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Driving Italy's Ligurian Coast

Beach outside the Hotel Punta Est, in Finale Ligure.

Photo: David Cicconi

Day 1: Menton to Cervo

Italians didn’t always have the run of this place. From the mid 19th century to the early 20th, the Ponente hosted a Grand Tour procession of heat- and color-starved Brits, who were besotted with its mix of Côte d’Azur gentility and Italian expansiveness and ease. Driving east along the precipitous road from Menton, we pass through towns that have retained varying degrees of charm: Bordighera in particular is lovely, with its tall Liberty façades and innumerable gardens, notably those of the nearby Villa Hanbury, established in 1867. Today, however, most foreigners know this part of Liguria—if they know it at all—for the town of San Remo, which every February hosts the San Remo Music Festival, a five-day bacchanal of klieg-lit Eurodisco sets. But as we stroll through San Remo and its neighbor, Imperia, we see traces of the allure that first drew travelers here a century ago: the profusion of bougainvillea and date palms, the exotic palette of the palaces—biscuit yellow and sorbet orange—facing the cerulean Mediterranean and climbing the hills behind the seafront.

From Imperia, we make our way along the SS1, a.k.a. the Via Aurelia, built by the Romans and extending all the way from Lazio into what was then deepest Gaul. Past Diano Marina, the road cuts over a bluff with deep ravines on one side and the lapping sea on the other; sea scrub and wildflowers cling to the slopes. Soon we arrive at the seaside borgo of Cervo, which has not significantly changed since the 17th century. The lanes are so narrow we can brush our fingertips along the walls on both sides as we walk. Steep, crooked staircases lead off to nowhere; cats shade themselves under spills of jasmine, watching us intently, for in the mid-afternoon there are no other people. We reach the town’s summit—a dazzling sunlit square, bookended by a crenellated castle and, opposite, Locanda Bellavista, Cervo’s best-known restaurant, where we reward ourselves with an early alfresco dinner of ravioli di borragine.

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