Mention you have been to Italy, and people usually assume you have been to Rome, Venice, Tuscany and Pisa. The odd person mentions Capri, Sicily or even the Italian Alps, but few will ever ask if you have been to Liguria.
Liguria is the province that stretches from the French border, past Genua towards Cinque Terre along the Mediterranean. Think Cannes, Nice, Monaco and then start from the border at Ventimiglia along that same coast eastbound. It feels like time stood still in Liguria and that is perhaps because it is mountainous (the Alpi Maritimi); perhaps that has kept mass tourism out. Thank God! I think it is one of the best places in Italy with its fairly unspoiled villages, olive groves, lemon trees and mountain paths from Roman times. You’ll find old chapels, oak trees and new vistas every time you turn a corner.
The mountains run perpendicular to the sea, so going east-west further inland is a royal pain in the neck. The easiest way to move through Liguria is directly along the coast, and that’s where you find the Via Aurelia, which goes back to Roman Times (Think Hannibal).
When the train tracks were laid in Europe, it made sense to run them right along the coast in mountainous regions. No one foresaw a time that people would actually enjoy the coast. The coast was a place where fishermen worked, not a place you would stroll, let alone cycle for crumbs’ sake. Sounds familiar? Think Rideau canal where trains followed the canal’s path into downtown.
Moving the tracks
To make a long story longer: eventually a highway was built higher up in the mountains, and the train is following now. Part of the tracks are now being built further inland, which means that scarce space is now becoming available along the coast again. While the Via Aurelia is still a nightmare to drive and cycle on, about 20 km part of the railway track has been converted to perhaps the most beautiful multi use pathway in the world.
Imagine cycling along the Mediterranean, passing small towns (the train went through the heart of these towns, or rather, the houses were probably built along the tracks as there is little space). We cycled through tunnels past lemon trees, agaves, olive and orange trees. If you are early in the year, you can see the snow-capped mountains behind San Remo. One of the tunnels, the Capo Nero Tunnel, is converted to a gallery with 50 highlights of Milan – San Remo. (one of those legendary bike races).
Eventually, the pathway is supposed to be 70 km long, currently the piste ciclabili stretches from Ospedalletti to San Lorenzo del Mare.
Check out the pictures below although images can never capture the beautiful job the Ligurians did here. On a Sunday it feels as busy as an Ottawa Sunday Bike Day. I come to Liguria for 25 years and never did I see casual cycling before, just the spandex clad crowd on the Via Aurelia. Now I saw hundreds of casually dressed people. There is hardly a better proof of that ‘build it and they will come‘ adagio (to use an another Italian word).
Along the route are a number of bike rental places, usually just temporary tents. There are café’s along the path itself or you can venture off the track for 500 meters to go to the local market, for ice cream or espresso (not expresso) , panini (that is plural for panino, which no one seems to know outside Italy).
More info on Piste Ciclabile (with the emphasis on ‘cla‘)