Our trans Europe trek in our little rental car “Benny” took us right across the five hundred miles or so of gorgeous Mediterranean coastline that has become known as The Riviera. There is no official boundary to the area, but the name is widely accepted for the shoreline shared by France and Italy.
Riviera is an Italian term for a strip of land between the mountains and the sea, but we English speakers have adopted it to refer to this particular southern coast of Europe. In fact it was the English that played a huge part in making this region so renowned.
The British upper crust began visiting the Riviera around the time of the American Revolution as a winter escape from dreary old England. Soon a railroad was built and the aristocrats really started flooding in.
The Riviera became synonymous with playground for the rich and famous. First royalty, then artsy types like Picasso, Matisse, Aldous Huxley arrived, and nowadays Elton John, Bono, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have all bought homes and frequent the seaside resorts. Of course two road weary GypsyNesters in a tiny rented economy car felt right at home…
Actually, we did, in certain places. It’s not all five star hotels and James Bond hangouts along the way. There are many beachside bungalows, bars and cafes for us regular folks to frequent.
Technically the name Riviera would only apply to the Italian part of the coast, but at one time all of this was controlled by one Italian dynasty or another, so we’ll allow it. After changing hands between several European monarchies (c’mon – who wouldn’t want to own the Riviera?), the western section of the region has been under French control since the reign of Napoleon III. We may allow the area to be called the Riviera, but the French call their stretch Côte d’Azur, meaning blue coast. Très romantique.
On the beautiful day that we drove through, the name could not have been more fitting. Stunning scenes of the blue Mediterranean were the order of the day. Meanwhile famous names appeared on the highway signs every few minutes. Exits for Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and Monaco beckoned, but we simply couldn’t see them all. And we couldn’t dream of affording to spend the night. Well, no one could stop us from dreaming.
We did discover that venturing from the superhighway above the sea down to the little two lane road right along the coast, while highly scenic and entertaining, involved unbelievable traffic nightmares that were only tolerable for short distances. It would take several days to drive the entire Riviera down there. We opted to hop on and off the superhighway when something struck our fancy.
Once we crossed into Italy the views didn’t diminish in the least, in fact this may be the most scenic part of the Riviera as the mountains fall right into the sea. The Italian Riviera is unofficially divided into two parts, the Riviera di Ponente, meaning the coast of the setting sun, to the west, and the Riviera di Levante, or the coast of the rising sun, to the east. One of our favorite cities in all of Italy, Genoa, serves as the dividing point between them.
While the names of the Italian towns aren’t as famous as their French counterparts, the Ligurian seaside resorts of Sanremo, Savona, Portofino and Cinque Terra are every bit as inviting. The entire coast is one fabulous resort after another, so there is no need to focus on the more famous names. Our friends Claudia and Paolo recommended we stop off in Cella Liguria for a taste of the real Ligurian Riviera and they never steer us wrong.
Beautiful and yet not so overpowering with the opulence and luxury of its neighbors, Cella was perfect for an afternoon leg stretching and a gelato before we continued on our way.
Unfortunately for us, this was also the place where we had to turn inland and proceed over the mountains. As we climbed The Apennines we got one last look at the exquisite ribbon of Riviera behind us.
Benny’s wheels ain’t big, but they keep on turning.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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