Overlooking the Baia del Silenzio, the Bay of Silence, and leaning against a wall, my toes dug into the sand, I watch a golden sun sink behind a row of sherbet-colored houses. The little cove, a shimmering, sheltered pond with a shoal of gently dancing fishing boats, is fringed with a smile of fine gray sand.
With its restaurants decorated with fairy lights, its elegant striped parasols and its medieval cobbled streets, Sestri Levante exceeds my expectations. Bypassing it in favor of the more trumpeted Portofino would have been a mistake.
I arrived in Sestri – the “city of two seas” between Genoa and Pisa – by train from London St Pancras, via Paris and stopping for the night in Turin, gateway to mountainous Liguria to the northeast. Daisy-chaining south on the railway, the stations had grown smaller and smaller until lemon trees in terracotta pots appeared on the platforms. As I arrived in Sestri, a favorite of The little Mermaid author Hans Christian Andersen, it was clear that I had stumbled upon a gem.
Like other more famous villages in the region, it was first home to the Liguri tribe, followed by the Romans, but despite its beauty, Sestri retains much of its tranquil past. Days spent doing little – perhaps an early morning swim followed by an afternoon of wandering and people-watching – are just as enjoyable as day trips to more hotspots. exclusives synonymous with Hollywood royalty.
My base is Hotel Due Mari, a dusky pink building with forest green shutters and a maze of rooftop terraces that sits between the two bays that give Sestri its nickname of ‘the city of two seas’. Turn right and you are a short walk from my favorite spot on the Bay of Silence, considered one of the most enchanting spots on the Ligurian Riviera.
In the evening, families play card games at folding tables along the bay while couples dine on focaccia and linguine. Turn left and you’re minutes from the Baia delle Favole (Fairy Tale Bay), where beach clubs and open-air bars are linked by a wide, palm-lined promenade.
One lunchtime, I grabbed a pestle and mortar during a cooking class with charismatic restaurateur Andrea Ballarini at La Sciamadda dei Vinaccieri Ballerini, a historic Genoese trattoria that serves exceptional fish dishes alongside local produce.
We prepare the local sauce pesto “the right way” – a careful combination of basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, garlic, salt and olive oil – while Andrea moves between the tables, filling our wine glasses and explaining the process: “Never put basil in a blender – you have to squeeze, not cut.
While it’s tempting to stay in Sestri, Liguria is also home to the Cinque Terre (literally “five lands”), a string of villages along seven miles of rugged coastline. I was told to be prepared for the crowds (villages are usually overrun between April and October), but an early start makes for a quiet morning.
We take the train to Riomaggiore before hopping on a ferry to Vernazza and Monterosso, and from any vantage point it’s easy to marvel at the beauty and cultural significance of these villages and their surroundings .
Over the centuries, farmers have carefully built terraces to grow grapes and olives on steep ridges high above the Mediterranean. Mechanization of any process is nearly impossible (the region is so steep that even on local roads vehicles are scarce) and “vertical farming” is backbreaking work.
For generations, workers have wrapped fabric in crown-like circles on top of their heads to stabilize heavy baskets, taking care not to fall. Some still do, although straw baskets today are large plastic crates and monorails (single metal rails) make the job easier.
Below the orchards and vineyards, among the hills covered with lemon trees used to make limoncello, are the picturesque Balamory-style buildings. Like a quilt thrown over the edge of a rocky cliff, clusters of brightly colored houses cling to the precipice.
During the day you can hear the steeples chiming above a lazy hive of human activity, but I’m told that at night the frogs chatter frantically while small boats silently fish for anchovies. As I watch callous locals and sunburned travelers fill the ravines, I enjoy a glass of sweet Sciacchetrà wine (found only in Cinque Terre) with a crispy biscotti.
In the other direction – heading west up the coast from Sestri – is Portofino, loved by everyone from Sinatra to the Clooneys. Bathed in sunshine and dripping with pink wisteria, the gorgeous old hotels, dotted across the hills, exude glamour. Over an expensive lunch on the harbor, I watch a woman run on a treadmill in the back of a superyacht and reflect on my life choices.
While the boutiques, art galleries, cafes and restaurants of Portifno make for a pleasant afternoon of grazing and window shopping, the bay of San Fruttuoso, a short ferry ride away, is perhaps more captivating. The small cove is overlooked by a domed 10th-century abbey and a fisherman’s cottage available for vacation rental, but other than that pretty stone building it’s simply a beach, no more than an indentation along of a mountainous coastline, accessible only by boat or on foot.
This little dot on the map – an oasis of nature, history and relaxation – gives new meaning to the word “idyllic”. After a swim in the crystal clear waters, I order a bowl of salty chips from a treehouse-like bar in the bay. Above me, the lush, green Mediterranean scrub – mostly pines and holm oaks – rises up to an open sky, while below, in the aquamarine sea, children splash and are playing.
Returning from Liguria to London, I am struck by the ease with which the train made it possible to assemble the jewels of the Ligurian coast. After a busy summer of flight delays and cancellations, I found I couldn’t get excited about flying overseas until the wheels left the tarmac.
Throughout Europe, efforts are being made to make train travel more attractive, especially as an alternative to short-haul flights. There has been a recent revival of sleeper trains, alongside new investment in high-speed rail. German online travel comparison site Omio recently reported a 53% drop in flight bookings this summer across five key European markets, compared to the same period in 2019. Overall, it noted that bookings trains increased by 7%.
“What we are seeing more and more on our platform is what is called a ‘modal shift’: more sustainable means of transport like bus and train are gaining popularity compared to air travel. However, this is not only due to travellers’ environmental awareness, but also to rising costs, especially for airfares,” says Naren Shaam, Founder and CEO of Omio.
There’s an obvious environmental benefit, but after my gentle introduction to this glittering corner of Italy, it’s also a winning way to see a country, especially if you also want to be surprised by its secrets.
The writer traveled with Rail Discoveries, which offers a nine-night Italian Riviera train journey from £1,249 pp. The price includes B&B accommodation, six dinners, escorted excursions, and train and coach travel throughout the tour.