The beauty and culture of this classic stretch of the Riviera has long enraptured sailors, including those on superyacht Dionea’s cruise from Nice to Portofino.
Tropical islands with white sand beaches, the fjords and mountains of higher latitudes, and dramatically barren and beautiful desert coastlines – all have their supporters among cruising yachtsmen, but without doubt, the world’s most popular destination is the long and varied northern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. The area offers so much, from warm water to settled summer weather, superb scenery, fine dining, luxury shopping and immense historical interest. One never tires of it and many spend their whole cruising lives in its confines.
We fly into Nice airport, very convenient for all including those from the USA and Russia. Launched from the Felszegi shipyard in Muggia, Italy in 1962, the 52 metre megayacht Dionea was operated as a high-quality 300-passenger ferry on the Trieste to Istria run until 1991. Despite then being laid up for years, the life of this elegant ship was not over. In 2003 she was tastefully converted into a yacht by the Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa, her owners going to great lengths to preserve her classically attractive character, a persona that blends so well with the ancient cities and towns we will visit.
Nice might not rival Cannes or Antibes for glamour, but offers fascinations often overlooked by guests aboard a yacht. A well-protected harbour nestles beneath the eastern flank of the imposing Colline du Chateau, and once settled into our spacious cabin, we set out on foot for a swift tour of the historic city before departure that evening.
We take a wander through the narrow pedestrianised streets on the western side of the Chateau hill, which overflow with a fascinating mix of food, fashion and tourist shops, as well as the occasional palace and baroque church. It eventually brings you out in Cours Saleya, venue for the daily market that boasts a selection of mouth-watering produce.
Back on board Dionea, we steam majestically out of the port and set an eastwards course to pass the popular anchorage of Villefranche – for us, too full of cruise ships and yachts – we drop anchor for the night off the genteel French resort of Menton, often described as the ‘pearl of France’. We are the only yacht in the anchorage and dine on deck against a backdrop of the old city with its rich architecture, which climbs up the hill past the distinctive church, whose steps were once the scene of a James Bond motorcycle chase in the film Never Say Never Again.
Next day we retrace Bond’s route in reverse, climbing the steep steps to the church and onwards to take in the views from the cemetery that crowns the hill, occupied by many European and Russian nobles who spent their twilight years in the resort. Below, the narrow mediaeval streets with their shops and cafés open out past a beautiful market building to a restaurant-lined promenade, where we stroll before turning back towards the harbour for a sumptuous lunch from Dionea’s Italian chef Franco Solari.
We meander eastwards, crossing into Italy and passing the much admired botanical gardens at Villa Hanbury, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Ventimiglia. Beyond, the foothills that rise towards the majestic peaks of the Ligurian Alps become increasingly dotted with greenhouses. Welcome to Italy’s Riviera dei Fiori, or Floral Coast, named after the long-established flower cultivation industry based around San Remo.
Our next stop is Imperia, a grand name for the two smallish towns of Porto Maurizio and Oneglia amalgamated in 1923 by Mussolini. As a result, Imperia has two harbours, today both largely devoted to yachts, one in Porto Maurizio and a more charming one in the old port of Oneglia, where Captain Claudio Intrigliolo berths Dionea for the night, her stern close to a line of restaurants, charmingly situated behind an arched colonnade, which borders the quay.
We head to Bussana Vecchia, a few miles inland. Its unusually sad feature is that it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1887, in which some 2,000 inhabitants perished. It was abandoned and the survivors resettled in a newly built village, but in the mid-20th Century it was reoccupied by a growing colony of artists who chose a simple life of creativity without services such as running water and electricity. Despite attempts by the authorities to evict them, they remain today, creating and selling their art to visitors. We spend an interesting hour amid occupied houses and their art-filled studios that sit cheek by jowl with total ruins in a disarmingly attractive jumble.
That afternoon we enjoy a scenic coastal cruise from Imperia to historic Genoa – the capital of the region – along an almost continuously built-up shoreline backed by high mountain peaks and threaded by the amazing engineering of the coastal Autostrada highway, the majority of whose length is in tunnels or on bridges.
Genoa is so large we engage a guide, who gives us an insight into a city whose mediaeval wealth was founded on international maritime trading and investment banking – America might today be Italian speaking had not Genoese bankers refused to finance the voyage of Columbus on grounds of excessive risk.
It’s another 10-mile hop from Recco, where we briefly stopped to Portofino, which _Dionea _completes in under an hour, despite the increasing wind and a rising swell from the south west. These conditions make the little harbour untenable for larger vessels and we are redirected to the nearby marina in Santa Margherita; we take a taxi around to our original destination. Portofino today is the haunt of the rich and famous, as evidenced by the designer boutiques and jewellers that fill its quaintly cobbled streets, together with chic high-end restaurants and cafés, where celebrities compete to be seen. But to really sample the beauty of the village and the adjacent coastline, we climb, taking in the amazing views of the port’s pastel-coloured façade of houses from our position at St George’s Church. The view can only get better and we climb onwards to the eagle’s eyrie vantage point of the prominent 15th Century Genoese fortress, converted in 1867 into a mansion for the British diplomat Montague Brown.
With Castello Brown’s wide panorama encompassing the open sea on one side and the Gulf of Tigullio towards Santa Margherita on the other, it’s a fitting finale to a delightful cruise aboard Dionea, which has sampled the delights and sights of the Italian Riviera – a cruise encompassing so much of interest that it could extend almost indefinitely – and for some, it does.