Ponente means "spot on the horizon where the sun sets," which in northeastern Italy corresponds to the narrow strip of coast and precipitous alpine foothills that you first encounter upon arriving from Monte Carlo or the French Riviera. This part of Liguria is also known as La Riviera dei Fiori (the Flowering Coastline), cut flowers being among its most lucrative exports. The air is alive with the heady scent of some 20,000 tons of roses, carnations and mimosas exported annually. Silvery olive groves or terraced grape vines blanket the hillsides. Whitewashed walls are draped with purple bougainvillea and flaming trumpet flowers. Palm trees shade the broad seaside promenades. Originally brought here from Egypt by St. Ampelio in the fourth century, there were once as many as 20,000 of them in just the half dozen miles from Ventimiglia to Bordighera alone, and it is the latter town that supplies the Vatican with fronds every year on Palm Sunday.
In such a fertile environment it is hardly surprising to find Villa Hanbury, the vast, extravagant gardens that a 19th-century Englishman built just a few miles from the French border. With more than 6000 species of plants, it is now considered one of the most important spots in Europe for the cultivation of exotic plants.
Returning to the autostrada, drive three more miles to the noble turn-of-the-century resort town Bordighera. The small medieval quarter is worth a visit, but plan to spend an hour or more strolling along the palm-lined lungomare (seaside promenade), soaking in the Belle Époque atmosphere of the resort, with its large ornate buildings in the art nouveau style (called "Liberty" in Italy).
Now drive two miles east on the Aurelia, to Bussana Vecchia, a medieval village that was leveled by an earthquake about a hundred years ago and is now being carefully restored by a group of artisans. If you have chosen the A10 option, get off next at the Andora exit and continue east on the Aurelia, reveling in the beautiful coastal views of rocky outcrops, sandy coves and broad bays. Alassio is the perfect place for an afternoon dip, with two miles of fine sandy beach (though it's crowded in those nasty months of July and August). Just beyond it is Albenga (pictured at left), a thriving market town with fifty brick towers and western Liguria's most important early Christian monument, the 5th-century baptistry in the 13th-century cathedral. Behind the church is the charming Piazzetta dei Leoni. Albenga has a trio of museums, one for prehistoric relics, one for naval history and the other for Roman artifacts.
At this point, you'll have earned yourself a brief spell on the A26 autostrada, which heads south to Voltri to reconnect with the A10 or the Aurelia. Lovers of regal country villas should stop off in Voltri to see Villa Duchessa di Galliera, then at Pegli for Villa Pallavicini (pictured at left), which has a glorious park complete with artificial lake. Genoa is just two miles away.
Villa Hanbury is in Mortola Inferiore (tel. 0184-229-507). Closed Wednesdays.
The Doria castle in Dolceacqua is closed Tuesdays and 12-3 p.m. daily.
Gastone restaurant is at Piazza Garibaldi (tel. 0184-206-577). Closed Mondays, Tuesdays and 15 days in November.
San Remo's Casinò Municipale is at Corso degli Inglesi 18 (tel. 0184-534-001). There is a dress code and admission fee for the gaming rooms, open 2:30 pm to 3 am. The slot machine rooms have no dress code or admission fee and are open 10 am to 3 am. You must have a picture ID to enter the building.
The museums in Albenga are in Piazza San Michele. All are closed Mondays and for three hours at midday.
Garlenda Golf Club (Via del Golf 7, Garlenda; tel. 0182-580-012) is an 18-hole course that closes on Wednesdays from September through June.
Pinacoteca Civica (Via Quarta Superiore 7, Savona; tel. 019-838-7391, email). Open Tuesday-Saturday 9-1 and 4-7, Sunday morning.