Ligurian coast/Italian Riviera

My husband and I are planning a trip to Italy in the spring of 2014. His great-grandfather immigrated to the US from Liguriathe family story says they had a fig orchard in the hills somewhere above Chiavari and Sestri Levante. We've also found a distant cousin who lives in Ceriale who we plan to visit. We'd like to stay in this general area for a few days, ideally in an agriturismo back in the hills (we're not so much lounge-on-the-beach people). We will have a rental car. Can anybody share experiences or advice on visiting the Ligurian coast, or areas a little inland? Lodging, restaurants, sights to see, etc.? We have some mobility limitations, so it sounds like visiting the Cinque Terre from the land side may not be a good option for us (long hikes are right out!) I see that there are ferries that go there from points up and down the coast. Has anybody had experience with those that they can share? From the reading I've done, I'm starting to get the impression that the part of the coast from Genoa to the Cinque Terre is more developed with modern beach resorts, and the area on the other side of Genoa to the French border a little less so, or else the development is somewhat older (not sure if that means it would have more character, or just be more run down!) Am I even close to what it's really like? Any input from folks who've been to this region will be most appreciated!

Posted by Jim
Brookings, Oregon, USA
42 posts

Mary, If you have mobility limitations be careful with the ferries. In some ports the boat comes up to the quay with just a small narrow gang plank that is extended from the bow of the boat. Even small wave action tosses the boat about and the gang plank moves quite a bit!!!Take care and have a great time. We Loved the Cinque Terre !!!! Jim

Posted by Mary
Seattle, WA, US
4 posts

Wow, thanks! That helps to know. We won't count on anything until we can get a look at the docks. We were thinking that if we couldn't get off the boat, we might just do a round trip back to where we boarded, and at least get a look at the Cinque Terre from the water. According to the Rick Steves Italy book, you can do that from Santa Margherita Ligure. Any idea if the dock facilities there are a little more substantial and accessible, or is it one of the small and unstable ones?

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
3344 posts

If you have mobility limitations I would leave the boats alone. Since you'll have a rental car and staying in the vicinity of Sestri, I would drive to Levanto and from there to Monterosso, the biggest of the cinque terre villages, which is more car friendly. Then I would visit Monterosso on foot, if you can, and maybe take a train to Vernazza. Near Sestri you may want to consider Moneglia, a cute sea town on the other side of a long tunnel from Sestri. I always enjoyed that little town. Much less hectic than Sestri or Chiavari.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Mary, It's a bit difficult to make suggestions, without having a more specific idea of your "mobility limitations". Getting off and on the boats isn't really that difficult, although the gangway is only wide enough for one person. The docks in the Cinque Terre towns tend to be just a concrete jetty. The boats approach them, tie up and they keep the boat lightly in "reverse" to keep it from smacking into the dock. They do "bob" up and down of course, so you'd need at least a reasonable sense of balance. One other important point to note, is that the boats only run in the "high season" in good weather. Depending on when you'll be there, they may or may not be operating. The boats from Santa Margherita Ligure to the C.T. seemed to be a bit "infrequent". However, the boats between the five towns and Porto Venere seems to run more often. The easiest way of getting around that area is the local trains. If you're able to negotiate stairs, you won't have any trouble. Some walking will be involved also. You could either park in Levanto (north) or La Spezia (south) and then just tour by train. As you're renting a car in Italy, note that EACH driver will require the compulsory International Driver's Permit, which is used in conjunction with your home D.L. Failure to produce an I.D.P. if requested can result in fines on the spot! You'll also need to avoid the dreaded Zona Traffico Limitato areas, as expensive tickets can result. These exist in most towns in Italy in one form or another (based on my observations). Good luck with your planning!

Posted by Mary
Seattle, WA, US
4 posts

Our mobility limitations start with the heart condition my husband has, which causes him to get out of breath very easily. He can't walk for long distances without many stops to rest. We're looking into getting a walker for him with a flip-down seat, but long walks are still something we need to avoid. Also, we both have bad knees and aren't exactly agile, so a climb on and off a boat that the average person might find "not difficult" could be impossible for one or both of us, especially if it involves a big step up or down, or across a wide gap. Finally, we're both large people, and whatever you're picturing, you're probably not picturing large enough. Think, large enough to need to buy a third seat between us on the flight over, or to wonder if those gangplanks you're talking about are made of steel (probably okay) or wood (maybe not). We realize that all this is going to limit some of the things we can do on this trip. We're well aware that, as difficult as it can be to find places where we fit in this country, Italy will probably be even more challenging. We're prepared to cope, and find work-arounds where we can. That's why were trying to gather as much information as we can ahead of time. Thanks again for all the good advice. I'm making lots of notes!

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8757 posts

Hi Mary, It has been a couple of years since we visited the CT and rode the boats between the villages. My memory may be faulty - it probably is - but I remember the bow loading and the bobbing about of the boats. I also think that that there was either no hand rail or a very flimsy one. I think that the boarding plank may have been aluminum, or maybe wood. I don't have any idea how they did it but I seem to have seen a wheelchair passenger on board one boat. I don't remember which village it was but we wandered into the village at one stop (past the cliff divers up to a gelateria on the right hand side if that helps anybody else place it) and I remember it being really rather steep going up into the village from the boat - and fun and scary watching the divers.

Posted by Swan
Napa, CA
2858 posts

I like the idea of driving to Levanto &/or Monterosso. La Spezia also can be reached by car. These towns are all hilly, but Monterosso has a fairly level half mile or so along the sea. Santa Margherita has a larger, fairly level town center. Levanto is fairly level once you arrive down in the town center. I recommend you don't try taking the train in the CT. There are stairs to the tracks in Monterosso. In La Spezia you may be able to use the elevators, but there is still a big step up into the train. Stay with the rental car; use hotels that have elevators or ground floor rooms (not first floor); take taxis when you can't use your rental car. I've taken the boat from Santa Margherita to Portofino. I remember a substantial pier at Santa Margherita, but don't remember the Portofino end. As you say, you could take the round trip on the boat. The entire coast is beautiful from the coast. You can see more from a boat than from a train, since the train passes thru tunnels a lot.

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2608 posts

Mary... as far as the coast... Genoa is definitely a big city with little appeal as a 'beach town' and even the rest of the coast on the way to France is still very busy. Think of most of the coast in southern Ca, and you get the picture. I think Monterossa is a good choice, and it does have the nicest beach in CT, also easiest parking.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Mary, A few more comments to add to those already posted.... The gangways on the boats are either aluminum or stainless steel. They are constructed of metal (at least that's the case for the boats I've used). Regarding Santa Margherita Ligure, if you're travelling via train, the station is on a hill above the town. There are quite a number of stairs to get down to street level and then a walk of about a quarter mile or so to get to the boat dock. The boat docks in Portofino are right in the main part of the town, which is compact and mostly level. The gangway is reasonably short and not too steep (as I recall). There are a lot of restaurants and shops around the "U" shaped harbour, so you shouldn't have any trouble getting to them. However, while there you likely won't be able to visit Castello Brown, as it involves an uphill walk of some distance (not difficult but it IS uphill). If you're arriving by car, I don't know the parking arrangements or costs in Portofino. As a previous reply mentioned, staying in Monterosso might be good, as it's mostly level and it's more "car friendly" than the other towns. However it a bit of a walk from the end of the "new town" to the "old town". If you walked slowly, you might be able to manage OK? Good luck and happy travels!