HAVING CYCLED FOR A MONTH through Rome, Venice, Florence, and Tuscanyall the requisite stops on the Italian cultural tourI'm ready to trade espresso for a Gatorade and art for adventure. Hiking the five villages of Cinque Terre crosses my mind, but I want something with more options. On a tip from a telemark skier I met in the Italian Alps, I pedal 40 miles from Genoa into one of the hippest multisport destinations east of Chamonix: Liguria's Finale Ligure, a string of four villages on the mountainous Mediterranean coast midway between Genoa and Nice. This is where Italians ditch their handcrafted heels for sportier shoes. It's the Italian Riviera with attitude, a Cinque Terre for trail-hungry jocks.
The towns of Finale Ligure form a belt of pink-tiled rooftops between the putty-colored beaches and the lush hillsides of the Maritime Alps. Three of the fourFinalmarina, Finalpia, and Varigottifeel like charming mountain towns dropped onto some of the Riviera's most pristine, beautiful beaches. Less than a mile inland is the elegant walled village of Finalborgo. Bikinis and boardsports run rampant, but unlike many other resort villages in coastal Italy, the action also goes inlandfrom epic mountain biking to world-class climbing. And because the Maritime Alps insulate Finale from cold weather, adrenaline addicts flock here year-round.
Finale Ligure has the local climbing community to thank for its makeover from a retro vacation spot to a sporting hub. In the late 1960s, locals started tagging the surrounding 200-foot cliffs with bolted routes, attracting climbers from all over Europe. By the 1980s, the business community had gotten wind and soon began transforming the run-of-the-mill resort into a hotbed for adventure sports, retrofitting old hotels into cycle-friendly carbo stops. The area garnered attention in the late eighties with a Blue Flag rating, the European eco-label awarded to beaches with excellent environmental management.
Sitting at a cafe in the middle of Finalborgo's pastel piazza, I order an espresso and a slice of farinataan oily local flatbread made from chickpea flour and rosemaryand watch an Italian anomaly unfold: grandmas on rusty single-speeds with bread-filled baskets sharing cobblestone alleyways with 'biner-toting out-of-towners on dual-suspension mountain bikes. This is the Italy I've been looking for. The only question running through my mind: Which sport to try first?