for more than 25 centuries since they were introduced by the Etruscans and Greeks. Later, in Roman times, one of the most famous DOC areas to emerge was the Cinque Terre. The main grape varieties grown are Albarola, Rossese, Bosco and Vermentino. Mostly white wines are produced. Recommended wineries are:

  • Walter de Batte Riomaggiore Cinq Terre Sciacchetra
  • Forlini Cappellini rsrv Cinq Terre Sciacchetra
  • Buranco Cinq Terre Sciacchetra
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