After having lived in Canada most of our lives, where you can drive for hours before hitting another urban centre, we find Europe to be a small and easily manageable continent for travel purposes. We feel pretty lucky to now be living in the southern part of France, surrounded by never ending sights and nature, and a short driving distance to the neighbouring countries. We regularly take advantage of this closeness and we visit these places sometimes several times a year. One of our favourites and the closest to where we live is Italy. I don’t think I have to tell you why we love Italy. I mean, what’s not to love? Where do I start? First, there are the warm and friendly people. And, of course, there is the beautiful Italian language, which everyone should try to learn even just a little bit. Then, there is the food. I have not yet met anyone who did not like Italian cuisine. And of course, there is the architecture – so beautifully integrated with the country’s unique geography. I can’t get enough of the little picturesque towns perched precariously on some coastal hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean. And then there is history. So much of it. Everywhere. Every stone has a story to tell. Every town has its own unique soul. For all these reasons, we love to visit Italy as often as we can.
This past weekend, a friend and I treated ourselves to a little moms’ weekend getaway to the Liguria region. My friend has lived in Italy before and it was quite a boon to travel with someone fluent in the language and familiar with many intricacies of the culture. I felt like we had an in into some of the secrets of the locals because we were able to communicate in Italian. I am a firm believer that knowing a language of a country you are visiting, even a little bit, opens many doors. It’s like being a member of a secret club and being invited to the VIP lounge.
Let me tell you about how we spent our weekend in the province of Imperia.
We took advantage of the fact that every Friday in the town of Ventimiglia and every Saturday in the town of Sanremo (aka San Remo), there are weekly street markets that the French love to frequent. In fact, they love it so much, there are bus tours organized from Provence to Ventimiglia and Sanremo. My friend and I were not too interested in these markets, but we did want to get to Ventimiglia for as low a price as possible. So we took advantage of the bus ride organized for these tours. By doing this we saved a good amount of money in highway tolls, cost of fuel and parking. In fact, finding parking in these towns, especially in Sanremo, is a difficult task.
For our accommodations, we stayed in a “locanda” in Sanremo, a type of a bed & breakfast establishment. Our locanda was very tiny with just a handful of rooms and it was family-run. It was located in the heart of Sanremo which we chose purposely so that we could walk to all of the sights we wanted to see. I am certain that due to my friend’s fluency in Italian, we got an even better service than people who don’t speak the language. I only say this, because when I read the reviews of our locanda online, the only complaints by foreign tourists were “the lady at the front desk only speaks Italian”. To us, that ended up being an advantage. We got a lot of advice about what to see, where the locals like to eat, the best cafe nearby, etc.
But enough about the logistics. Let’s move on to the fun part, which is what we did with our weekend on the Riviera dei Fiori.
As soon as we arrived in Ventimiglia on Friday morning, we began our sightseeing (while everyone else who came on our bus got busy perusing the street market). In fact, a lot of people never get to appreciate the true worth of this town as they see it only as a place to do some inexpensive shopping. But Ventimiglia has a lot of history pre-dating the Roman Empire and we were eager to discover it.
There are quite a few things to see in this small city of 25 000 inhabitants:
If you only have one day in Ventimiglia, choose wisely as you will not have time to do all of these:
- The Hanbury Botanical Gardens dating back to the 19th century and operated by the University of Genoa.
- The Balzi Grossi Caves – beach, caves and unusual red cliffs overlooking the sea.
- National Prehistoric Museum of Balzi Rossi – an archaeological site and museum containing artifacts from the Stone Age.
- Ruins of ancient Ventimiglia or Albintimilium as it used to be called.
- Ecovillage Torri Superiore – You can stay here in a guesthouse or you can volunteer and learn about organic permaculture and living in an ecovillage. I really want to come back here with my family during warmer months. What a great opportunity for kids (and adults) to learn about how to grow food.
