I fell in love with travelling when I was five and my parents’ bundled my two sisters and I into the car and set off every summer to drive across Europe. In 1972, we went to Liguria. It was a completely chance event. I was eleven and I was hooked. The place was full of adorable kittens. I ate far too much focaccia and endless bowls of minestrone and spent all my dad’s money buying trinkets in a vending machine by the café on Lerici’s harbourside.
While I was a student at the LSE, I met my husband in the student newspaper office. There was something wonderfully Mediterranean about him. When he told me his father represented the Genoa shipyard and went there often, at first I thought that he actually was Italian (He turned out to be half French for the record). Things moved fast. When our eldest son was just a month old we bundled him in the back of the car and set off for Liguria.
I love Liguria but am always surprised that when I tell people in Britain that I’m going there that look blank then slightly puzzled. It’s almost as if they feel they should know where it is but have simply forgotten and that is exactly what has happened, as far Liguria goes the nation has a case is suffering from memory loss. In the late 19th century it was the place to be and be seen. Thousands of British people wintered in San Remo, Alassio and Bordighera.
To help to jog the memory, I add that it is the area around Genoa. There’s flicker of recognition that you are going to somewhere in northern Italy but Genoa is in the black hole as far as most tourists are concerned even if Byron, Dickens, James and a whole host of writers have penned thousands of words on the place. Genoa was once a maritime superpower and has one of the biggest preserved medieval cities in Europe but it’s hard to find more than a handful of people who are aware of that these days.
Then I add the magic words ‘Italian Riviera’ and their faces light up. ‘Riviera’ conjures up a whole host of images of film stars in speed boats, glistening blue sea and style. Then say ‘Portofino’ and a dreamy look crosses their face and there is an intake of breath.
It was the fact that most people outside of Italy know very little about this wonderful region where the mountains plunge down into the sea that prompted me to write a guide to the area and to try to change the way that foreigners look at Italy, heading for Florence, Venice and Rome and holidaying in Tuscany and Calabria. Italy is in fact an incredibly diverse country with major regional differences. There are things about Liguria that are totally unique. People still speak dialect and eat food only found in certain areas even within Liguria itself.
Liguria certainly has all the magic of the Riviera and Portofino still attracts stars and millionaires but there’s far more to it than that. I’m a history buff and there is so much history here, it’s a delight. Above all, it’s kept a lot of the local charm that many places in Western Europe have lost. Yes there is an IKEA, and there are large supermarkets, but the latter are stuffed with regional products you can’t buy anywhere else. There are plenty of local shops that have been in the same families for generations and they are a million times more efficient than the chain stores that have taken over high streets in Britain and other parts of Europe. You can bike down to the local shop to buy a new dishwasher and five minutes later you, your bike and the dishwasher are in the back of the van on the way home with a plumber who is going to install it.
My father-in-law could banter away in Genoese dialect and my mother-in-law would whisk up a pesto sauce that could hold its own against any Ligurian born cook’s version. They’d go truffle hunting with the man who ran the local pasta shop and knew all the best places to eat and to shop. Many of the places I recommend are the ones that they introduced me too. Liguria has got under the family skin to such an extent that if we go somewhere else in Italy, my kids will all bemoan that there’s no focaccia for lunch and my kitchen cupboard in London is stuffed with walnut sauce, taggiasca olives and anchovies.