Ventimiglia, Italy’s last town before the border with France, greets the tourist in three different guises, not least in terms of logistics: archaeological, Medieval and modern. Archaeological Ventimiglia (on the eastern side of the modern town) dates back to Roman times. In this veritable open-air museum one finds an arena with the first level of steps still intact, the “porta di Provenza” (gate to Provence), insulae and domus, baths and mosaic floors. All this is evidence of a golden age for the Roman city, the time of municipium cum suffragio, when Ventimiglia was the administrative centre of a larger district which included a number of other towns (“ville”). Medieval Ventimiglia stands high on the crest of a rock, dominating the right bank of the river Roia. It can easily be seen from a distance thanks to its imposing walled boundary, cathedral of the Assunta, octagonal baptistery and convent of Lateran Canonesses, built into the side of which is an eye-catching double staircase leading to the baroque church of Sant’Antonio Abate. The layout of the town mirrors that of typical Ligurian villages: narrow cobbled streets, steep alleyways, covered passage-ways, stone houses and archivolts. The main street (now Via Garibaldi) is dominated by aristocratic palazzi (belonging to the Galleani and Orengo families, amongst others) with imposing marble atria and staircases, solid doors, vaulted ceilings, coats of arms and bas-reliefs and, inside, courtyards and hanging gardens. Standing along the ancient route to Provence, porta Canarda (13th century) is the last external fortification on the western edge of the town. It is decorated with a marble bas-relief depicting the arms of the Banco di San Giorgio, evidence of its reign over Ventimiglia. Following the sixteenth century walls of the town until the houses peter out, one comes to the isolated church of San Michele, built in warm-hued stone. The apse, round arches and narrow windows remain intact in their primitive form. A flight of stairs in the centre of the church leads down to the crypt, the vault of which is supported by columns (one of which is a Roman milestone; two of the granite pillars are said to come from the remains of an ancient temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux). Modern Ventimiglia is crossed by three routes, the direction of which is determined by the bridge over the river Roia: the town centre and sea, France and Piedmont (with its ancient wooden and studded iron leaves, the sixteenth century porta Piemonte marks the way to Colle di Tenda, the pass which links Liguria to Piedmont). In the centre of the town one finds elegantly eclectic palazzi, well-stocked boutiques, a range of facilities for tourists, excellent hotels and amusements. Along the seafront, embellished with palm trees, parks and gardens, there are private and public beaches, night spots, restaurants and trattorias. Plum-central Via Cavour (the town’s main street), Via della Repubblica and Piazza Martiri della Libertà are thronged with every possible expression of Ventimiglia’s commercial life; here even the most cosmopolitan tourists will find something to their taste, no matter how unusual. Then there is the large open-air market held every Friday, a traditional rendezvous for visitors – most of whom come from France – who fill the whole town with a buzz each week, combining shopping and a pleasurable weekend away with a little sightseeing. What better opportunity for a glimpse of sixteenth and seventeenth century art than the central church of Sant’Agostino with its exquisite convent. At the top of the town stands the “forte dell’Annunziata”, a chance to admire centuries-old furniture from ancient Albintimilium, housed in the Girolamo Rossi archaeological museum. The calendar of not-to-be-missed events which bring visitors back to Ventimiglia year after year includes the Battle of the Flowers (July) and Medieval August (trials and tournaments between the Sestrieri or quarters of the town).
Bordighera and the Community of the Eight Towns
Bordighera has neither a history of its own nor roots in ancient times. What one might call its two cores sprung up some five hundred years ago: the oldest is the Paese Alto, the more recent the Marina. Both lie in Burdighetta close to the promontory of Sant’Ampelio. To understand Bordighera better, it is worth remembering that it was once part of the “Magnifica Comunità degli Otto Luoghi”, a community of eight towns (ville) which broke away from the free Commune of Ventimiglia (with the Republic of Genoa as its willing accomplice) in the 17th century and, with the arrival of Napoleon, joined the Ligurian Republic. The reference to the “Otto Luoghi” is not fortuitous; it epitomises the geography and attractions of an area which grows in interest from villa to villa, starting with Borghetto San Nicolò. The name of the village is still remembered today for the thirty-two families who left it behind in 1470 to found the first fortified settlement of modern Bordighera close to the promontory of Sant’Ampelio. Along the ridge which leads down from mount Caggio stands Sasso. From a distance it looks more like a fort or castle than a village, encircled as it is by walls (the remains of the semicircular towers are still visible), traces of which can be seen in the houses which stand there today. It is set on a rocky platform and surrounded by greenhouses, olive-groves and palms.
Further up the rocks with panoramic views over the mimosa and broom-filled valley below is Seborga, a tiny “principality”. The fascinating history of the village dates back to the late tenth century when the Benedictine abbot of Lerino (the islands of Lérins lie in French waters on the Côte d’Azur, off the celebrated town of Cannes) bought the fiefdom from Count Guido di Ventimiglia, conferring the title of prince upon himself. At the time the purchase was not a particularly good deal (rocky crags, a few chestnut and pine woods and land which required back-breaking work before it could be farmed), if one discounts the fact that the abbots of Lerino founded a mint and began turning out coins (casts of the coins can be seen in the Bicknell museum in Bordighera). Of course, history is full of oversights and Seborga was the subject of just such an event in 1815; the Congress of Vienna overlooked the village in its efforts to redistribute European territories after the Napoleonic wars. Today Seborga is fighting for its independence, helped along by the determination of its inhabitants and democratically-elected Prince (George I, a flower-grower by profession). It has its own ministers and ambassadors, issues passports and stamps and is hoping to produce its own currency, the “Luigino”. An unusual past and an exiting future for this animated ancient village which is grouped around the parish church of San Martino and the galleried palazzo dei Monaci in a web of dark alleyways, low colonnades and cobbled streets.
After Seborga, tracks and paved bridle-paths lead to Negi and then down into Vallebona (the village can be reached from Bordighera by normal road). Vallebona is one of Liguria’s oldest and most typical villages. The natural rock shines through from the walls of the houses. Below every house is a stable or cellar; polished stone steps lead up to the floors above. The dark shadows of the steep lanes and narrow, sloping streets give the arches and buttresses an air of mystery. At the entrance to the village, the remains of the archway are marked by the cracks from which soldiers would pour boiling oil onto their enemies. Beyond the gate of Santa Maria one finds the square and parish church of San Lorenzo with its picturesque stone bell tower dating back to the 13th century. The soaring bell tower of the parish church (now too modern and too pale in colour) marks out another feature of particular architectural interest: the lintel above the main door, dated 1478. Dear to the memories of the inhabitants of Vallebona is the “Rappresentazione della Passione di Cristo”, the Passion play which villagers would put on every ten years. A text in old Italian with flowing, unpolished verses and imperfect rhymes was used to great dramatic effect. Back Part 1 Next to part 3