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Summer on the beach: the Italian Riviera

It's got glitz, it's got glamour, and it's got some of the best seafood you'll taste in the whole of Italy. Sarah Barrell reveals how to get the best out of a holiday in Liguria

Motorways: not generally a favourite with summer-holidaying families. Yet the road running along Liguria's coast, from the French border to Tuscany, offers views that are almost reason alone to visit this, the "Italian Riviera".

Narrow gallerie (tunnels) shuttle you through craggy mountains that plunge with an urgent grace down to the sea. Blink and whip your shades back on as you pop out of the end of each tunnel to be repeatedly dazzled by glimpses of sparkling azure bays, with terracotta-roofed buildings piled high up the mountainside. It's so impressive even wilting children in the back seat will "oooh" and "ahh".

Our family has made the drive from Nice, just across the French border, into Italy and along the length of the gloriously green Ligurian coast numerous times. It only ever takes about four hours but we can rarely resist a first stop at the polished town of San Remo. Those glimpses of beach are just too tantalising and the screams for gelato too frequent. Seaside resorts have been drawing tourists here since the 19th century. Yet today in San Remo, like pretty much every other town in this region, hearing an English accent is rare.

Genoa crowns this 315km-long coastline, the best hub to fly into and increasingly worth a stopover thanks to city-wide renovations and a swanky waterfront designed by Ligurian-born architect Renzo Piano. To the west of Genoa lies the Riviera di Ponente, a string of resorts attracting a loyal, Italian family crowd. To the east, the Riviera di Levante is where umbrella pines and olive trees grow almost horizontally from hillsides that enclose smaller bays and jutting headlands.

It may belong to the north geographically but Ligurian cuisine is Mediterranean: rich tomatoey fish stews, fresh anchovies and plenty of salt cod are just a few of the favourites, mopped up with farinata, a bread made with chickpea flour. And this is the home of pesto, made from basil grown on sea-breeze-blown cliffs, giving it a distinctive sharp taste and iridescent green colour. Eat it with trofie, the local potato pasta, and you'll be dining on food that has been feeding locals since Genoese sailors in the Crusades used it to fight off scurvy. From its cuisine to its reverence for native son, Christopher Columbus, Liguria is a region defined by the sea.

The towns

The grand hotels and refined streets of San Remo are reminders that it was the original Riviera town for 19th-century Brits and Russians. Despite this, and the fact that movies such as The Talented Mr Ripley have been set here, its onion-domed church and umbrella-lined beaches still don't attract holidaying foreigners; it's a truly Italian affair. Not so Portofino, the rarefied jewel of the Ligurian coast, a tiny, beachless cove whose size is disproportionate to its massive wealth and glitzy reputation. It's breathtakingly beautiful and worth an early-morning visit, before the coaches descend. Walk up along wooded footpaths to the old fort for the most postcard-perfect coast views, including sprawling mountainside estates belonging to the likes of Dolce & Gabbana. Go a couple of bays along to the buzzing beach town of Santa Margherita when you've tired of the crowds and the expense and you fancy a swim.

With its medieval caruggi (vaulted shopping arcades) flanked by perfumiers and shoe shops with splendid 19th-century façades, Chiavari is far more than just a sandy beach town. Don't miss its numerous churches, including the 17th-century cathedral, plus the lively market held every Saturday.

A day off the beach

Inland Liguria is a world away from the pastel-shaded chic of its coast. A case in point is the little river-fed village of Dolceacqua, about 10 miles up into the mountains from Ventimiglia. Overlooked by the ruined Doria castle, this village (famous for Napoleon's favourite wine, Rossese di Dolceacqua) has a fairytale, arched bridge over its river, higgledy-piggledy stone houses with smoking chimneys, and impossibly narrow alleys that lead up to the Chapel of San Bernardo. Painted with a series of 15th-century frescos, attributed to Domenico Emanuele Maccari di Pigna, it's well worth the climb.

At the other end of the coast, in La Spezia (for ferries to Sardinia and Corsica) lies the Museo Amedeo Lia (http://mal.spezianet.it) home to the region's finest collection of Renaissance and medieval art.

The coastal path

Along with Portofino, Cinque Terre ("Five Lands") is the region's big draw. Five former villages, most of them accessed only by footpath or sea, make up this 10-mile stretch of protected natural and marine park. Walk with wildflowers and butterflies around your ankles, past terraced vineyards sustained by dry-walling, along seriously vertiginous panoramic footpaths that are, nonetheless, manageable for most ages and fitness levels. The sea views are as magnificent as the little, brightly painted villages encountered on route: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore come with gem-like churches, pretty beaches and an atmosphere that, despite the train of trekkers, somehow remains unspoilt. The main visitor centre is at Riomaggiore (00 39 0187 76031; parocnazionale5terre.it).

The beaches

A public beach with an exclusive vibe, the Baia del Silenzio in the elegant isthmus beach town of Sestri Levante, has black-and-white-striped Genoese churches and grand palazzi sitting right on the sand next to panini-eating families. You have to get to the crystalline bay of Paraggi early to grab a spot on the patch of public beach if you don't want to fight for an overpriced umbrella with the moneyed hordes over from Portfino in search of sand.

There's plenty of room at Finale Ligure, the coast's family hotspot, blessed with long, white beaches, a marina and an old medieval walled town. The last resort (before the Tuscan border that is): Liguria's final flourish is a three mile stretch of coast with sharp inlets, quiet bays and pristine sandy beaches between the towns of Fiascherino and Tellaro, otherwise known as the Golfo dei Poeti for its links to Petrarch, Byron, DH Lawrence, and Shelley, who all lived (and in Shelley's case, died) here.

How To Get There

Genoa is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).

Further Information

Italian Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk). Liguria Tourist Board (00 39 010 548 51; turismoinliguria.it).