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As you approach Savona from the west there's an almost palpable tug exerted by Genoa, which is now just a short distance away. Akin to the suburbs of Genoa, the outskirts of Savona (the largest town on the western Riviera) are framed in factories and modern construction that shroud the beautiful and ancient medieval center on the waterfront. Historically, too, Genoa's influence was strongly felt in Savona, which for centuries fiercely opposed the Republic's intended hegemony.
Heading inland from Savona, however, you abruptly re-enter rural Liguria. The village of Sassello is perched on the edge of the Beigua Regional Park, and the town's alpine feel is reinforced by the surrounding woods where hiking is a popular pastime.
Back on the waterfront is a string of lovely resorts. Albissola Marina has, for centuries, been identified with artisan ceramics and has a promenade paved in handmade mosaics by prominent artists. Boutiques and galleries around the town display works of stunning beauty, including various pieces done in the monochromatic pale blue that is a hallmark of Albissola.
Celle Ligure has two distinct neighborhoods; the modern resort district and a well-preserved and atmospheric old fishing village. It's a quiet, lazy sort of place well suited to spending hours on the beach followed by leisurely meals washed down with the Lumassino or Rollo wine from the local vineyards.
Varazze, by contrast, has much more bustle and is the well-known resort town of this stretch of the Riviera. There's a marina and a mile-long sandy beach, but many others come here for the waves: It's a popular spot with surfers.
Established prior to the arrival of the Romans, during the Imperial Age, Saona (as it was known then) was of lesser importance than the neighboring port of Vada Sabatia (modern Vado Ligure). In part this reflected Savona's old alliance with Carthage, which had been defeated by Rome. In equal part, however, it was a matter of geography. Ancient Savona clustered on the hill where the Priamar fortification now stands. By contrast, Vada Sabatia was on flat, level ground and was therefore easier to develop.
The fall of the Empire turned the tide of Savona's fortunes. The Roman roads, which passed through Vada, fell into disrepair, lessening the preeminence of towns they connected. Then, in the eighth century (according to tradition) the Longobards were defeated on the plane of Vada by the Franks, who proceeded to destroy the town in 774. During the frequent Saracen attacks that characterized the later half of the first millennium, Savona began to be populated by refugees from the coast who were drawn to its defensible hilltop position.
Perhaps the most auspicious event in Savona's history, however, was the 10th-century transfer of the Bishop's See, previously established in Vada in the seventh century. This honor brought tremendous wealth, power, and prestige to the town, which it wielded to garner economic, military, and political influence. Situated on an overland trade route to the Po Valley and onward to northern Europe, Savona became an important port for Piedmont and enjoyed good relations therefore with the French.
In Genoa, Savona was perceived as a gathering threat, especially as the Republic sought to extend its hegemony in western Liguria through allegiance and territorial concessions. In 1153 it pressured Savona's governors to sign a convention that severely limited Savona's business activities, laying the foundation for the intense rivalry that would develop between the two powers.
In 1191, with the help of the Church, Savona appealed for and was granted independence from the marquis and became a free commune. Its freedom from Genoa, however, was politically uncertain during politically tumultuous times. Throughout the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries it would have periods of independence interspersed with periods of subjugation. But in 1528, when Andrea Doria implemented his coup and obtained from Charles V recognition of the Republic of Genoa's autonomy and territorial integrity in Liguria, Savona was finally vanquished. Doria ordered the sinking of several large vessels filled with stones at the mouth of Savona's port, and the town found itself in humbling vassalage.
Savona was finally freed from Genoa's yoke with the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy. It resumed its commercial relationship with Piedmont and, with ships moving in and out of the port, began to prosper. The gridded streets just outside of Savona's medieval core reflect this period of 19th century growth. Farther out, the industrial areas reflect the period of development just after WWII. Like Genoa, the Savona of the 21st century is a city in the midst of transforming itself, struggling to develop its opportunities in both business and tourism. It hasn't made the same progress as Genoa in terms of appealing to travelers, but visitors who invest the time and energy don't leave disappointed.
By Train: Savona's FS station is inland in the Mongrifone district, near the Piazza di Nazioni. Of interest, the station was designed by the famous Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi. For schedules, see www.trenitalia.it.
By Car: Exit the A10 autostrada at Savona-Vado and head east towards Savona.
By Bus: SAR provides bus service for towns between Andora and Savona. For more information and timetables, …