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Pasta and olive oil in Finale Ligure

It was a perfect Sunday afternoon by the sea. Kids kicked soccer balls around, or raced their bikes across the cobblestones of the compact piazza, which was free of vehicles. Three sides of the square were lined with centuries-old pastel houses, adorned with brightly painted shutters and ironwork balconies. The fourth side opened onto the Mediterranean and was framed by an ornate triumphal arch.
Finale Ligure
This is Finale Ligure, an overlooked jewel of the Italian Riviera, just west of Savona and an hour by train east of Monaco. The town has four villages that blend into each other along a rugged curved coastline of postcard-perfect beaches and protruding rocky headlands. Although on the seaside, it is not glitzy or expensive like the French Riviera, or overwhelmed by tourism like Liguria’s trendy and crowded Cinque Terre. With a rich and diverse history, it has authentic and vibrant small-town life and local character. Even the visitors are mainly tourists from Italy itself.

I first discovered Finale Ligure when I backpacked around Europe as a student decades ago and bunked at a Mussolini-era castle that had become a youth hostel. I liked the town’s quaint old buildings, sense of community and attractive beaches, and always meant to return some day. Now, older, perhaps wiser, and definitely more affluent, my wife Annie and I had booked a room at an elegant boutique hotel called Punta Est.

Our taxi from the station took us along the landscaped beachfront and shore road to the hotel, which is perched high atop a cliff at the quiet edge of town. Pulling up at a gate, the driver rang a buzzer. To preserve tranquillity, no cars are allowed. Instead, an electric golf cart came down to take us, with luggage, up a steep path to the main building. It is one of several stately villas set on a series of terraces with tall palms, regal pines and panoramic views of the sea. Out back are extensive vegetable gardens and a grove of 200 ancient olive trees.
Finale Ligure
After settling in and shedding our travelling clothes, we strolled back into the centre of town along a promenade lined with roses and other shrubs. Parents pushed baby carriages past carousels and climbing structures for children. There were overgrown fortifications that once marked the boundary between medieval Genoa, a powerful city state, and territory then controlled by its rival, Spain.

Piazza di Spagna, “the Spanish Square,” is the heart of Finalmarina, the largest village. The triumphal arch that dominates the piazza was built to commemorate a royal visit by the 15-year-old Infanta, Margaret Theresa of Spain. She stopped here briefly in 1666 while on her way to Vienna to marry Leopold 1, the Holy Roman Emperor. Sadly, she died only six years later. Around the bustling square are open-air restaurants and cafes that serve such dishes as fresh anchovies, or powerful grappa and local Ligurian wines. Other Ligurian specialities include pesto, focaccia bread, and farinata, a pizza-thin cake of chickpea flour, olive oil and rosemary baked in a wood-fired oven. After checking out places where we might take meals in the coming days, we joined the well-dressed citizens for a glass of wine and basked in the lingering sunshine of early May on the Med.

Later, back at the hotel, we got acquainted with our genial host, owner Attilio Podesta, who speaks excellent English. He has travelled widely, but he grew up at Punta Est, helping his parents run the place. A serious devotee of tai chi chuan, he has studied under a revered master based in Malaysia and returns there occasionally. Fit and athletic, he also loves rock climbing, a major regional attraction. In fact, he keeps climbing equipment on hand for Canadian friends who visit frequently and joins them on climbs when he can. Others come to this part of Liguria for the excellent mountain biking, including an annual 24-hour bike race. For budget travellers, in addition to the youth hostel there are campgrounds in the nearby hills. Attilio recommended places of interest that we should not miss during our stay.

Before dinner, we donned swimsuits and robes to indulge in one of the hotel’s remarkable features. Deep in the cliff below is a natural limestone cave, the “Grotto,” with a large wooden hot tub, soft furniture, fine artwork and subdued lighting. A wonderful spot to relax.
050515Finalborgo entrance (3)
We spent one afternoon in the oldest part of town, Finalborgo, the Spanish-built walled inner village. Entered through arched gateways, it is a warren of narrow winding streets, churches and alleyways, with family restaurants, tiny hotels and crafts shops. The archaeology museum, in an old convent, features Neanderthal remains found nearby. Looming above is an ominous 17th century Spanish fortress, Castel San Giovanni, with turrets on the walls and slits for archers to rain down destruction on any attackers.

A storm rolled in that night, bringing thunder, lightning and heavy rain. As we were enjoying dinner, the lights went out. Waiters lit candles and lanterns, enhancing the dining room’s already warm ambiance. By morning, it was clear and sunny again. We threw open the double-doors of our room and were lulled by birdsong and the roar of surf far below. A place of magic and romance.

