Italy's Liguria region

Liguria, in northern Italy, possesses 220 miles of Mediterranean coastline, making it part of the world famous Cote d'Azur. Naturally therefore, this area has luxurious hotels, oceans of flowers, and enough golf courses to please the most demanding. But the other face of Liguria is a mountainous hinterland populated by peasant folk, gnarled olive trees, and tiny ancient villages in the best Italian picturesque tradition.

San Remo, on the western shore close to France, is one of the most famous of the resort towns. In the middle of the last century, rich travelers ''discovered'' San Remo and its exceptionally mild climate; for them a score of marvelously Victorian hotels were built.

These hotels have suffered somewhat with the passage of time, but the spirit of elegance lives on in lobbies complete with crystal chandeliers and Oriental carpets, in rooms with marble bathtubs and hand-painted porcelain knobs on the closet doors, and in balconies with views of terraced gardens, of birds of paradise, and other exotic flora sloping down to the sea.

These hotels come in all price ranges, from $120 a night double in the peak season to $20 a night double away from the beach.

Access is free, though, to San Remo's wide stone promenade by the sea, to the sandy beaches, and to the narrow winding streets of the ''old city.''

The old city of San Remo echoes a theme common to villages all over Liguria - a theme that has to do with survival. As far back as the 6th century BC, barbarian invaders besieged Liguria from the sea, making habitation on the shores a risky business. On the other hand, the rocky terrain of the nearby mountains yielded little in the way of sustenance. So the people compromised - they turned to the sea for their livelihood as fishermen and navigators, but they built their homes in defensible positions on the hillsides.

The building of these towns was challenging: There was little space and rock was the only locally available building material. As a result, the dwellings are uniformly tall and thin, huddling close together like row houses in the most crowded city. They are beautiful, though, painted in shades of crimson, salmon, yellow, apricot, and pink, with perky blue and green shutters that open at the bottom to allow the inhabitants to stand, elbows on sill, and watch the afternoons go by.

The main streets are steep and narrow, the back streets steeper and narrower still. Vaulted arches connect facing houses for structural support and as a quick means of escape in times of danger.

In recent times, the towns close to the shore have expanded down to meet the beaches, but all over the region are isolated red-roofed, pocket-sized villages in this mold.

One such is Pontedassio, a very small, remote village north of Imperia. Pontedassio is a typical little town. Behind and around the last row of buildings a small stream flows, powering the mill. Terrace after terrace of olive trees march up the mountainside.

(There are, by recent count, 4 million olive trees in the Imperia Province alone. The Benedictines were the first to settle the area in 1119: They are considered to have introduced the cultivation of olives to the area.)

Nets are spread out under the trees to catch the harvest. It used to be that the olives were picked by hand. Now, the nets are stretched and the trees shaken with a long forked stick - a much quicker and easier - but equally picturesque - way of doing things.

The olives are collected in large straw baskets. Each farmer takes his harvest home, and it was at one of these homes that our adventure started.

Three local folk appeared at the door, carefully scooping out measured portions of olives. Permission was asked - in sign language and smiles - for a picture.

That done, the conversation turned to what was being done with the olives. ''We're taking them to the local press,'' was the answer, and did we want to come along? Oh yes, yes, of course, please! And off we went.

The olive oil factory was the dark, cave-like lower floor of one of the dwellings that in front had looked so sunny in its coat of yellow wash. The ceiling was vaulted, not more than 10 feet at the center and considerably less as it tapered down at the sides.

Slowly adjusting to the darkness, breathing in the rich smell of crushed black olives, we saw that the process is a slightly mechanized version of an ages-old theme. The whole olives are dumped into a circular trough about six feet around and two feet deep. A large granite wheel from a special quarry near Lake Como stands upright in the middle of the trough. As it makes a circuit, it crushes the olives into a coarse pulp.

A worker scoops the pulp out of the trough and packs it into doughnut-shaped nets. The filled nets are stacked on a rolling platform with a pole in the center. The whole apparatus is then placed in a hydraulic press.

Under pressure, streams of golden, strong-smelling oil cascade down the sides and into a trough below. The oil flows through a sieve and into a holding tank. As the process is finishing, a local woman comes in with her straw-covered olive oil bottle and gets a refill straight from the tap.

The oil is the very best and is the basic ingredient of Italian cooking. (It is interesting that Pontedassio, where we saw olive oil being pressed, is also the home of the Agnesi Historical Spaghetti Museum, a place where you can find out all you ever wanted to know about spaghetti.)

The pulp left over from the process is separated from the stones and made into olive pate - a salty, pungent paste that is completely irresistible on crusty bread. Even the dregs are saved, dried, pressed, and used for fuel in the cold mountain winters.

A coastal train runs the entire length of the Italian Riviera from France in the west to La Spezia in the east. The trains are inexpensive and frequent.

The Italian airline, Alitalia, has three flights a week from Chicago, and daily flights from New York to Rome and Milan. Round trip air fare from New York is $3,346 sleeperette, first class; $1,162 coach; $851 excursion; $795 APEX; $ 683 midweek. Flights from Chicago are about $100 more expensive.

