The Italian Riviera in summer brings visions of dramatic sheer cliffs, pebbled beaches and pinstriped cabanas. You might also imagine endless boats moored in exclusive marinas with party-goers on the deck enjoying champagne and thumping tunes. Less front of mind I suspect would the sight of two sweaty cyclists wobbling with overladen with gear trying to navigate steep and twisty single-lane roads.
Inspired by the recent Tour de France experience, Erin and I decided upon our own special cycling tour along the Liguria Coast, affectionately known as the Italian Riviera. The Italian Riviera takes over where France hands off it’s slice of the Mediterranean coast to Italy. It begins from the main city of Genoa down through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Cinque Terra and onwards till you reach a certain leaning tower in Pisa.
There was scant information on the suitability or quality of cycling to be had along this summer holiday coast. The well known Cinque Terra is a mecca for hikers so time would tell if the cycling was even possible let alone pleasant. The scenery looked epic. The towns looked super quaint. The distances weren’t too far. We were on a quest to see if two amateurs could complete the ‘Giro d’Riviera’ with our lives, our dignity and our relationship intact!
Stage 1: Genoa to Rapollo – 27 km Cycle
Genoa was a suitable starting point as the commercial hub for the Italian Riviera. Commercial hubs generally lack the tourist appeal of the regions they support. Genoa was no different. To be fair, we did only gave it a passing glance while we waited for Gennaro from Veloce Bike Rentals to arrive with our wheels.
So with bikes delivered we were off. Genoa, along with its cosmetic struggles, is also not designed with the cyclist top of mind. Navigating uneven footpaths, dead-end carparks, dodgy alleyways and busy freeways was required to get out of the city. However once on the wide coastal esplanade, it allowed some very welcome open space.
At Nervi, we joined the main SS1 highway route that runs along the coast. Small towns began to pass by frequently. We began to get into the rhythm of our peddling cadence and enjoying the smell of the salty sea air in our nostrils. Each town was located at sea level at the many beaches and inlets that interrupt the continuous cliff face along the coast. The end result for us budding cyclists were continual steep descents and ascents in and out of each town.
At Camogli, the climb out continued much longer than usual. Then kept going. Eventually, we saw the extent of the hill. A church spire far above us in the distance. It was 2 pm, the hottest part of the day, and we were out of drinking water. It was a hard slog. We were rewarded with more impressive views as we got higher but this was an unwelcome distraction as needed to focus on staying close to the small shoulder of the narrow road. Maintaining a straight course was the difference between becoming roadkill or falling off the ever-growing cliff.
Respite at last at the top. A small park allowed us to refill our water supplies and enjoy the cool breeze on our sweat-soaked bodies. The descent immediately entered a dark menacing tunnel. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel was only a tiny speck in the distance. Adorning our high-visibility vests, supplied for such purposes and also indicated on the signs leading into the tunnel, we braved the darkness and emerged out the other side unscathed.
After the descent to the popular town of Rapollo, we stopped for a swim at the public beach. Beach clubs take the prime beach positions which are so common in Europe so the public beach is not well maintained and has a bit of rubbish lying about. Still, it was good to cool off and have a brief rest after 27 km of cycling over hills in the heat of the day. We were due to stay in nearby Zoagli, however, our Airbnb host had cancelled last minute leaving us with an unexpected 24 km more to reach Sestri Levante. The terrain was thankfully a lot flatter than we had experienced to this point.
Stage 2: Rapollo to Sestri Levante – 24 km Cycle
After 50km of cycling for the day, we finally arrived into Sestri Levante grimy, exhausted and very saddle sore. We were booked in at Grand Hotel Villa Balbi which had an old world type of opulence. Our present state contradicted this ambience significantly. However, rather than turn their noses up at our scruffy appearance we were instead kindly offered a room to store our bikes, a fresh towel to wipe the highway from our faces and promptly ushered to our room with awaiting shower.
Emerging a little later it was just coming on dusk and the the narrow laneways surrounding the hotel were alive with European holidaymakers. Restaurants were packed, street sellers were out in force and a real buzz was in the air along with the smells of freshly cooked pizza. A hearty Italian dinner was had and a much-deserved beer (and wine) after a long day in the saddle.
Stage 3: Sestri Levante to Levanto – Train
The previous day’s efforts had left our bums very sore having not ridden regularly recently. For some rear-end respite and in the interests of keeping moving we decided to take a train south to Levanto. Trains run between each of the main towns on the coast and while cutting out some scenery (the majority of the train route is through tunnels) it is a good fallback option.
