Mario Anfossi isn’t widely known as the Basil King of Italy—that’s just a sobriquet my friends and I came up with for him—but his farm, Azienda Agraria Anfossi, just inland from Albenga, is a veritable fiefdom of basil, whose aroma beckons from a quarter-mile away. Anfossi is the Albenga region’s largest producer of fresh basil and basil products, including an organic pesto that will ruin you for any other. I was introduced to him by his daughter, an acquaintance from London. The day we visit, the fiftysomething Anfossi is wearing plaid stovepipe pants, a cashmere polo, and blue leather driving shoes. (His ride: a Maserati Quattroporte.) With sideburns that fall somewhere between Easy Rider and Master and Commander, Anfossi cuts an idiosyncratic figure: a little bit farmer, a little bit dandy. I find him delightful—and surprising. But then, I hadn’t expected much from this part of Liguria, which, until now, I’d pegged as the Riviera That Glamour Forgot.
Liguria’s Riviera di Ponente—“of the setting sun”—stretches from Genoa westward to the French border; its name is an apt moniker for a once-favored seaside playground long since faded from glory. Its neighbor to the east, Riviera di Levante (“of the rising sun”), holds the regional monopoly on luxury and sophistication, with Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, and Rapallo strung like expensive jewels along the coast. It’s unlikely that i signori Dolce and Gabbana, who own a waterfront villa near Portofino, would steer their Codecasa yacht anywhere near the Ponente. So when two London friends (one of whom had spent time in the Ponente as a teenage au pair) invited me to join them on holiday here, I was skeptical. But as I learned over a three-day, 60-mile drive, this little-sung coast possesses a charm distinct from its fabulous eastern counterpart. If the Levante is northern Italy’s Hamptons, the Ponente is akin to Long Island’s North Fork: a bastion of middle-class normalcy. The mostly Piedmontese families who summer here have been renting the same houses and booking the same beach-club sun beds since those silver-haired bisnonni were toddlers playing in the fine white Ligurian sand.
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.
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.
Day 3: Finale Ligure to Noli
Immediately east of Finale Ligure, the Via Aurelia becomes spectacularly scenic, twisting under massive outcroppings and through deep indentations in the rock. Six miles along lies Noli, which during the Middle Ages was one of the five maritime republics (with Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and Amalfi). The town hosts a lively market several days a week, including this morning, and we spend an hour foraging through bins of linens, then buy a sackful of sweet grapes to savor in the shadow of crumbling façades.
At noon we backtrack to Varigotti. One of the finest natural ports in Liguria, it’s a tiny village not likely ever to get bigger, confined as it is between the protruding cape and steep mountains. Varigotti feels more in character with southern Italy, with low-slung houses painted dark orange and red backed by hillsides planted with olive and lemon trees. The town’s habitués have a decided gloss; Baby Missoni abounds at Varigotti’s exclusive bagni, where on weekdays young mothers and their progeny revel in the lapidary waters, then indulge in house-made sorbetti at Gelateria Saracena, just up from the beach. At lunch they fill the patio tables at Muraglia Conchiglia d’Oro, a seafood institution since the 1950’s, or at the terrace restaurant of the slick Hotel Al Saraceno, opened in 2008.
Of all the beaches we’ve encountered, Varigotti’s is the most tranquil and beautiful. At dusk on our last day, well after all the Italians have returned home to prepare for dinner, we remain on our loungers, tracking the saffron disk of the sun as it dips into the inky sea, savoring the peace around us, and determining how we might find ourselves in exactly this place next summer.
Maria Shollenbarger is deputy editor of How to Spend It at the Financial Times.
Fly into Genoa or Nice (just across the French border) and rent a car at either airport.
Hotel Al Saraceno A refined seaside hotel with 21 rooms; the best have terraces and ocean views. 2 Via Al Capo, Varigotti; 39-019/698-8182; alsaracenogroup.com; doubles from $285, including breakfast.
Great Value Hotel Miramare Rooms have high ceilings and ocean views; don’t miss cocktails at the terrace bar, steps from the beach. 66 Via Aurelia, Varigotti, 39/019-698-018; hotelmiramarevarigotti.com; doubles from $135.
Ai Quattru Canti 22 Via Torcelli, Finalborgo; 39-019/680-540; dinner for two $55.
Boncardo 4 Corso Europa, Finale Ligure; 39-019/601-751; drinks for two $20.
Gelateria Saracena Via Al Capo; Varigotti; no phone.
Guja 7 Passeggiata Dino Grollero, Alassio; 39-018/264-0693; dinner for two $68.
Locanda Bellavista 2 Piazza Castello, Cervo; 39-018/340-8094; dinner for two $82.
Muraglia Conchiglia d’Oro 133 Via Aurelia, Varigotti; 39-019/698-015; dinner for two $160.
Read T+L’s guide to Portofino and the Italian Riviera for more Italian vacation ideas.