Alitalia does offer special tour rates - one is a special ''Visit Italy'' fare at $599 round trip from New York. The hitch is that you must also book $200 worth in land arrangements and stay seven to 10 days to qualify for the fare.From Milan, one can either fly, drive, or take the train south to Genoa, and from there embark either east or west to the Riviera.Genoa, the industrial port town directly in the middle of the Riviera, was one of the four ancient Italian Marine Republics.It is a bustling, busy city with an abundance of Renaissance and baroque mansions, churches, galleries, and museums. It also has the house of Christopher Columbus. (Columbus's house is more fantasy than real: it is an ivy-covered reconstruction of what some think the house looked like, has nothing inside, and stands rather forlornly beside modern construction work just a stone's throw outside the old city walls. Even so, it still sends a chill up the old American spine to see it.)Old Genoa (built mostly of gray slate that glows soft and warm in the sun) had a wall all the way around it. Modern Genoa has built up, around, and over, but within the wall is a maze of small medieval streets and alleys, a perfect place to wander. And wandering is still the best way to find the smallest art shop, the most tantalizing restaurant, the smallest street leading to the square with the most magnificent cathedral.It was in Genoa that we ate some of the best food on our sojourn - a hard distinction to make because the food all over the region is indecently scrumptious. The ''pesto'' (a green sauce made of basil, olive oil, garlic) with trenette pasta was a favorite.Over on the eastern Riviera, three hours by train from Genoa, the beaches are steeper and rockier and the thick woods of pine, palm, holm-oaks, olive, and cypress trees march right down to the edge of the water. There's a winding road right on the water's edge, and driving it, one catches tantalizing glimpses of the tops of grandiose villas peeking out through the greenery.Through the years artists and writers have frequented the seaside towns on this side of the Riviera - towns with musical names like Santa Margherita, Rapallo, Portofino. These towns don't have the sandy beaches and extensive flower fields of the western Riviera, but they do have the best skin-diving, the most dazzling ocean views, the finest handmade laces.)Further down the eastern side of the Riviera is Cinque Terre (the ''Five Lands,'' so called because of the five small villages that line up on five promontories jutting out into the water.)Here the land is much more rugged. Sheer ledges of rock rise straight up from the sea. The peace and quiet in the villages is broken only occasionally by the voices of children or the ringing of bells.All five of the towns have ancient churches, narrow winding streets, and ocean vistas worth seeing. And all of them have little restaurants where the food is as good as any you'll find in the larger cities. The trick is getting there.That's because there are no roads to the middle three towns. The only way to get to them is by boat - or by foot, for there is a footpath connecting them. It is a hiker's delight.Sometimes the path is wide and smooth, and then it is called the Via dell'Amore - Lover's Way. Sometimes it is roughly cut out of the rock. And sometimes it dips and clings precariously to the sides of the mountains. The path has views of the sea on the one side and the terraces of olives and grapes on the other. It's a grueling 12 -hour hike from the northernmost town, Monterroso, to the southernmost, Riomaggiore, if done at one time, but a delightful walk if taken in parts.Tourist facilities are few and far between in Cinque Terre, so a traveler there should be prepared to take advantage of the hospitality of the local people when the hotels are full.Staying in a private home ($12 a night double) you take what you get. What you get, though, besides a roof over your head, is the chance to live inside one of those tall, thin, ochre-colored houses for a little while, listening to the singsong rhythm of Italian family life.It is helpful to have a lot of breath and strong legs when foot-touring in Liguria. And foot-touring is definitely the way to see both the large cities and the small towns. The roads, except for the well-surfaced main east-west road, are all of the hairpin variety. Besides, there are so many things to see, so many small and beautiful details of landscapes, faces, buildings - that one is rewarded in stopping - often.For all of Italy is stunningly beautiful. The major cities - Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples - are justly famous for their individual and collective sights and sounds. The less well-traveled byways, the Riviera and the small mountain villages are equally alluring.But it's not all sunny.The inflation rate in Italy is high. The traditional products and crafts are no longer inexpensive to produce or to buy. You must expect now to pay proportionately for quality.Hotels come in all classes, of course, and you can always find one to fit your budget. (Always be sure to ask for a room at the back of the hotel, especially in larger cities. Italians stay out till unforgivable hours, shouting, laughing, honking horns, and revving engines. A room at the back will insulate you from the worst of this.)Food is the major exception to generally high prices. One can still eat - even unto excess - for an astonishingly small sum. We had, for example, a 20-course meal at Merano's Restaurant in Chiuesavecchia (north of Imperia) for $10 each.Another problem with touring in Italy is that the proud and independent Italian workers exercise their right to strike in the workplace frequently, randomly, and without much warning. This can cause havoc for a traveler on a tight schedule.An attitude of calm indifference accompanies the strikes. It can be puzzling - and infuriating - but it's the Italian way. This reporter finally stopped asking ''why'' when an old sage, brown, and wizened by years in the sun and the olive groves, shrugged his shoulders, lifted his palms to heaven, and said, simply, ''A bit of good, and a bit of bad, keeps our boat going straight.''

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