Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Vacances sans frontières

Riviera relaxation

As winter continues, the pull of warmer climes becomes more and more alluring.   
February’s ability to lull us towards intoxicating hibernation can easily be distracted by tempting thoughts of detoxifying holidays in the sun.  
(The epithets are transferrable; swap them around depending on taste).

So if you are pining for a respite, let me recommend somewhere on the borders of gorgeous and beautiful.   
This place combines the delights of home-baked pasta and unique mega-pizzas with French country cuisine.  Just add in a few hanging villages in the sun, some Roman and even pre-historic archaeology and the border region of Liguria has all the ingredients for a happy holiday.

In mid-September, my wife and I flew to Nice in south-eastern France and drove the short journey to its neighbouring Italian province.  Liguria sits between the Riviera to the south coast, the Alps behind to the north and France to the west.

As autumn was knocking ominously on British and Irish doors, it was still summertime in Italy, with temperatures every day in the bearable mid 20’s centigrade.   
And what better time to visit than when tourists are less in evidence.  
Mid to late spring or autumn are ideal times to explore the border region of two pivotal European nations and its fascinating cultural variety.

Part of the attraction is the region’s accessibility.   
The availability of a direct flight to Nice (from most British and Irish airports) with departures leaving and returning at times which are at social hours was a compelling factor in our decision.   
There is also something satisfying about sampling a route and destination airport for the first time.
Nice, Quai des Etats-Unis

Knowing that we would book flights to Nice, I had been searching without much success for a place to stay somewhere on the French Riviera for weeks.  

Then, as if it was meant to be, an article about Liguria appeared one Saturday in The Times[1].    
Describing a pleasant hike in the nearby mountains, the author concluded

“In 40 minutes of walking, we meet not a soul.  That’s the thing about Liguria – you’re never far away from the sea, but you’re always a long way from other tourists.”

Pied à Terre

Curiosity antennae aroused, I looked for a place to stay in Italy.   
To my pleasant surprise and in contrast to my earlier searches for a place to stay in France, every one of the first four Ligurian options I listed were available on the chosen dates.

To get the best of both worlds – they being France and Italy - we selected a rural house located between the area’s two main towns.  
Menton is the border French town, and Ventigmilia lies about 3 or 4 miles away in Italy.

Our choice of accommodation turned out to be part of a larger 250 year old house in the intriguingly-named small village of Mortola Inferiore.  
With no attempt at modesty, the brochure proclaimed it as a “village house in the most prestigious site of the Ligurian Riviera.[2]   
Home for us for two weeks, so it had to be good.

Inferiore complex

Before reaching Mortola in our hired Peugeot 207, we had driven through a village just inside the Italian border whose first name echoes that of the royal family of nearby Monaco, Grimaldi Inferiore.   
Then we saw a signpost for Grimaldi Superiore pointing towards the higher ground to the rear.   
I soon realised that split villages can be named thus depending on altitude, as the Superiore part of our Mortola also seemed to occupy the upper slopes.

Our accommodation was not a bit inferior.   

It was a modernised flat or apartment, complete with a very well equipped kitchen, an extensive library, outdoor dining area, WIFI, a new internet radio and even a large flat screen TV.   
The building commanded a panoramic view over a peninsula landscaped with gardens.

Giardini Botanici Hanbury

The Hanbury Botanic Gardens occupy all of the Capo Mortola.  
It is one of the area’s main attractions.  A few steps across the road and we’re there.  

Sir Thomas Hanbury purchased the land together with the Palazzo Orengo in late Victorian times with a fortune accumulated in China from trading in silk, cotton, tea and property.   
The 11th century Palazzo had been erected on the site of a Roman villa.
Palazzo Orengo

Plants from all over the world appear to thrive in the shelter of the Ligurian Alps and the proximity of the sea – helped by a temperate Mediterranean climate.   
It’s a bit like the exotic palm-house conservatories in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, except for the fact that the Mortola site is all outdoors – all 45 acres of it.

If prizes were ever to be awarded for the best labelling of plants, Hanbury Gardens would win hands down.   
Today the Gardens are managed by the University of Genoa and they host concerts.  
A minor inconvenience of visiting in late September was that these events had completed their season just prior to our arrival.

I was particularly impressed by the integration of Roman occupation.  The exterior walls of the Palazzo exhibit a range of Roman sculpted figures in a remarkable state of preservation.   

Another feature is the Roman road which traverses the site.   
The Via Julia Augusta was completed in 12BC connecting what is now Aix en Provence in France to Derthona in Piedmont, Italy.
A plaque records verses of Dante and lists famous people who have passed by.   

These include Catherine of Siena, Dante himself, Machiavelli, a couple of Popes, and Napoleon.  
Remind me to ask someone to Photoshop my name onto the plaque.

Days out - driving

What really lured us to the Italian Riviera was the prospect of exploring the medieval mountain villages and countryside in the Ligurian Alps.   
According to local tourist office literature, the Ligurian Alps “look like miniature Dolomites with their steep walls...”  
Having experienced exhilarating hill-walking and skiing with a brilliant provider[3] in the real Dolomites close to Italy’s border with Austria, the geological similarities are recognisable.

