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Move Over Monaco

Beeson is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada

“Attenzione!” said the “prince,” stabbing his index finger at me as I again struggled to break in. Prince Giorgio I, the 60-year-old bachelor ruler of the would-be principality of Seborga near Italy’s border with France, was in the process of delivering a monologue on his realm’s historic claims to being a principality--entirely independent of Italy--and was quite unstoppable. Talking steadily, His Serene Highness reached for his pack of Nazionales resting on the table in front of him. He had, in fact, recently cut back to 80 cigarettes a day, but this, I suspected, wasn’t to be a morning of restraint.

While the prince lit up, my friend Mark Dezzani, who had come along as my interpreter, seized his opportunity. Mark, raised in England, of Italian parents, knew everyone in Seborga, having spent 10 years here. But, in the manner of low comedy, the prince would deliver a seven-minute spiel, forcing Mark into one-minute English summaries.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 11, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 1997 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Seborga, Italy--Due to an editing error, a map accompanying “Move Over Monaco” (May 4) incorrectly labeled one of Italy’s neighboring countries as Yugoslavia. The correct neighboring countries are Croatia and Slovenia.

My eyes wandered between translations--for through the windows behind the prince’s head, the October sun shone over a stupendous view, and 1,600 feet down the steep mountain that plunged to Bordighera, the molten Ligurian Sea reflected it. From there one’s eyes swept to the right, over rich terraced slopes planted with broom brush, mimosa, figs and olives; then on to the Italian border, five miles distant; and beyond, to the serried coastal ranges of France, paling as they receded westward. And only 18 miles away, where one of the nearer mountain chains dipped to the sea, the cream-colored clutter of Monte Carlo, in that other infinitely ritzier principality of Monaco, could clearly be seen climbing up the foot of its steep cliffs against a backdrop of the Co^te d’Azur.

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Seborga, with about 2,000 inhabitants in its 14 square miles, 362 of them in its “capital” of the same name, perches almost at the very top of its mountain. “You need a large-scale map to find it,” warned my sister Mary Stewart and my brother-in-law Peter Harris, who had visited Seborga before and were accompanying us there from their home near St. Tropez.

But though small in size, this village has developed big ideas. Seborga has declared itself a sovereign state.

With opulent role model Monaco literally under its nose, Seborga’s claim is not surprising. If Seborga achieved independence from Italy, perhaps it, too, could become a new tax haven for international investors. A hilltop Monaco, no less! And on what is Seborga’s claim of independence based? Just that it has never ceased to be a principality, insist the Seborgans. This, in greatly expanded form, was the burden of the rambling princely monologue.

Seborga, the prince divulged, had been presented as a gift in 954 to a local body of Benedictine monks by the counts of the nearby town of Ventimiglia. The counts granted it principality status complete with its own “prince-aAbbot.”

Nothing changed Seborga’s situation until 1729, when it was sold to the king of Savoy and Sardinia. Or rather, thought to have been sold. For, thanks to sloppy clerical work in Sardinia’s Land Property Office, the sale was never registered.

Mark--who with his ponytail and jeans looked incredibly young to be the journalist, filmmaker and commentator with Radio Monte Carlo that he is--had talked earlier about his old friend the prince, who, as Giorgio Carbone the flower broker, exports locally grown mimosa to France. “Giorgio’s been regarded as prince since 1963, when he was elected by public acclamation,” he explained. “He just seemed to grow into the role naturally. He was a mover and shaker, organizing fiestas in his garden and playing the princely part in a horse and carriage. Seborga’s always been called the ‘Ancient Principality,’ so people just started to call him ‘prince.’ ”

But it wasn’t until Seborga’s annual Feast Day of St. Bernard on Aug. 20, 1995, that the principality actually declared its independence. Hitherto, Rome had said remarkably little about the situation, having had far greater concerns on its plate than secessionist flag-waving. But suddenly it has sharply roused itself, and this June in San Remo the prince and his minister of finance, Giancarlo Bavassano, will defend themselves against charges that they have neglected to pay taxes on sales of four handsome new Seborgan coins bearing Giorgio I’s likeness, six decorative postage stamps and other businesses. The prince naturally will argue that Seborga is independent of Italy, and therefore not answerable to these charges.

Giorgio’s subjects reelected him for life in September 1995. But according to the constitution set up since the establishment of his “reign,” he must be reconfirmed by the villagers every seven years. Certainly, his popularity seems undeniable and heartwarming as he makes his way through town.

*

There was no mistaking that we were entering a “principality” as opposed to just any old village when we first approached Seborga up the twisting road from the A10 motorway. First there’s the sentry box, though often short a sentry, with the elaborately crested white-and-blue flag snapping in the breeze above it. Then there’s a large sign in “medieval” lettering proclaiming that you are entering the Antico Principato di Seborga. Soon after, the road swings right, affording a splendid view of the village, climbs past a few greenhouses, switches back sharply left at the tiny church of San Bernardo, and 100 yards on, comes to a halt in the Piazza Martiri Patrioti, the village’s highest point and almost its only part accessible by car.

Cats doze under parked vehicles sporting grandiose Seborgan license plates, and from the piazza’s west side, you can lean over the railings and admire arguably the finest view in Liguria. At its far end, the two busiest gathering places, Il Principe (the Prince) and the much less pretentious Bar Bianco Azzurro (White and Blue Bar--the flag’s colors), face each other in a brave show of “national” solidarity. But otherwise the piazza, though the hub of village social life, is undistinguished.

