To me, Liguria splits in two at Genoa. To the west, along the coastal stretch known as the Riviera Ligure di Ponente (the coast of the setting sun), it’s an easily accessible day trip from Nice and comfortably familiar. Head east of Genoa, however, along the Riviera di Levante (the coast of the rising sun), towards La Spezia, and I’m on less familiar ground.
As a Master of Wine, I was recently invited to the village of Sestri Levante to taste a whole lot of wine (fabulous whatever side of Genoa you find yourself on!) and I discovered that there’s a lot to love about this pretty coastal village.
Thello’s new Cannes-Antibes-Nice-Genoa train service means you can leave the car at home to get to Sestre Levante’s Baia del Silenzio – the Bay of Silence. Photo: Jiuguang Wang
Where is it?
Sestri Levante lies on a peninsula on the eastern end of Liguria, 50km south-east of Genoa and 50km northwest of La Spezia.
Why I love it?
This once quiet fishing village is slowly turning into a tourist hotspot, developing an old and a new town. Lying along the flat promontory linking the mainland to the original island hill, it has two bays: the smaller, sheltered Baia delle Favole, (Bay of Fables) to the east, and the more open Baia del Silenzio, (Bay of Silence) to the west, with beaches and harbours.
For the moment, it still has a charming holiday atmosphere. At 4pm families promenade along the waterfront while others sit at a café watching the Italian fashion parade or go window shopping at the wonderfully stylish boutiques. The whole town exudes glamour while still remaining family friendly – especially outside of July and August.
Unsurprisingly, next to the sea, fish features heavily on the menu. Il Morone, a type of bass with firm, white meat, is a speciality of the local seas. Anchovies, too, appear in many dishes as well as the trusty salt cod of the French and Italian Riviera and, of course, pasta with variations of pesto. Il Montebore is a local cheese made from cow, sheep and goat milks in a mould designed by Leonardo da Vinci so that each level ages differently.
Other food to look out for are the delicious ice creams of “Gelateria 100% Naturale” (Via XXV Aprile 126) made with olive oil, local wine and cheese – all delicious. Also in town, the delightfully old-fashioned chocolate shops – such as Rossignotti (www.rossignotti1840.it), established in 1840, with its shelves lined with jars of loose chocolates and fruit jellies, as well as large hunks of chocolate, marzipan as well as its famous nougat – and gluten-free sweets.
The castle, located on the island hill and surrounded by a protected park, is now a hotel and restaurant, “ai Castelli” (www.hoteldeicastelli.it). A road meanders up the hill while pedestrians can walk through a tunnel carved into the hillside and a then take a lift to the top. Head here for a chic dinner and watch the sunset over the Baia del Silenzio towards Portofino.
At the other end of the peninsula, another hill boasts the Hotel Vis à Vis (www.hotelvisavis.com) – also reached by lift inside the hill. A smart hotel with roof-top swimming pool and restaurant (a little staid with background music) commands views of Sestri Levante and the two bays. Enjoy a glass (or two) of Prosecco at the rooftop bar as white curtains billow in the breeze before returning to town for a lively dinner in one of the village restaurants.
This is a white wine region with the DOCs Colli di Luni, Golfo del Tigullio-Portofino and Cinque Terre all nearby. Vermentino (the Rolle of Provence) is a very different wine, rich with dried fruit, spice and long, crisp acidity. Its close relative Pigato is leaner, more mineral and herby. The wines of Cinque Terre are made from Albarola, Bosco and Vermentino. Also look out for the rare and expensive sweet wine Sciacchetrà. Other “oddities” include a white wine made with Çimixa and a lively light red, cherry fruit red made with Ciliegiolo.
In Roman times, Sestri Levante was known as Segesta Tigullorum (or Tigulliorum) or simply Segesta. It began to expand and, to protect itself from attacks from neighbouring barons, in the 12th century became part of the Republic of Genoa. The Genoese turned the abbey on the hilly end of the peninsula into a castle to defend the sea routes.
Inventor Guglielmo Marconi, famed for broadcasting the first transatlantic radio signal in 1901, practiced his experiments with shortwave and radar from the castle hill to posts on neighbouring hills and around the bay, working on improving navigation for boats.
It’s worth popping into the foyer of the baroque Hotel Villa Balbi, an historic monument in itself, built in the second half of the 17th century, just to admire the decorations. In 1714, Elisabetta Farnese of Parma stayed here on her way to Spain and her marriage to King Philip V. In the late 19th century the villa was restyled by the Coppedè brothers to create the wonderful reception rooms; the mansion was turned into a hotel in 1947.
The Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fables or Fairy Tales) was named in honour of Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Sestri Levante for a short time in 1833. A statue of the Little Mermaid (a copy of the Danish statue) can be seen overlooking the bay.
Unlike some of the more remote Ligurian villages, Sestri Levante is easy to get to. Taking the new Thello train (www.thello.com) – a very relaxing three hours from Nice to Genoa (great views of the coast and towns), a brief stop in Genoa, and then a slow hour down the coast towards La Spezia, stopping at every village and town along the way. It is a short walk from the station to the old town. The local coastal train runs hourly so that it is easy to explore the rest of the Cinque Terre region without a car.