The distances from Ventigmilia to these mountain villages may be short (not much more than 10 miles), but the accessibility by car requires the driver’s utmost attention.   
Winding narrow roads are a challenge for any competent traveller, driver or cyclist.  
Because of this, the safe arrival at destinations feels like a minor achievement.

Our first drive was up the aptly named Nervia valley.   
The Times made it sound so appealing, how could we resist:

“Moments from Ventigmilia are lush steep mountain valleys with homely hilltop villages, stunning sea views and babbling brooks hidden in the hinterland.”

Overlooking the Nervia valley
It was their correspondent[4] who gave us the idea to visit the medieval village of Dolceaqua.  As she put it

“its single-arched 15th century bridge looks like the baby brother of the more famous one in Mostar in Herzegovina.  The bridge leads across the river to the vast ruins of an ancient castle that was painted by Monet.  He was one of the thousands of tourists in the 19th century...They dubbed these hilltop settlements rock villages as they were hewn out of the mountainside and some rooms are virtually caves.”
Dolceaqua in September 2013
One of Monet's Dolceaqua pictures

Leaving Sweet Water, we tempted fate once more and ventured along the narrow winding road to the neighbouring village of Apricale.   

Apricale streets and art

Apricale, hanging village

The Times’s scribe had informed me

“Many villages in Liguria’s beautiful mountain valleys were virtually abandoned as people moved to the coast where jobs schools and hospitals made life easier.  But more recently better roads have tempted them back home and towns such as Apricale have begun to open up to tourism.  Its houses tumble down the hillside and one enterprising family has been buying rooms across the village to open an albergo diffuso (a hotel with rooms scattered across the locality[5]).... Many of the houses are still abandoned and there is a wonderful old-world atmosphere...”

As a local tourist brochure explained,

“to enter Apricale (the village of the sun) which is decorated with original murals by contemporary artists, one passes steep lanes, covered alleyways and stone archivolts before reaching the main square.  Here the scene is quite stunning: sweeping stone arches, a pre-Renaissance drinking trough with fountain, painted loggias and palazzo, and the imposing buttresses of the castle.”

So impressive was the experience that we had to see more.  
Although it looks quite close to Apricale on the map, Perinaldo was one stop too far as I did not relish any more dicing with tortuous bends on that day.  Procrastinate.

Two days later we take a different route out of Ventimiglia.   
The repeat of the challenge to arrive unscathed in these mountain villages makes it seem all the more of a privilege to see them.

Perinaldo’s fame arises from the fact that it is the birthplace of Louis XIV’s astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the first of four generations of astronomers.   
We learned that (over two hundred years ago) Cassini identified four of Saturn’s moons and the division of its rings, that he calculated the distance between the earth and its nearest planets, and that he measured the time taken for Mars Venus and Jupiter to complete one rotation – to mention just some of his achievements.   

An observatory is housed in the former Franciscan convent of San Sebastiano.   
And as in Apricale, art adorns walls and covered alleyways, appropriately in Perinaldo on the theme of astronomy.
I’m tempted to describe Perinaldo’s atmosphere as virtually celestial.

At this point, I have an admission to make.  On our return trip, we got a bit lost.  
We thought we would try to return via the village of Seborga, allegedly an independent principality and which has its own coinage.  
Instead we found ourselves in the small hamlet of San Romolo.   
This was a fortuitous discovery as it was time for lunch and we happened on the ideal hideaway, basking in the afternoon sun.

In a country where cooking standards seem always to be high, we had one of the best pasta lunches ever.  I refer to the family-owned Ristoranti della Ava.   
Apart from being impressed by the wonderful food, the décor reminded me of the importance of sport to this area.   
The Milan-San Remo bicycle race (won twice by Ireland’s Sean Kelly) is one of its many international events.

The restaurant’s walls are bedecked with countless metal mementoes and sepia-tinged old photographs of rally driving and racing motor bikes.   
The place is a veritable shrine to all varieties of sport on wheels.  
Now I know what a hidden gem is.

Days out – by train

I am grateful to my wife for discovering a nugget buried in the corner of a small tourist brochure, namely:-

“the spectacular Val Roja railway line that links Ventimiglia to Limone.  It offers a landscape that winds attractively through a succession of meadows, pine forests gorges and rivers that frame the enchanting villages set among the mountains.  The line was inaugurated in 1928, was almost destroyed during the war and the rebuilt 40 years later.”

Le Train des Merveilles, with 81 tunnels and over 400 bridges, stops at what used to be the Italian village of Tenda in the Valle delle Meraviglie.  It is now the French village of Tendé.  

I availed of the opportunity to practice my French in conversation with a cafe owner in the village square.  He told me that in 1947 the area voted to become part of France rather than Italy.