We immediately liked Levanto. The village laneways housed cafes, bookstores and gelato stands which all led down to an impressive beach. At night, alfresco dining tables littered the streets and the sounds of some talented buskers echoed along the ancient sandstone walls. Not to mention the best slice of pizza I’ve ever eaten.
Levanto also promised its own unique cycling experience. Old disused rail tunnels had been converted into a cycling and jogging track along the coastline leading north from the beach. We tackled the 7km of rail tunnels on the second day after our backsides were a little less tender. The scenery was spectacular as we continually emerged from the flood-lit tunnels to bright expansive sea views. We even stopped for a short swim at the turn around point. The rail tunnels are simply an out and back route so serve little practical purpose for onward travel but it is worth the ride!
Stage 4: Levanto to La Grazie – Ferry + 10 km Cycle
Onwards from Levanto is where the UNESCO listed Cinque Terra begins. At this juncture, a decision needed to be made. The SS1 route we had been following did not connect the Cinque Terra. Instead, steep windy roads led down to each town which on the map looked like long strands of scattered spaghetti. It would take some serious climbing to get in and out of each town.
Our fallback to date had been the train, which did connect the towns, although the spectacle of Cinque Terra is best had from the water. So we decided on a ferry from Levanto to Portoverne which stopped in at each of the Cinque Terra. So we’d get the views via the water and cycle onwards from Portoverne.
The Cinque Terra comprises the ‘5 towns’ of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore appearing in this order running north to south. At each town, multi-coloured buildings adorn the cliffs and channel down to the harbour. Rumour has it the varied colours applied to the buildings were for fishermen to spot their house from the sea. Whether this is true remains to be seen. Regardless it does add to the touristic charm and photogenic nature of these tiered towns nestled in the gorges of massive cliffs above the sea.
Our ferry stopped at each town giving us close up views. Views we would not have got from our bikes which were neatly stored in the forward deck. While I doubt the ferry could accommodate many more bikes we were glad we took this option after seeing the sheer cliffs behind each town. And, the ferry only charges half-fare for the bikes.
The 2018 Levanto to Portoverne ferry timetable is posted at the bottom of this article.
The ferry ride ended in the tourist-filled town of Portoverne. We rode on our bikes for a further 10km to La Grazie, a lesser known town along the coast with a small harbour front. We settled into our small apartment overlooking the water before browsing the few modest restaurants doing standard Italian fare along the harbour.
We cycled back to Portoverne the next day to do as the locals do and enjoy a day at the beach on a sun lounge. A strange behaviour coming from Australia but most, if not all, prime beach locations are commandeered by beach clubs. Plus a shady comfortable position on any suitable seafront was hard to come by and believe us we looked
Stage 5: Le Grazie to Pisa – 10 km Cycle + Train
Departing delightful Le Grazie we had another 10km to reach the train station at the much larger town of La Spezia. Another final train ride for 50km through industrial and agricultural plains to Pisa. After a quick stop to do the obligatory leaning tower poses we had arranged to drop our bikes near the airport at a car rental company. A courtesy lift back to the train station in central Pisa from the attendant which was very welcomed. All part of the Veloce rentals service.
Finish in Pisa
As we settled back with a pastrami focaccia on a train to Florence we agreed our Italian Riviera cycle journey may not have gone strictly to plan. With the outside assistance of a few trains and a ferry we felt, however, we covered the coast in the most enjoyable way possible on two wheels. Had we stuck to the purist mission of cycling each and every metre of the route it would be, let’s face it, pretty awful and quite dangerous on the higher mountain passes and tunnels near the Cinque Terra. If the mission was to do some cycling, enjoy the towns and scenery, including Cinque Terra, then I think we call that mission accomplished!
Feel free to get in touch if you want any more specific information including cycle rentals as there was not much information on doing this route during the planning.
- Veloce Bike rentals (rentalbikeitaly.com) offer a unique point to point pick-up and drop off option for bikes in a range of areas around Italy. The bikes are of decent quality complete with a repair kit and high-vis vests and the service is great.
- Trains run the entire route of the riviera and while views are mostly hidden by tunnels, they provide a good option on sections where cycling is unpractical. Train timetable along the Italian Riviera
It is definitely worth the trip! And make sure you reward yourself with some sumptuous Chianti south of Florence afterwards. We can definitely recommend Greve in Chianti.