A land of great charm and warm, cordial welcomes which is truly Italian in flavour; a crossroads where trade and tourism meet, a place where the colours of the sea merge with the hues of the Mediterranean flora, in a lush natural setting warmed by a year-round Spring-like climate which is impervious to the passing seasons. Olives, vines and citrus trees dominate the hillsides, mingling in with the nurseries and their crops of flowers, evidence of human toil and a thousand-year-old civilisation which has transformed the appearance of the local area.
Along the coast there are beaches and gardens, welcoming hotels and villas set amid the green; further up, the valleys are home to ancient hilltop villages, plateaux, mountains and untouched landscapes. On the border between Italy and France, the reddish cliffs of capo Mortola hold evidence of settlements dating back to the late Palaeolithic. Nearby are the Hanbury Gardens, truly unique for their landscaping, geomorphological layout, microclimate and botanical collections. The colours, perfumes and flavours of the Riviera are epitomised by its cooking: natural, simple and delicious. Vegetables are a favourite ingredient in the “poor” cuisine of the Riviera; foods are dressed solely with the purest olive oil, produced by crushing taggiasca olives, a small, fleshy black variety will small stones. The taggiasca produces more than just oil; it yields spremuta d’oliva, an olive juice which abounds with goodness.
The dishes of the Riviera are exceptionally delicate -some credit must go to the wonderfully light oil used to dress them – making them perfect for special occasions with an extra touch of the exotic. They form part of the “Mediterranean diet”, an easy to follow model for healthy, balanced eating. Foods which evoke the traditional flavours of the countryside, the very different but beautifully fresh tastes of the forest and vegetable garden: “foreign” spices are not added to the foods of the country, with the exception of a pinch of pepper, nutmeg or chilli. Wood-fired ovens are used to cook dishes such as the soft but crisp “pasta cu-a pumata” (a variation on the pizza which is quite different from its Neapolitan cousin), courgette flowers stuffed with vegetables – never meat – and herb tarts which clothe their vegetable filling in a wafer-thin layer of pastry. Different ingredients are used with each new season (chard, boraggine or herbs, peas, artichokes, trombetta courgettes, pumpkin).
In some areas of the Riviera, salt cod is roasted on the hot stone base of the oven, flaked, mixed with boiled white beans and dressed with mild chilli peppers in vinegar and olive oil. Curunéte are “necklaces” of new potatoes in their skins threaded onto a length of wire like beads and roasted; the wire is pulled out and they are eaten as they are, sprinkled with salt. “Cundiun” brings out all the fresh flavour of delicious home-grown tomatoes while “pumate séche” is a centuries-old, natural way of keeping in all their goodness for the Winter. The tomatoes are dried in the sun, wrapped in basil leaves and stored in glass jars filled with oil.
When it comes to first courses, ravioli are unrivalled for their shape and ingredients. Pasta is rolled into long narrow strips and filled with chard or boraggine, egg, grated grana padano cheese and marjoram and pressed together at the ends. Minestrone is even more delicious with bigareli, tiny pieces of home-made pasta which are rubbed between the fingers. Main courses stem from country-dwellers’ traditional habit of making the best of what is available; there are delicious rabbit stews (the rabbits are fed on grass and foliage with not a trace of ready-prepared feed in sight) cooked in earthenware dishes, goat, kid, lamb and game. Kid pouch, made from the skin and ribs of the front quarter, is stuffed with aromatic herbs and oven roasted for an appetising dish. All the skill and imagination of home-cooking goes into making pansarole, aniseed-flavoured crostoli or fried pastry cakes which are served with warm zabaglione, and michéte, with their highly significant shape and inimitable flavour. These pastries are the secular stars of the festival held on 15th and 16th August every year; a festive group throngs the streets of Dolceacqua, carrying the strangely shaped michéte in wooden tubs on donkey back. They stop beneath the windows of houses where the most beautiful girls of the village live, calling out “a michéta!…” and offering their wares. Ruling over the wines of the Riviera is the majestic Rossese di Dolceacqua D.O.C., a noble wine which is strong and full-bodied by nature. It is ruby red in colour (or garnet if aged), soft, aromatic and warm on the palette, with a natural minimum alcohol content of 12°.
Riviera Ligure di Ponente D.O.C. wines include a number of outstanding whites such as “Vermentino”, pale straw yellow in colour with a distinctively fruity, delicate bouquet and dry, refreshing and well-rounded on the palette, with a minimum alcohol content of 11°.Pigato, varying shades of pale straw yellow in colour, has a characteristically heady, winey bouquet, a full, dry, slightly bitter, almond-like flavour and minimum alcohol content of 11°. The Riviera dei Fiori, then, is more than a land of colours, sea and climate. It is the pleasure of enjoying traditional foods baked to age-old recipes, skilfully blended to create a healthy diet for all.
