The winter in Liguria always reminds me of an older age of tourism; the period when the very first tourists discovered the delights of Italy’s Riviera. Although the summer is now the main season for travel, Liguria’s first Northern European fans tended to come for the winter sun, when the weather in their native countries of Germany, England, Austria and Russia was damp and cold. By the middle of the 1800’s, wealthy nobility and businessmen had already long discovered the Côte d’Azur and the glamour of Cannes and Monaco, and for many of this European elite, the French coast was becoming intolerably busy and overrun.
Those in the know when further east in search of their Mediterranean dream, and soon began to enjoy the mild winter sunshine in towns such as Sanremo and Bordighera, which developed into cosmopolitan, elegant resorts. These were places to see and be seen at, especially at the grand hotels and casinos which were soon built to accommodate the moneyed visitors, who included such celebrities of their day as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Alfred Nobel, Charles Dickens and Claude Monet.
But rather than just come for a week or two, many of these guests came in autumn and stayed until the following spring. Strong expatriate communities developed, the largest of which was the British contingent. These long-term vacationers constructed villas, Anglican churches, public libraries and other civic centres, to ensure that they could continue to enjoy the same lifestyle in Liguria as they did at home – just with much better weather. The works of these “winter Ligurians” can still be seen throughout the region, including the magnificent gardens and villa created by the Hanbury family in Mortola, or the Villa della Pergola in Alassio, constructed by the wealthy McMurdo family. The villa, – which included the composer, Edward Elgar, among it distinguished guests – is now a luxury hotel, welcoming a more modern kind of global cognoscenti.
Although a visit to the Riviera today is, at least for most visitors, less likely to include tea with a bishop or dancing at a masked ball, a visit in winter can still give travellers a wonderful sense of this bygone age. The patina and charm which Sanremo, Bordighera and Alassio all share is infectious. A winter stroll along the promenades and old quarters of these places opens up worlds of architecture, art and culture. And as you enjoy the watery sunshine, still strong enough to warm your face, you’ll also be able to find a seat at every outdoor café, wander narrow old streets without the international chatter of tourist groups and get to the know the locals who live in this beautiful corner of Liguria all year round. In winter, everyone has a little more time for a chat and to share their insider tips, while the whole coast waits for the flowers of spring to burst open before Easter.
Of course, for these first visitors, the journey from their homes to the Mediterranean coast often took days. Today, it’s just as easy to head off to the Bahamas or speed down the slopes of the Alps. But before you book that 10-hour flight, or pack your snow-chains, consider what the European elite of the 19th century knew: A little sun in Liguria is a perfect way to beat the winter blues – even if you don’t have a villa or four months to spare!