Friday, 12 September 2014

Italian Riviera - disappointing

What does the Italian Riviera conjure up for you? Something like the French Riviera only not so ritzy but perhaps more rarified and exotic?

Not at all; where I went it was a disappointing, scarcely interesting backwater.

I caught the train from Nice in France to Ventimiglia in Italy. The two locations are only separated by a bit of coastline but are very different. OK, you have to consider that Ventimiglia is a large town and not what I would consider a city though it may think it's one. It's located on the coast in Liguria, 130 km (81 m) southwest of Genoa by rail, and 7 km (4 mi) from the French-Italian border, having a small harbour at the mouth of the Roia River, which divides the town into two parts. Ventimiglia's urban area has a population of 55,000.

Despite its ancient history there was little of historic interest to see. On a hill was a monument but what it was I couldn't find out, how to get up to it I couldn't see, and it was surrounded by decaying residences which looked like they might end up like Brazilian favellas one day.  I walked for hours trying to find something interesting to do. I walked towards the waterfront below the aforementioned monument thingee. There was little to assist anglophone tourists.

Just ahead of me was a guy with shoulder length wavy hair sporting a Black Magic Peter Blake Tee Shirt. Intrigued, I stopped him to inquire if he was a yachtsman. The guy spoke scarcely any English and tried to explain he knew who Blake was but bought the T Shirt because it was a brand and he liked it, that's all. So, not very interesting and I wasn't impressed with all the commercial logos on it which were meaningless.

Ventimiglia is known for brand ripoffs. I find it hard to believe the terms Black Magic, Peter Blake are simply a brand, if so it's an insult. If Blakexpeditions had a line of clothing sold to raise money for environmental work I could understand it, but this just seemed souless as there was no mention of Blakexeditions, the company Sir Peter founded. I wonder what Lady Pippa would think.

A few restaurants were scattered along the waterfront but weren't all that busy. No wonder, the food was awful and hugely expensive. The service wasn't good either. During the day a few folks pottered around on the uncomfortable stoney beach but there weren't that many of them despite it being high tourist season. Clearly, a lot of tourists know better than I about the non-excitement of the Italian Riviera.

Desperate to find something redeeming I took a bus trip inland to Dolceacqua. This is the most important medieval town in the Val Nervia and the extreme west of Liguria. The town is made up of two villages: the original ancient centre, and the other from the nineteenth century, connected by a medieval stone bridge. The ancient part is towered over by Doria Castle, which is reached among picturesque alleys, and artisan shops. Monet liked this town, to which he dedicated four works.

It does have some charm with its river and castle and alleyways but beware that English is not generally spoken by folks in these parts. You need French or Italian to be able to communicate. That includes at train stations, on buses, in shops. They simply won't or can't speak English but our experience of buying an art print was very positive. The artist took great care to wrap the framed print in bubblewrap and paper so it would arrive via suitcase, safely to NZ.

Other points would include: that the castle is not available for entry for 2-3 hours at lunchtime, which totally wrecks trying to take much interest in this town's tourism; that you also need to be vigilant or you won't know when to get off our bus at the correct stop. Expect to be assailed by smokers anywhere you try to eat; this part of Europe, like France, has not evolved beyond letting smokers pollute the lives of others.

We stumbled by accident on a cemetery which proved interesting as it's laid out in a different style to what I'm used to. Ashes were in doored cavities, bodies were interred. All in all, the cemetery was clean and cared for and always had visitors there.

Back in Ventimiglia it was time to explore the famous markets. Every Friday a large part of the centre of town and close to the waterfront is given over to pedestrians and markets. People come from Nice and Menton to look for bargains. Some find them, others get ripped off with fake copies. Many get fed-up with the Friday traffic jams and head back home again, having done no shopping. Fortunately for us we had no car to worry about; we just walked and looked at belts, bags, kitchy jewellery, low quality clothing.

The Saturday markets in France have better Italian products than what I could see offered here, but a stroll around the markets is still an entertainment if you don't mind crowds and heat.

To sum up, if you've got plenty of time up your sleeve go check out the Italian Riviera and slurp an outstanding artisan ice-cream, but I'd still say stay clear of it and spend your time in France. You'll get better service, better food, better accommodation and a much richer cultural experience.


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