The coast west of Genoa, the Riviera di Ponente, is Liguria’s most built-up stretch, home to practical, unpretentious resorts, functional towns and the occasional attractive medieval quarter. In some ways it’s the ideal location for the perfect family holiday – the beaches are sandy and the prices low – and thousands of Italians come here every year for just that. Almost every settlement along the stretch of coast from Genoa to San Remo is a resort of some kind, and extremely busy during July and especially August, when prices are at their highest. But there are some gems among the run-of-the-mill holiday towns, not least the likeable resort of Finale Ligure, nearby Noli, with its alley-laden old centre, the medieval centre of Albenga and the grand old resort of San Remo, which can also make a good base for exploring sections of the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri.
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FINALE LIGURE, half an hour from Savona, is a full-on Italian resort, in summer crowded with Italian families who pack the outdoor restaurants, seafront fairground and open-air cinema, or take an extended passeggiata along the promenade and through the old alleys. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable place for all that, with a long sandy beach that stretches the entire length of the town and a busy, buzzy vibe that lasts long into the evening.
The main part of town is Finalmarina, with a promenade lined with palms, and a small quarter of narrow shopping streets set back from the seafront, focused on the arcaded Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II in the middle. At the eastern end of town, Finalpia is a small district on the other side of the River Sciusa, with the twelfth-century church of Santa Maria di Pia (rebuilt in florid, early eighteenth-century style) and the adjacent sixteenth-century cloistered abbey at its centre; while Finalborgo, perhaps the most attractive part of Finale, is a medieval walled quarter 2km inland, overlooked by bare rock-faces that are a favourite with free climbers who gather at Bar Centrale in Finalborgo’s Piazza Garibaldi at weekends. Finalborgo has quite a chi-chi air these days, and is a nice place to eat and shop – there are free buses from Finalpia (opposite the Hotel Boncardo) and the bottom of Via Brunenghi (near the station) every forty minutes in summer. Once there you can just wander its old streets, or take a look at the array of prehistoric remains and other artefacts unearthed locally at the Museo Archeologico di Finale in the cloisters of the convent of Santa Caterina.
The small market town of ALBENGA is one of the most attractive places along this part of the Ligurian coast, an ex-port whose estuary silted up long ago but left a wanderable old quarter, still within medieval walls and following the grid-pattern of its ancient Roman predecessor, Albingaunum.
The centre of town is Piazza San Michele, where you’ll find the elegant cathedral, the main part of which was built in the eleventh century and enlarged in the early fourteenth, and, just beyond, in the Torre Comunale, the Museo Civico Ingauno, home to an array of Roman masonry and fragments, including a patch of original mosaic floor, and, off to the right, the fifth-century baptistry. This ingenious building was built in the fifth century, and combines a ten-sided exterior with an octagonal interior. Inside are fragmentary mosaics showing the Apostles represented by twelve doves. Behind the baptistry to the north, the archbishop’s palace houses the diverting Museo Diocesano, Via Episcopio 5, where there are paintings by Lanfranco and Guido Reni. The archbishop’s partially frescoed bedchamber, next door to his private chapel, is also decorated with fifteenth-century frescoes. A few metres from here, at the junction of Via Medaglie d’Oro and Via Ricci, the thirteenth-century Loggia dei Quattro Canti marks the centre of the Roman town, while some 500m further north, beyond Piazza Garibaldi and along Viale Pontelungo, is the elegant, arcaded Pontelungo bridge. Built in the twelfth century to cross the river, which shifted course soon afterwards, it now makes an odd sight.
In the opposite direction, five minutes’ walk beyond the train station, lies Albenga’s seafront and beaches – mostly sandy and with a couple of reasonable free sections.
Set on a broad, sweeping bay between twin headlands, SAN REMO had its heyday as a classy resort in the sixty years or so up to the outbreak of World War II, when the Empress Maria Alexandrovna headed a substantial Russian community in the town (Tchaikovsky completed Eugene Onegin and wrote his Fourth Symphony in San Remo in 1878). Some of the grand hotels overlooking the sea, especially those near the train station, are now grimy and crumbling, but others in the ritzier, western parts of town are still in pristine condition, opening their doors to Europe’s remaining aristocrats season after season. San Remo is blessed with the Italian Riviera’s most famous casino, and remains a showy and attractive town, with a good beach and a labyrinthine old town standing guard over the palm-laden walkways below.