We taxied a few miles east to the fascinating village of Varigotti, with its mini-kasbah of tightly packed and distinctive Moorish-style houses. These are a legacy of the Saracen occupation in the 9th and 10th centuries, when nearby French Provence, as well as Sicily, also fell under Muslim control.

Small boats were pulled up on shore, and men cast fishing lines right off the beach. On a rocky bluff high above stood the ruins of a medieval watchtower that guarded against later Saracen raids, which continued into the 12th century. A lacework of ancient trails criss-crossed the mountainside, where sea salt was carried inland by caravans of pack animals.
050515Finale Ligure-Varigotti lowres (3)
When Attilio found an afternoon free, he led us down, literally a stone’s throw, into Finalpia. The centrepiece of this quiet village is a Benedictine abbey with church and cloister built around 1500. The walled compound is an oasis of serenity and beauty. The monks and nuns cultivate extensive gardens, growing tomatoes, zucchinis, garlic and grapes. They maintain numerous beehives and raise money by selling their hand-made products from a little street-side shop. There are artistically packaged items, especially honey and beeswax candles, but also beer, marmalades and jams, and fancy lemon and orange liqueurs. Decorations on the inner monastery walls include motifs of bees and bee-keepers at work.

Attilio wanted us to meet a senior priest who has long been a close family friend. But the priest was scheduled to say mass, so we stayed to attend it, the first time for all of us in countless years. And it was quite different from what I expected. Along with organ music, there was call and response from the mainly elderly congregation. The priest then delivered a poignant sermon. As Attilio explained, it told the story of a 13th century Benedictine recluse, hermit and monk, Peter Celestine, the founder of the Celestine order. When in his late 70s, while living in a mountain cave, and against his inclinations, he was coaxed by a delegation of cardinals into becoming Pope Celestine V. He proved to be entirely unsuited to the tasks and exalted papal lifestyle, and lasted less than half a year before abdicating, wanting to return to a life of humble piety. The moral was that for many of us it can be difficult to find our true path in life.

050515Finale Ligure-Domenico Ruffino in his olive grove above Varigotti lowres (3)The abbey has a special link to Attilio and his hotel. His olive grove was once part of the abbey grounds. The trees had been planted by Benedictine monks centuries ago. About 30 years ago, that part of the property was sold off to a private owner, and the trees were neglected. More recently, there arose the danger that the land would be developed as condominium apartments. So Attilio bought the grove of trees and began to learn about olive cultivation. By pruning the trees, he restored them to health and productivity. Today, the oil is served with pride in his dining room.

When the land purchase was reported in the local paper, Attilio received a phone call from Domenico Ruffino, an olive grower in neighbouring Varigotti. Domenico has a grove of 900 trees planted by Benedictine monks as early as 1125 on beautiful stone-walled terraces. Ignore any negative advice you hear from people about your trees, he told Attilio. Nearly all of Domenico`s trees are of a rare variety called Colombaia, while Attilio’s are about half Colombaia and half the far more widespread Taggiasca cultivar. Many people prefer the lighter oil pressed from Taggiasca olives, but Domenico has won top honours in olive oil competitions for his much stronger, aromatic and “grassy” tasting Colombaia oil. In 2012 his oil was named the world’s finest single variety (unblended) extra virgin oil. No small distinction in an olive-oil-crazy country like Italy. The two men had never actually met, however.

We urged Attilio to set up a rendezvous with Domenico and take us along to see his enterprise. So arranged, by evening light we climbed into Attilio’s little Kawasaki “Mule” and bounced up mountain trails high above Varigotti, past beautifully restored Saracen country houses. Each one more than 1000 years old. At Domenico’s property, the two men embraced in bear hugs and launched into animated conversation punctuated by extravagant gesticulations. All in Italian of course, with a few brief explanations in English for our sake. Domenico told about inheriting the olive grove as a young man, trees that had been in his family for centuries. And about being advised to uproot the Colombaia trees and replace them with Taggiasca.

But “I loved these Colombaia trees,” he told us, leaning back against the gnarly grey bark. “And I couldn’t bring myself to kill them. They have been here all that time, listening, for 800 years. Think of the stories they could tell.” At his workshop, he showed us his olive press, bottling facilities and wall of framed awards. Finally, he poured some oil, a pale golden green, into wine glasses. Covering his glass, he swirled it, stuck in his nose and sniffed. “Aahh.” We did the same and took little sips, savouring the taste and aroma of centuries.

It was dark by the time we headed back to Punta Est. “I’ve found my olive guru,” Attilio laughed with delight as he drove. Our late dinner at the hotel included my very favourite Italian dish, linguine with delicate clams. Simmered with garlic and parsley in Attilio’s own fine blend of Colombaia and Taggiasca olive oil.
050515Finale Ligure-Castel San Giovanni above Finalborgo 459 lowres (3)

All pictures by Annie Palovcik.

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