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Driving Italy's Ligurian Coast

Beach outside the Hotel Punta Est, in Finale Ligure.

Photo: David Cicconi

Day 2: Cervo to Finalborgo

From Cervo, it’s a 20-minute ride to Alassio along the shore-hugging Via Aurelia. Smaller roads veer into the mountains to connect with the A10—the autostrada—which sweeps across valleys and through hills via a network of slim, tubelike tunnels. (Though not as charming as the Via Aurelia, the A10 affords fast connections if you’re making haste to your next destination.)

The beauty and heterogeneity of Ponente’s towns owe much to their tumultuous history. They changed hands frequently between 1400 and 1800, with Austria-Hungary, Spain, the Levantine, and Genoa—the reigning maritime republic for centuries—leaving their imprints of dominion. Albenga, lying in a hazy floodplain, harbors a pristine medieval center, with an 11th-century cathedral at its nexus. Alassio, just west, is a buzzier 18th- and 19th-century town, where boys on motorini and girls in short shorts flirt on the boardwalk. The lamplit streets of the historic center are lined with a satisfying hodgepodge of the Italian high-low: profumeria, fancy food stores, CD emporiums, the occasional Max Mara boutique.

We arrive late in the afternoon in Finale Ligure, where we find what seems like half the town’s population convened at Boncardo, a 1950’s-vintage bar and beach club; with its concrete floors, high ceilings, industrial lamps, and pull-down glass doors, it recalls the auto shop in Rumble Fish, except at the edge of the Mediterranean. Several beautiful young men strike exaggerated contrapposti behind the 25-foot-long bar, insouciantly dispensing the occasional Peroni or Aperol spritz; we half expect one to remove a comb from his back pocket and start working his quiff. The terrace overlooks rows of blue and yellow umbrellas and, two miles out to sea, Gallinaria Island, whose bell tower is faintly visible in the fading light.

For dinner we strike out for Finalborgo, just inland from Finale Ligure. In Roman times this teardrop-shaped village was at the frontier with Gaul; it’s still enclosed by a protective wall, which seems superfluous given the sheer depth and narrowness of the surrounding valley. At Ai Quattru Canti, a tiny but packed trattoria, we feast on torta verde, a ricotta-laced, quichelike creation baked in the wood oven. Back in Finale, we repair to the terrace bar at the Hotel Punta Est, perched on a bluff overlooking the town and possessed of a slightly askew, old-school charm of which Wes Anderson would approve.

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