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Tourist Information ITALIAN RIVIERA

Near Liguria's border with Tuscany, Lerici is set on a magnificent coastline of gray cliffs and pine forests. Shelley was one of Lerici's best-known visitors and spent some of the happiest months of his life in the lovely white village of San Terenzo, 2 km (1 mi) away. After his death in 1822 the bay was renamed the Golfo dei Poeti, in his and Byron's honor.

La Spezia is a large, industrialized naval port on routes to the Cinque Terre and to Portovenere. It lacks the quiet charm of the smaller towns. However, its decaying palm-lined Morin promenade, fertile citrus parks, and lively, balcony-lined streets make parts of La Spezia surprisingly beautiful.

The small colorful houses of Portovenere, some dating from the 12th century, were once connected to the 12th- to 16th-century citadel, so that in times of attack the villagers could reach the safety of the battlements. The town commands a strategic position at the end of a peninsula that extends southeast from the Cinque Terre and forms the western border of the Gulf of La Spezia.

Rapallo was once one of Europe's most fashionable resorts, but it passed its heyday before World War II and has suffered from the building boom brought on by tourism. Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence lived here, and many other writers, poets, and artists have been drawn to it. Today, the town's harbor is filled with yachts. A single-span bridge on the eastern side of the bay is named after Hannibal, who is said to have passed through the area after crossing the Alps.

A beautiful old resort town favored by well-to-do Italians, Santa Margherita Ligure has everything a Riviera playground should have -- plenty of palm trees and attractive hotels, cafés, and a marina packed with yachts. Some of the older buildings here are still decorated on the outside with the trompe-l'oeil frescoes typical of this part of the Riviera. This is a pleasant, convenient base, which for many represents a perfect balance on the Italian Riviera: bigger and less Americanized than the Cinque Terre; less glitzy than San Remo; more relaxing than Genoa and environs; and ideally situated for day trips, such as an excursion to Portofino.

One of the most photographed villages along the coast, with a decidedly romantic and affluent aura, Portofino has long been a popular destination for foreigners. Some of Europe's wealthiest lay anchor in Portofino in summer, but they stay out of sight by day, appearing in the evening after buses and boats have carried off the day-trippers.

There's not actually much to do in Portofino, other than stroll around the wee harbor, see the castle, walk to Punta del Capo, look at the pricey boutiques, and sip a coffee while people-watching. However, weaving through picture-perfect cliff-side gardens and gazing at yachts framed by the turquoise Ligurian Sea and the cliffs of Santa Margherita can make for quite a relaxing afternoon. There are also several tame, photo-friendly hikes into the hills to nearby villages. Note the meticulous upkeep of streets and public flora in what is surely Italy's cleanest town.

Unless you're traveling on a deluxe budget, you may want to stay in Rapallo or Santa Margherita Ligure rather than at one of Portofino's few very expensive hotels. Restaurants and cafés are good but also pricey (don't expect to have a beer here for much under EUR8). Trying to reach Portofino by bus or car on the single narrow road can be a nightmare in summer and on holiday weekends. No trains go directly to Portofino: you must stop at Santa Margherita and take the public bus from there (EUR1). An alternative is to take a boat from Santa Margherita, though even this can be a harrowing experience, as cruise ships also anchor here to disgorge their passengers for outings.

Ligurian beach bums, beware: Genoa (Genova, in Italian) is a busy, sprawling, and cosmopolitan city, apt to break the spell of the coastal towns in a hurry. This isn't necessarily bad news, though; with more than two millennia of history under its belt, magnificent palaces and art, and an elaborate network of ancient hilltop fortresses, Genoa may be just the dose of curious culture you were looking for. The city's faded splendor can be seen through dark shadows and centuries of grime in the narrow alleyways of the old center -- the largest in Europe.

Palms, sand strips, gelaterie (gelato shops), and good rock-climbing terrain make Finale Ligure a nice break from gaudiness and pastel villages. Finale Ligure is actually made up of three small villages: Finalmarina, Finalpia, and Finalborgo. The former two have fine sandy beaches and modern resort amenities. The most attractive of the villages is Finalborgo, less than 1 km (½ mi) inland, a hauntingly preserved medieval settlement, planned to a rigid blueprint, with 15th-century walls. The surrounding countryside is pierced by deep, narrow valleys and caves; the limestone outcroppings provide the warm pinkish stone found in many buildings in Genoa. Here lurk rare reptiles and exotic flora.

The self-styled capital of the western Riviera, San Remo is also the area's largest resort, lined with polished, world-class hotels, exotic gardens, and seaside promenades. Renowned for its royal visitors, famous casino, and romantic setting, San Remo still maintains some of the glamour of its heyday from the late 19th century to World War II. Waterside palm fronds conceal a sizable old center that, unlike in other Ponente towns, is lively even in the off-season. Restaurants, wine bars, and boutiques are second in Liguria only to Genoa's, and San Remo's cafés bustle with afternoon activity.

The newer parts of San Remo suffer from the same epidemic of overbuilding that changed so many towns on the western Riviera for the worse. The Mercato dei Fiori, Italy's most important wholesale flower market, is held here in a market hall between Piazza Colombo and Corso Garibaldi and open to dealers only. More than 20,000 tons of carnations, roses, mimosa flowers, and innumerable other cut flowers are dispatched from here each year. As the center of northern Italy's flower-growing industry, the town is surrounded by hills where verdant terraces are now blanketed with plastic to form immense greenhouses.

Bordighera was the first town in Europe to grow date palms, and its citizens still have the exclusive right to provide the Vatican with palm fronds for Easter celebrations. Bordighera, on a large, lush promontory, wears its genteel past as a famous winter resort with unstudied ease. A large English colony, attracted by the mild climate, settled here in the second half of the 19th century and is still very much in evidence today; you regularly find people taking afternoon tea in the cafés, and streets named after Queen Victoria and Shakespeare. Thanks partly to its many year-round English residents, Bordighera does not close down entirely in the off-season like some Riviera resorts but rather serves as a quiet winter haven for elderly people. With plenty of hotels and restaurants, Bordighera makes a good base for beach-going and excursions and is quieter and less commercial than San Remo.