My wife (our marketing director Amanda Fox) and I recently returned from a trip to Italy. We didn’t make the trip across the pond to see the regular sights, like the Vatican, Venice, or other hot tourist spots. Instead, we sought out the lesser-known Finale Ligure, a trio of beautiful villages (Finale Ligure, Finalpia, and Finalborgo) on the Mediterranean coast. We set up camp in Finalborgo, a medieval town of no more than 1,000 full-time residents, where the Spanish-built Castel San Giovanni sits proudly above the main square.
Finale, as it’s known locally, seems to be the European capital for rock climbers and mountain bikers. It’s a gorgeous region, whose green rolling hills (not unlike our own Blue Ridge Mountains) tumble right into the sea. It was an interesting drive from Milan: Driving south, with the white-capped Italian Alps behind us, most of our trip took us through farmland and plains (the Piemonte region). Then, suddenly, steep hills rising up to 5,000 feet in elevation appeared again as we neared the Ligurian Sea.
The geography lends itself to countless of limestone rock outcroppings, leading to the development of several thousand established climbing routes, many with a short hike to their base. Climbers flocked to Finale in the 1980s, ’90s, and aughts, and it remains a popular destination for Europeans today. And we haven’t even gotten to the watersports: The sea is conducive to swimming sailing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, diving, fishing, even jet skiing. There’s also hangliding and paragliding.
Finale remains a popular destination for all-around outdoor enthusiasts, but the main draw in the last decade or so has been mountain biking. Local riders have spent the last 30 years building a vast network (more than 250 miles’ worth) of world-class singletrack bike trails. The biking is so good, in fact, that the Enduro World Series has held part of its circuit in Finale the last several years. The mountain biking trails… this is what brought Amanda and me to Finale Ligure.
The trails themselves start high in the hills; we typically took a shuttle (Italians call it an uplift) to the trailheads, with our bikes strapped in on a trailer. One main jumping-off point is a decommissioned NATO base surrounded by active windmills; another is a pull-off next to a charming restaurant. The trails began as ancient footpaths, and they typically spit you out in a small village, where everyone stops for lunch or an espresso. Where in the United States could you ride miles and miles of singletrack, stop in a quaint village for a cappuccino, and then continue riding many more miles (sorry, kilometers) of singletrack?!
The entire outdoor recreation scene in Italy is vastly different than that of many active American towns. Finalborgo was developed in the 12th century (hence the Spanish fort literally guarding it from above); the main square is surrounded by medieval walls and historic monuments. It houses the typical Italian cafes, pizzerias, and trattorias, along with a few boutiques, bookstores, and toy stores. Here’s the interesting part: Also parked in this ancient square are outdoor shops like a Patagonia and La Sportiva store and several bike mechanics, and bike racks sit outside almost every vendor’s door.
What really stood out to us, above all else, was how welcoming the locals were to outdoor recreationalists. Bikers and climbers are celebrated guests in Finale. Every day after riding, we’d see groups of people (from young kids to retirees) pedaling around town, covered in mud after a day of riding. The locals and shop owners always welcomed us, mud and all, into their establishments. We saw several groups of teens riding together, sans adult supervision. Their parents trusted them to ride—at times on narrow, winding roads with traffic—all day and make it back home in time for an aperitivo. And it’s not easy riding or logistics; these teenagers had to plan out food, water stops, what to do in case of an injury or mechanical issue, and so on.
It reminded me of my own youth, when my parents dropped my friends and me off in Pisgah National Forest to explore. We’d set a pick-up time, and then my parents would drive off, leaving us on our own. We packed our own snacks and water and planned our mountain bike ride, which in Pisgah is no easy feat. The trails in that forest aren’t always clearly marked, which meant we always needed a map, compass, and common sense. It was up to us to make a decision about riding a trail or an obstacle and know that if something happened, it was up to us to get out. More than once, we backed off a ride, as we knew we didn’t have the skills that trail required. This was a huge show of confidence from my parents, and I will always appreciate their faith in me.
But back to Italy. We were so impressed by how outdoor recreation is a natural, almost expected way of life. We didn’t once receive a dirty or wondering look about our muddy attire or full-face helmets or bulky knee pads. In fact, many cafe owners had additional paper placemats to set down on their chairs for exceptionally dirty backsides, and our Airbnb even included a bike wash station. The Italians take great care of and pride in their outdoor spaces and work hard to preserve them for future generations.
It was also refreshing to witness parents allowing their children to have the same freedom that I had as a child, supporting them in making their own choices and being responsible for their actions. These Italian teen bikers didn’t call their parents to drop off a raincoat when it started raining, or call for a ride if they had a bike issue—they just rode in the rain and fixed their own flats. It was like seeing Adventure Treks at work, but on Italian bike trails; children were allowed to take reasonable risks, and allowed the opportunity to fail. In the evenings, we’d see those same teen riders coming back into town and meet their parents for a meal—and no phones were ever brought out! Can you imagine—dinner with your teenager where phones don’t even make an appearance?! Maybe we should do an Adventure Treks trip in Italy…