Have the Italian Riviera all to yourself

Often overshadowed by the well-known Riviera delle Palme, the less-trafficked Riviera dei Fiori has the same azure waters, alpine views and medieval towns, without any of the crowds.

Tucked between southern France to the west and Tuscany to the east, the crescent-shaped coast of Liguria in northwest Italy has the azure waves of the Mediterranean crashing at its feet and the incredible heights of the Alps soaring above its medieval cities.

The Italian Riviera, as this swathe of coast is known, is divided into two sections. And while many travellers spend their summers on the shores of the Riviera delle Palme (Riviera of Palms) – the eastern half that encompasses well-known destinations like the Cinque Terra – the less trafficked Riviera dei Fiori (Riviera of Flowers) to the west has the same remarkable landscapes without any of the crowds.

Sharing a border with France, the ancient beachside town of Ventimiglia marks the beginning of the Riviera dei FioriWhile its most prominent feature is a train station connecting the two countries, the understated city is a living history book, with traces of human evolution ranging from the prehistoric age through the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and beyond, all delicately layered on top of each other like fossils. Beginning in the 1st Century, the city has seen thousands of years of bloody battles over territory – with the Roman ruins and crumbling Gothic architecture to prove it today.

For locals, being surrounded by so much natural beauty and history is part of everyday life. “Per noi, e normale,” (for us, its normal), said Ventimiglia native Barbara Pisano, who runs the stylish Bookaffe in the centre of town. And this nonchalant attitude is part of the city’s charm.

Unlike more famous towns and cities nearby, Ventimiglia has a sort of undiscovered feel, as if the ancient buildings and pasta shops run by generations of families have escaped the passage of time and the glare of notoriety. People are just doing what they have always done – and they are doing it exceptionally well.

Medieval Ventimiglia
Perched on steep sea cliffs, the medieval old town served as the fortified city centre through the 1800s. What remains today is an incredibly beautiful and architecturally unusual historical site.

There are four churches in the steep, winding streets – one of which, the Church of San Michele, just off of the main road via Garibaldi, is more than 1,000 years old. The granite columns that support the church’s crypt are said to be built from ancient Roman milestones.

Most of the hotels are near the beach, but there are a few places scattered throughout the steep old city streets. The most beautiful is La Terrazza dei Pelargoni bed and breakfast, where — after climbing three steep flights of stairs — you are rewarded with a rustic kitchen and two stunning balconies where you can enjoy breakfast, each one covered in succulents, climbing vines and fragrant flowers. The three rooms are spacious with flat screen TVs and stylish, modern bathroom fixtures.

Modern Ventimiglia
Below the old city, Ventimiglia has a charming, beachy feel. On Fridays, tourists flock to the cheap leather goods and cookware on sale at the rambling, weekly, open-air market that stretches around the coast. Year-round, the streets are lined with buzzing cafes, casual restaurants, family-run bakeries, upscale shops selling all manner of Italian specialties such as dried Porcini mushrooms, risotto rice and wine.

Dallorto Panetteria (1b Via Stazione; 01-84-35-10-36), a traditional Ligurian bakery, specialises in products from the nearby medieval town of Dolceacqua. Andre Dallorto opened the shop more than 40 years ago and still runs it today with his son Paolo, who said their top seller is the torta verde – a classic Ligurian pastry filled with artichokes and potatoes.

Pasta Fresca Morena, a family-run fresh pasta stall that makes their pasta and sauces by hand, has been part of the decades-old Mercado Coperto – the town’s daily covered market located on Via de la Republica - for more than 40 years. The many stalls are packed from sunrise to 2pm with fresh, fragrant fruit and vegetables – mostly grown in the surrounding terraced hillsides – plus all manner of Italian meats and cheeses and piles of fresh pasta and homemade sauces. While Pasta Fresca Morena makes 27 different types of pasta, trofie (a small rolled variety) and fresh pesto are their most popular items. Both are specialties of Genoa, the capital of Liguria, located about 160km west of Ventimiglia.

Beyond the shops and market, Ventimiglia’s dining options are vast. The seaside promenade is lined with everything from casual cafes serving pizza and pasta on plastic tables to upscale seafood restaurants offering ocean views, white tablecloths and extensive wine lists.

Ristorante Marco Polo (2 Lungmore F Cavallotti; 01-84-35-26-78) is the classiest establishment in town. Right on the seafront with its own private beach, the family-run restaurant has been serving a seafood-heavy, classic Italian menu for more than 50 years. Once through the bevelled glass doors, diners are greeted by a smartly dressed maître d' and the intoxicating scent of homemade almond and cream desserts emanating from the kitchen. Owner Marco Pani grew up working here and eventually took the restaurant over from his parents. Located right on the ocean, seafood is naturally the restaurant’s specialty, and Pani said people come back year after year for the octopus risotto and the handmade pasta with lobster and fresh basil.

Outside of Ventimiglia
With Ventimiglia as a home base, the rest of the region is at your fingertips. The mountain town of Dolceacqua is 7km north and easily reachable by bus (tickets at the train station cost 1.50 euros, one euro cheaper than if you buy them on the bus). The 15-minute ride will take you past terraced olive groves and hillside vineyards that produce the distinctive Rossese wine the region is known for.

Situated in the Nervia Valley, Dolceacqua is dominated by the striking 12th-century Doria Castle and stone bridge that was immortalised in a series of paintings by Claude Monet including one titled The Castle At Dolceacqua, completed in 1884. While the interior of the castle is empty, it has recently been refurbished for local events and weddings and is open to visitors daily in the summer and on weekends the rest of the year.

The old city, called a Tera has been beautifully maintained, its narrow alleyways dotted with pristine stone archways, inviting bed and breakfasts and quaint wine tasting cellars.

For some local flavour, Enoteca Re (21 Via Patrioti Martiri; 01-84-20-50-51) is a small, friendly wine shop and tasting room on the town’s main road with a good selection of local vintages. One street over, Ristorante a Viassa serves seafood and pasta on a lovely sunny outdoor patio.

Six kilometres east of Ventimiglia, the seaside resort town of Bordighera, also easily reachable by bus or train, has a smattering of trendy cafes and organic produce markets, a long ocean promenade lined with beach bars and glass-walled restaurants, plus a wide shoreline for sunbathing and swimming. The shore is more rocky than sandy, but many restaurants rent umbrella-covered loungers.

About 16km east of Ventimiglia, San Remo is the most well-known city in the Riviera dei Fiori and marks the western boundary of the region. With its grand casino, fabulous weather almost year round and famous music festival, which inspired the Eurovision Song Contest, San Remo rivalled Cannes as a glamorous beach destination for starlets and millionaires in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maintaining some of its glamour, the car-free main shopping street of Via Matteotti is lined with upscale boutiques selling furs, designer handbags and evening gowns. At the end of the wide pedestrian boulevard is the San Remo Casino, reminiscent of Monte Carlo with its Rolex stores and luxury cars.

Behind the shopping streets, the medieval old town of La Pigna is a maze of winding narrow streets and steep covered alleyways. Il Mulattiere (11 Via Palma; 01-84-50-26-62), a charming, family-run trattoria tucked into the steep streets, serves home-cooked Ligurian specialties such as spicy tomato soup, antipasto of local market vegetables and cured meats, and a variety of hearty, homemade pastas – the perfect end to Italy’s lesser known Riviera.