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
Sharing a border with France, the ancient
beachside town of Ventimiglia marks the beginning of the Riviera dei Fiori. While 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.