I freely admit it, I’m a travel elitist. I love finding picturesque villages off the beaten path, discovering obscure sites yet to be popularized in guide books, tasting unusual wines from far flung wine regions and visiting postage-size countries that most people have only read about in books or seen in movies. So when I heard about Seborga, a tiny principality hidden in the mountains off the Ligurian coast of Italy, I knew I had to check it out.
While no international organization actually recognizes Seborga as an independent state and many think the independence claim is nothing more than a marketing gimmick to attract tourist dollars, it does have a rich history dating back to about 950 when the territory was ceded by the counts of Ventimiglia to an order of Benedictine monks. The claim for status as an independent state is based on the fact that the sale of Seborga to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in the late 18th century was never properly registered. In addition, there’s no mention of the Principality in the 1881 Act of Italian Unification. Regardless of the authenticity of their claim, the description of the Principality reminded me of the faraway exotic destinations used as locations in the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road Pictures of the 1940’s.
Seborga comprises about 8 ½ square miles and has about 300 full time residents. It has its own currency, issues its own postage stamps, has its own license plates and maintains a small volunteer defense force. The drive from Ventimiglia is not very well marked and my GPS was totally confused about where to turn. But after circling Bordighera a few times, we finally found the correct turn onto the SP57 and we were off on “The Road to Seborga”. And what a road it was! It was a steep winding spiral with only a flimsy guard rail between you and sudden death. And while it was officially a two-lane road, for much of the journey there was really only enough room for one car, so you had to be constantly be on the lookout for oncoming vehicles. As the crow flies it’s only 10 miles from Ventimiglia to Seborga, but because of the slow pace due to the narrow winding road, it took us a good 45 minutes to reach our destination.
Upon entering the principality, we were greeted by an empty guard house and a sign proclaiming “Benvenuti nell’antico Principato di Seborga”. While this is more of a photo opportunity than an actual border crossing, the sign held the promise that we were crossing over into a strange new land, similar to the exotic destinations that Hope & Crosby explored in their Road pictures, like Bali, Singapore and Zanzibar. The town itself is your typical perched village, with great vistas of the countryside and picturesque winding streets filled with ancient buildings. As we entered the town on a late October day, it was suspiciously deserted, and we wondered if this journey was going to be a waste of time and debated whether we should turn around and have lunch on the warm and sunny coast, rather than wander the streets of cold and windy Seborga. Just as we were about to leave, we spotted a stylishly-dressed man with a cane strolling towards us through the main square near the main parking lot. He gave us a polite “Bongiorno.” We could tell by the look on his face that he was wondering why we were trespassing in his town. Fortunately, my travel companion spoke fluent Italian. She explained that we were visiting Americans here for the afternoon and we wanted to visit the church and then have a nice lunch somewhere in town. He gave us directions to the church and suggested that we have lunch at Ristorante Marcellino’s, where coincidentally his son was working. Not wanting to upset Il Signore and his family, we quickly agreed that dining at Marcellinos was a great idea and thanked him profusely for his recommendations.
Before settling down for some lunch, we walked the length and breadth of Seborga (which wasn’t very difficult, as the old town is quite small), stopping at the 17th Century church of San Martino and a few souvenir shops along the way, where we browsed a selection of local products. After purchasing some local wine, we headed over to the official tourist office of the Principality, where we were shown replicas of the royal crown, the royal scepter and the royal sword, all of which were available for sale in the official gift shop. I passed on those items, but I did spend 10 euros for the official Passaporto di Seborga. With my newly acquired passport and some Seborgan wine in hand, we walked down to Via Miranda, where Marcellino’s was located.
The current owners of Marcellino’s, Danilo de Paola and his wife Patrizia, took over the restaurant in 2015 having a strong desire to express themselves in the culinary field. They kept the name in honor of the current Prince of Seborga (Prince Marcellinono I). Their chef Ivan, originally from Milan, has traveled the world learning about the culinary traditions of each country he visited. He has taken that knowledge and uses it to cook simple regional Italian dishes but with an international flavor.
Before my visit, I was advised that Seborga was nothing more than a tourist trap and the restaurants here were of the same quality as those awaiting the busloads of tourists in the old town in Monaco. But contrary to expectations, Marcellinos was mostly filled with locals and there was none of the mingling of tongues that you often find at a popular tourist destination. We took advantage of the Specialità Funghi menu and ordered an amazing appetizer of freshly picked porcini on a bed of carpaccio covered with shaved parmesan. For our entrees we had the Pesce del Giorno (Branzino) and the Coniglio alla Seborghina. The Coniglio (rabbit) was served with polenta, local cheese and some more fresh porcini. Marcellino’s prides itself on using local ingredients. In addition to the mushrooms and cheese, there was also local olive oil, bread and a bottle of Serborgan wine.
The food was impressive in both presentation and taste, the service was friendly and the view from the terrace of the surrounding countryside was spectacular. In short, it was a most memorable dining experience. A meal fit for a prince. Or in this case, a couple of visiting American tourists. The only things missing was an appearance by Dorothy Lamour portraying a damsel in distress.