Only a few decades ago, the Finalborgo neighbourhood was considered run-down, dark, dirty and even dangerous. Today, the historic centre is known as one of Liguria’s most beautiful villages and has won the I Più Bei Borghi d’Italia award. This incredible redevelopment is in large part thanks to visionaries who recognised the potential of the heritage and unique landscape of Finale Ligure as well as its capacity to move beyond beach-limited, summer-only tourism. European Union funds did the rest.
All year round, thousands of bikers, climbers and walkers come to Finale. There are organised events here too, such as the famous Enduro World Series cycling race that finds its crowning glory in the Finalesian hills after stops in Australia and Colorado. Europe’s biggest 24-hour mountain bike championship, the WEMBO World Solo, is also hosted here.
500 kilometres of tracks wind through the Mediterranean scrub, descending on steep trails from the mountains to the beach, and have helped make Finale Ligure – split into Finalmarina, Finalborgo, Finalpia and Varigotti – one of the world capitals of the mountain bike movement.
This applies to free climbing too. The region has one of the most extensive karst areas in Italy – its calcareous rocks are characterised by natural holes and handles that are ideal for the brave climbers who visit. In Finalborgo, there is also an artificial training centre available.
The territory around Finale Ligure offers 192 separate climbing walls, comprising 3,500 routes of varying difficulty, but all set in breath-taking scenery. The first routes were opened as far back as 1968, but it has taken decades for the ‘big boom’ of interest to occur. Perhaps it is this decelerated and relaxed way of life that is part of what makes Liguria so desirable as a destination.
In 2015, the five municipalities of Finale Ligure, Calice Ligure, Orco Feglino, Vezzi Portio and Rialto came together to launch the Finale Outdoor Resort initiative. The result is a trademark and brand that clearly defines the unique identity – both historical and cultural – of this area as well as its rich, natural landscape.
The villages have retained their medieval charms, but the impact of the colourful community of sportsmen and women – professionals and amateurs alike – is unmistakable. Specialised shops, cosy bars, repair workshops and bicycle stands are aplenty. Outside a bakery that is nearly 100 years old, a sign denotes its vegan qualities. Restaurant owners and the pizzerias have welcomed the influx of tourists, and have had their hands full adapting to the tastes and preferences of their growing clientele; Finale Ligure lays claim to being Italy’s first ‘vegan-friendly comunne’.
Giulia Riggio and her husband Gigi have run Sbuccia, an artsy café on the Via Nicotera of Finalborgo, for the past six years. Smoothies and vegetarian cuisine are on the menu, and the small but welcoming room is often packed. The couple is delighted with the new customers.
“It is truly wonderful how international our guests are,” says Giulia from the midst of baking pies and making fragrant cappuccino. “The city has to move and be flexible, doing more so that Finale does not lose its newfound appeal.”
Another popular place for tired athletes to rest their limbs and recuperate is the Bar Centrale, also in Finalborgo, which has been owned by Renate Heck-Grosso, a German expat, and her husband Giuseppe for nearly 60 years. They are well-known for their delicious, homemade ice creams. Renate too feels very positive about the growth in tourism.
“What I particularly like about our visitors is that they bring work for the whole community. Local shops, restaurants, hotels and apartment rentals are all equally satisfied – and it is almost year-round! It is also nice that people come back! We have not raised our prices. It is important to welcome them in a friendly way,” she says from the bar before heading out into the garden to pick tangerines for the natural gelato.
Bed & breakfast accommodation as well as a whole range of agriturismos are embracing the booming industry, with many now able to stay open during the winter months – something many of their Ligurian neighbours, who are typically summer-focused, will be envious of.
“I am convinced that this type of tourism can lead to year-round, full employment,” says mayor Ugo Franscherelli. “Of course, most visitors will continue to come here in the summer because of our beaches and the excellent water quality, but more and more people are choosing Finale in the autumn, winter and spring for climbing, mountain bike riding, horseback riding, hiking, sailing and surfing. This development of outdoor tourism is becoming more and more important not only for Finale Ligure, but also for the whole region. In the world of free climbers and mountain bikers, Finale is the epitome of single-track and technical climbing walls, and of freedom and adventure. It has everything that outdoor fans love and has established itself as an international trademark of extreme sports.”
British expat James McKnight, who lives near Annecy in the Alps but frequently heads down to Finale and the Italian coast, says, “It is quite bonkers how the bike scene, number of shops, shuttle companies and other businesses have multiplied over the last few years in Finale: partly due to the Enduro World Series events and in part thanks to an expanding and more official trail network, mapping and structure in town. Finale is different from purpose-built bike parks and Alpine resorts, in that is has an element of real Italian culture to it. It’s a functioning town with history that hasn’t been thrown up for the sake of tourism. This element makes it all the better for a bike trip with more than just great trails – of which Finale has many. I prefer the feeling of exploring a place not just for its trails, but also its history and culture. I think a lot of experienced mountain bikers feel the same way and the food is, of course, to die for!”
Petra Hall & Elsa Carpenter
*Originally published in the #177 edition of Riviera Insider