I was particularly interested to ask him about a note which I had read that the locals speak Tendasque.   
He confirmed that this is indeed the case, a patois derived from Italian and the dialect of Piedmontese.   
Being a Parisian, however, he was unable to unable to oblige my curiosity further.

Tendé is a perfect place for a warm afternoon’s ramble – winding narrow streets with no traffic, leading up to an imposing Church and graveyard, past old buildings that seems centuries old but not carved out of rock like the medieval ones of previous days out.

In a couple of places I observe signs on the same theme (a clue perhaps to the change of national identity) reminding us of World War 2.   
One noted a person’s name with the chilling addition “fusillé par les Allemands” and a date.

History, however violent, and cultural influences such as linguistics can be every bit as interesting for discerning visitors as an area’s food, drink and scenery.


A benefit of taking the train was the discovery of Ventimiglia’s impressive and inviting railway station.   
This pretty town has a lot going for it, apart from the old town with its imposing walls not to mention its location on the Italian Riviera and at the foot of the Ligurian Alps.

Let me highlight two other unmissable aspects.    
One is archaeological wonders, the other is culinary excellence.

On the edge of Ventimiglia there is an unheralded Roman theatre – like a small version of Greece’s Epidaurus.  
Artefacts from the site are on display in the town’s archaeological museum.  This is the Forte della'Annunziata, which overlooks the ancient Roman mule track leading to the town’s attractive Calendre sandy beach.

Before we travelled to Ventimiglia, I had speculated about its meaning, wondering what the 20,000 could be – leagues under the sea, kilometric distance to the south pole, or what?   
When I read one of the local tourist brochures my idle thoughts were completely disabused.  Ventimiglia is in fact a corruption of the Latin term Albintimilium, Alb meaning town, becoming capital city of the Ligurian Intermeli.

Exhibits much more ancient than Roman, dating from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago, are housed in the town’s Balzi Rossi Museum.   
The evidence of cave dwellers and the site, near Grimaldi village, has yielded items including small female statues and stone utensils belonging to the Cro-Magnon race.   
Awe is the only sentiment.

Speaking about food is, in comparison, a much more mundane topic, but nevertheless important to visitors.  
I have eaten many fantastic pizzas in different parts of Italy, but have never seen anything like those served in the lively Le Due Palme in Ventimiglia.
A place clearly popular with locals - always a good sign.  
Le Due Palme
My daughter (on a 3-day visit from her home in Germany) discovered it from internet reviews.[6]

One evening as my party of three ate conventionally-shaped pizzas, which were gorgeous, we noticed a family group of perhaps 16 people being served enormous rectangular pizzas, fetchingly placed on small raised stands on their dining table.   
Each of their four or five pizzas must have measured over a metre in length and about half a metre wide.  A artful combination of engineering skill and culinary craftsmanship.

Our favourite coffee shop was the convivial Caffee Paris close to Ventimiglia’s covered market.
So impressed were we with the town and its locality that, on our return we set out a list of our “useful tips” for future guests to the kind owner of our house in Salita della Croce, Mortola.   
This table was the result.


Best close beach.

Calendre, down a mule path behind the archaeological museum on the scenic road into Ventimiglia.  Sandy beach.  
Best mid-morning coffee shop

Caffee Paris, on Via della Republica, Ventimiglia, adjacent to the covered market.  Gorgeous cappuccino and chocolate croissants.
Best pizzeria

Le Due Palme, junction of Via Roma & Via Giovanni XXIII, Ventimiglia.  Try the enormous rectangular big family pizzas.

Best evening restaurant

Marco Polo, on one of the shore-front passegiatas, Ventimiglia
Quality lunch
Villa Eva, the hotel in front of Latte village’s stony beach.

Travel tip
Best way to get to Nice/Cannes etc – drive to & park at Menton Garavan train station, & travel by train.  Concession fares for senior citizens.

Valleys to drive to
The fabulous medieval villages of Dolceaqua, Rocchetta Nervina, & Apricale in the Nervia valley; the equally beautiful village of Perinaldo & hamlet of San Romolo.  Lunch in Ristoranti della Ava (a shrine to motor sport) in San Romolo is recommended.

Scenic train journey

Hanbury Gardens

Evening stroll
Le train des merveilles from Ventimiglia to Cuneo and get off in Tendé to explore the village on foot.

On your doorstep.  Deserves nomination for best labeled garden on earth.

Menton port and town centre

Calendre beach, Ventimiglia

Villa Eva, Latte

Now a little part of Italy is coming to our shores.  
In May its greatest professional cycling race, il Giro d’Italia with la Grande Partenza (this video clip is inspiring)[7] and la Maglia Rosa are coming to Ireland, north and south.

Arrivederci Roma, grazie Liguria, cin cin Belfast.

©Michael McSorley 2014

[1] The Times Travel 15 June 2013 pp26-7.”In Liguria hospitality comes as freely as the cool sea breeze.” Rosie Whitehouse
[4] Rosie Whitehouse is also author of The Bradt Guide to Liguria
[6] Trip Advisor