The Caves of Balzi Rossi
Hidden below the village of Grimaldi which rises steeply out of the sea are the caves of Balzi Rossi. Their name comes from the rugged morphology of the local area and the reddish colour of the rocks.
Homo erectus sought refuge here some two hundred thousand years ago, making use of the deep caves and vertical crevices in the rock. The importance of the site in pale-ethnological terms was first theorised by the 18th century naturalist, de Saussure, and later backed up by the research which Prince Florestano I of Monaco carried out in 1846. Excavation work by Italian and French teams brought to light a large number of finds which are now kept in the national museum of prehistory, founded by Sir Thomas Hanbury in the late nineteenth century.
Housed in the museum are complex stone tools and ornaments and fossils of animals from hot periods (elephants, hippopotami and rhinoceroses) and cold periods (marmots and even reindeer), exceptional evidence of the climatic variations which occurred from one geological era to the next. The area has also yielded anthropological finds: archaeologists have discovered remains dating back to the late Palaeolithic in the form of members of the “razza dei Grimaldi”, distinguished by their markedly Negroid features, and the skeletons of several men and a young woman, buried with full funeral honours, which can be traced to the “Cro-Magnon” genus.
The artistic skills of our prehistoric ancestors are reflected in the soapstone statuettes or Venuses – stylised figures of women used as symbols of fertility – and the unique depiction of the Prewalskii horse, carved from rock by a hunter-cum-artist some twenty thousand years ago.
The Gardens of Villa Hanbury
The Hanbury Gardens, created by Thomas Hanbury (a Londoner who made his fortune in Shanghai and fell in love with this part of the coast and its truly unique climate), sweep across the promontory of Mortola just a stone’s throw from the hamlet of Latte di Ventimiglia. Their wholly strategic position is enhanced by the exceptionally varied panoramas set amidst lush green vegetation. Here typically Mediterranean flora intermingles with a host of more exotic species, forming an outstanding collection of some six thousand plants, all of which are grown in the open air.
The result is a piece of heaven on earth, a garden of wonders, the only botanical park of its kind in the world, a place where every single plant, shrub, hedge and flower is catalogued and marked. The overall layout of the garden (which has been changed several times over the years to take account of new landscaping trends, contemporary tastes and the demands of botanical research) helped preserve the historic via Julia Augusta, one of the most important roads of its day (the best-kept part is still inside the garden) and pre-existing main routes; all other paths through the garden were built crossways or lengthways to the originals.
Still standing are the ancient retaining walls, esplanades and old brickwork boundary which separates the Villa from the sea. Each level of the garden is linked with steps, ramps and sweeping, flowering staircases. By creating the gardens, the entire Hanbury family (Sir Thomas, his son Cecil and daughter-in-law Dorothy Symons) set out to preserve and encourage spontaneous local vegetation in the wilder, less accessible parts and, where necessary, thicken out the ranks of trees (every possible variety of pine, olives) and shrubs (myrtle, laurel, rosemary, broom).On the banks of the stream they planted oleanders; in the shadier and higher areas, wisteria and lilac; at the foot of the walls, passion-flowers and roses, ivy and begonias; on the terraces, tumbling geraniums and pelargoniums.
The south-facing part of the garden where the flower-beds are less ordered was embellished with agaves, aloes, opuntia, cacti, cereus, spurges and yuccas. The Hanburys also created a palm-grove, Australian forest and colour-themed gardens (pink, white, orange) filled with seasonal blooms and bordered with neat hedges.An orchard and citrus plantation were positioned amid beds of anemones, freesias, irises, crocuses, jonquils and squills so that the eye is drawn to them. Each level of the gardens was given an elegant finishing touch with the addition of sculptures, fountains, tubs, colonnades and pillars, amphorae, stone seats and temples. The palazzo belonging to the Marchesi Orengo di Ventimiglia (the main building on the estate) was also left almost untouched. To make it more comfortable, the tower was raised to improve the view even further and new sections were added (the terraces, arched loggia and portico at the front of the house). Service buildings were positioned for different purposes: casa Bellini below the nurseries for staff; a cottage on the east bank of the stream (the Sorba) to house scientific experiments and the original site for Sir Thomas’s archaeological finds; the gardeners’ lodgings, cowshed, casa Natalini, stable, hayloft and custodians’ house on level ground. To irrigate the gardens and plants, the family were forced to reshape the grounds and, at some cost, design a system to collect and distribute water. In an altruistic gesture, the Hanbury family donated the gardens to the people of Italy. Upkeep is now the responsibility of the Botanical Institute of the University of Genoa. Next to part 2