- Centro Storico – or the Old Town. This place was the focus of our day spent in Ventimiglia. It is situated on a hill overlooking the Ligurian Sea and the newer town (from which it is separated by the Roia River). It is picturesque with winding narrow streets and a multitude of churches, like the Cathedral of Ventimiglia, Church of San Francesco and Church of San Michele. Be prepared to have good walking shoes on. This seemingly innocent exploration of the old town took us about five hours.
Sanremo (sometimes written as San Remo) is only 14 km from Ventimiglia. For a long time now, Sanremo has been a beloved destination for sun seekers from colder parts of Europe and a playground for the rich and famous. The town’s main attractions are: its August music festival, its cuisine, and gambling (Sanremo hosts a poker tournament as part of the European Poker Tour).
What to see in Sanremo:
We managed to do all of these with the exception of the whale/dolphin watching. I plan on being back for that with my family.
- Russian Orthodox Church – I am drawn to unusual things that seem out of place and this was my absolute favourite in Sanremo. What a rare gem of eastern ecclesiastical architecture outside of Russia! You may be wondering, as I was, why this church even exists on the Italian Riviera. The explanation is quite curious. Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna used to spend winters here in order to improve her poor health. Her stay in Sanremo did wonders for her recovery and in order to thank the town, she donated funds to purchase palm trees to decorate the main avenue. In gratitude, the town named this avenue after her as Corso Imperatrice (Empress Avenue). After her first visit, many Russian aristocrats (including members of the imperial family) followed her example and began to winter in Sanremo. Tsarina’s wish was to have a Russian Church built here. And this became reality 30 years after her death. The church is quite a sight, even though it is currently under renovations. I plan on returning once the repairs are finished to see it in its full glory.
- Corso Imperatrice – this beautiful avenue is dedicated to Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna because of her gift of palm trees to the city of Sanremo. It is an elegant street featuring beautiful grand hotels from the 19th and early 20th centuries, built to accommodate the aristocratic guests who used to come here.
- La Pigna – this is the Old Town of Sanremo. Like in Ventimiglia, it is on a hill, so wear comfortable walking shoes. If you love history and old architecture, this is a place to visit.
- Whale & Dolphin Watching – you can book a boat tour with this company to observe whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. Be prepared that the trip might last a good half a day so plan accordingly. The tour is always accompanied by a marine biologist to explain what you are seeing.
- Porto Vecchio & Porto Sole Marina – if you arrive by sea, you can moor your boat here in the most prestigious marina on the Italian Riviera. But whether you come by boat or not, this harbour, filled with both pleasure and fishing boats, is beautiful to look at, day or night.
- Mercato Annonario – if you are looking for local food products, like Ligurian cheeses, pestos, hams, sardenara, focaccia, Taggiasca olives, etc – this is a great place to add to your itinerary. My friend and I sampled a variety of local delicacies and stocked up on great sauces and pestos.
To finish off our eventful day in Sanremo, upon the recommendation of our lovely hosts in our locanda, we dined at a local trattoria called A Cuvea (Corso G. Garibaldi, 110, 18038 Sanremo IM, Italy). It is a cozy, family-run place frequented mostly by locals, serving simple fare typical of Liguria. We had an amazing dinner of ravioli with sage filling (typical of this region) and tagliatelle all’Amatriciana (I am getting hungry while writing this), followed by two meat dishes. The atmosphere was casual and felt like home. There were entire families dining complete with grandparents and children. The servings were generous and the prices were very affordable. I will definitely come back here.
Sanremo is very pretty and especially so now, before Christmas, when the town is decorated with beautiful light garlands. Whether you like to explore old towns, indulge in amazing cuisine, lazy on the beach in the summer, gamble or shop, observe marine life, or even volunteer in an ecovillage – there is something for everyone in both Ventimiglia and Sanremo.
Have you been to Liguria? What do you like to do there? What is your favourite Ligurian dish?