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

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Eric Lip­ton

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 New York Times)

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

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