Italian villages that inspired the term Riviera
Liguria is a place of unvarnished beauty, where the draw is the simplicity of its timeless way of life
Finale Ligure, a sunbaked town at the edge of the Ligurian Sea, has no symphony orchestra or opera house. But it has a maestro of its own: Franco Morasca, the manager of Bagni Est Finale, a no-frills, private club on the beach that pulls in generations of Italians each summer for a reminder of what it means to be Italian.
The term ‘Riviera’ was born on this region, on this crescent-shaped stretch of coast known as Liguria, which runs from the ancient town of Ventimiglia, just over the border from France, through better-known destinations such as San Remo, as well as casual beach spots like Imperia and Finale Ligure. And just inland are some tremendously appealing mountain towns like Borgomaro and Apricale.
What unifies each of these destinations is the unpretentious collection of bons vivants who descend on them annually, many of them from Milan, who embrace traditions and a family-centred way of life that still predominates here. That is where Morasca comes in. Bagni Est Finale, the spot he runs, is just one of dozens of miniclubs that line the beaches along the Ligurian coast, each with its own collection of beach chairs, a small restau- rant, espresso bar, family changing rooms and lockers, among other decidedly simple accommodations. There is a magic at Bagni Est Finale, held together by Morasca and his sister, who work out of a shoe-boxed sized office overlooking the beach club, a perch from which they have watched young children turn into teenagers, then adults, then parents themselves, as they bring their own children back to be part of the extended family that comes back here each year. I found myself remembering that now-ancient Garry Marshall film (starring Matt Dillon), named The Flamingo Kid, about a Brooklyn beach club in the 1960s. Except the clock stopped at Bagni Est Finale and stands still today.
After an afternoon on the beach, wading in the azure waters of the Mediterranean, lunch in the patio tables, families move en masse for a nap under their umbrellas. The children often awaken before their parents, playing tag, football or random other games in the sand. Moresca, ever the maestro, has a large table in his cramped office with a floor plan that looks like seating for an orchestra, though the names penciled in next to each seat are family assignments for chaise longues. Much about travelling is about finding places like this: Spots of unvarnished beauty where you can vacation amid locals who are embracing their own way of life, which is different from yours. This beauty inspires you, months later and back at work, to stare blankly in the distance, past your monitor and into your memories.
The Ligurian coast is certainly one of those spots. Its simplicity is like a time warp. It has none of the pretences of Saint Tropez or big crowds of Cannes or even Cinque Terre or Amalfi Coast. But village after village offers an illustration of a kind of a slow-food world, delicious, worth savouring.
Literally. A new generation of young chefs, inspired by the mix of cultures and flavours, are helping reshape the Italian palette along this coast, grabbing the local seafood, as well as meats, fruits and vegetables produced from the nearby mountains, to produce some of the best food coming out of Italy today yet largely ignored by foodies worldwide.
The nearby town of Imperia has a restored port, lined with small fishing trawlers and luxury yachts, and also features a long row of restaurants and casual nighttime entertainment, including the day we were there, a festival of jugglers, clowns and various children’s games. Nearby was another col- lection of small, special restaurants, including Ristorante Sarri, right on a waterfront road and owned by Andrea Sarri, who recently served as head of a national alliance of young chefs. Some of the standout dishes at Sarri included the ravioli with pesto sauce, calamari with zucchini, baby lamb with artichokes.
The fish, he picks from local boats, the artichokes, tomatoes and olive oil comes from his uncle’s farm, and meat from an adjacent town. The way the Maritime Alps meet the sea here - creating a combination of fresh game, produce, fruits and seafood - explains the raw materials with which all these local chefs work, generating little international attention, but tremendous results.
We headed inland from Imperia, into the mountains, where we found a collection of sleepy villages, staying for three nights in Borgomaro, a postage-stamp sized medieval-era village, where we did not encounter a single English-speaking tourist.
The port of Imperia, Liguria, Italy
Romanesque Church of San Michele Arcangelo
Part of the historic centre of Imperia, Liguria
A view of the coastline
A shrimp and squid dish
View from olive groves overlooking Finale Ligure