Our destination was the Il Principe restaurant, in a stuccoed, pink three-story building with a canopied terrace facing the piazza, its back rooms enjoying the view. There being no hotel, several of the villagers let rooms, and the Harrises and ourselves had, through the kindness of Mark and his English wife, Melinda, obtained two rooms on the top floor above the Il Principe. They were rented from Signora Ferrari, mother of Walter, the restaurant’s owner and Seborga’s minister of foreign affairs.

Outside the door the royal arms grandly proclaimed the Foreign Ministry. Inside, lunch was winding down for two busloads of visitors. Behind the bar in the front room, the minister of foreign affairs, his curly dark hair and beard damp with perspiration, looked utterly exhausted. He handed keys over the counter and told us in good French to head up to the top floor where his mother would let us in. An adjacent door from outside led past the restaurant’s kitchens. Skirting the crates of empties nearly blocking the stairs, we made our way up to the top floor where Signora Ferrari greeted us gracefully, also in French.

She showed us our rooms. In our shared bathroom, usually the toilet flushed. Often the hot water wasn’t. Both bedrooms were spotless, severely plain and high-ceilinged, with big, surprisingly comfortable beds, and ours at the back had glorious views. Close up, the village’s thickly clustered houses dropped in steps down the hill, red pantiled roofs atop honey-colored stone or old plaster, and above them rose the tower of the church of San Martino, its roof tiles glistening in the sun. Beautiful by day, the scene was enchanting at night, with the distant lights of Monte Carlo glowing gold.

The evening of our arrival, the Dezzanis took us on a magical tour of the village in the soft light. Along narrow streets vistas constantly opened out and closed off. There was a feeling of homogeneity about the old place, of having been created all-of-a-piece, a great, granular, golden block tunneled out by some erratic giant rabbit.

We ate dinner at a restaurant called appropriately the Osteria del Coniglio (the Rabbit Restaurant), which specialized in rabbit dishes. It was approached from a little square crammed with road-mending machines, via a narrow pedestrian alley full of little cul-de-sacs, tunnels and passages. One of these, the Via Verdi, widened into a patio hung with pots of ivy and geraniums, and here was the Coniglio, which promptly burrowed underground to an arched, painted cellar.

We were warmly welcomed by owner Graziano Ozenda and his amiable waiter, Otello, who both fell instantly in love with my pretty sister.

Though bright, it was cold on the day of my meeting with the prince. A plethora of flags and a sentry box are all that distinguishes the royal palace from the rest of a row of houses on a south-facing terrace. Standing around the box as Mark and I arrived were three members of the 20-strong Territorial Guard, khaki clad, with webbing belts and smart blue berets.

Inside the palace, a rather dusty red carpet ran across the large waiting room and up a staircase at the back. After a time, Antonello, head of the guard, came halfway down the stairs, pointed at me and beckoned wordlessly. The prince, comfortable in an old white cardigan and restrained tie, greeted us at the top of the stairs, bowing and kissing my hand. Behind him opened a very high-ceilinged room, perhaps the throne room, with immensely ornate Victorian furniture upholstered in red or yellow cut-velvet and walls painted with escutcheons. To my relief, we climbed more stairs to a smaller room at the top where the prince indicated seats to right and left of his table and we all sat down.

Two hours later, when his highness showed signs of fatigue, I asked him whether, in the event of ill befalling him, he had groomed a successor for the throne? It appeared not. “If the pope dies,” he said, “they choose another one.”

Nearby, the church of San Martino struck 12, then a minute later, as was its wont, chimed it all over again. The first time, said the prince, tolled Italian time; the second, Seborgan! He was now hungry and invited us both to accompany him to lunch. When I demurred that my husband, sister and brother-in-law all awaited me, they were promptly included in the invitation. A telephone call revealed that the construction machines in the little piazza had just cut the Coniglio’s gas supply, so we ate at the Bianco Azzurro.

Tables were pushed together and covered with blue tablecloths, a jug of marigolds, glasses and cutlery arranged on top, and white plastic chairs pulled up. Then we all--plus the prince’s bodyguard, Pierre (who had just retrieved the royal pack of Nazionales from the palace)--sat down to a splendid five-course lunch of prosciutto and salami, mushrooms, artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes and spaghetti, hot breaded venison and cold carpaccio.

The meal culminated with coffee and a choice of grappa or a deceptively mild-tasting lemon liqueur. Lunch over, it was time to bid farewell, not just to the prince and Pierre, but to the owners of Bianco Azzurro, Gigi and Maria Luisa Morelli; and with great sadness to endlessly thoughtful Mark who had done so much for us. But just as we were about to climb into our car, Maria Luisa came racing across the square and presented my husband with a great bouquet of mimosa, and me with a bottle of wine. Perhaps the recipients should have been reversed, but no matter. There were kisses and hugs and near tears all around, and in a great tidal wave of tender feelings we drove out of Seborga and down the hill to reality.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK

Seborga Board

Getting there: Fly LAX to Nice. KLM has connecting service (through Amsterdam), Delta (JFK), Air France (Paris) and AOM French Airlines; round-trip fares begin at about $750 on AOM, about $880 on KLM and higher on other carriers.

You will need a car to get to Seborga. Leave the A10 Motor Way (the French A8 becomes the Italian A10 when it crosses the international border) at Bordighera, and follow the road signs for Sasso and Seborga. The road is narrow and winding but perfectly manageable.

Where to stay: Several villagers rent rooms, some of them quite nice, but they tend not to have hot water. The safest bet is Signora Yolande Ferrari, who speaks Italian and French, and has two double-bedded rooms and possibly a third room on the top floor above the Il Principe Restaurant, owned by her son Walter; about $60 per night without breakfast. To book, call the restaurant (telephone 011-39-184-22-3570) and ask for Signor Walter Ferrari, who speaks Italian and French but often has English-speaking employees.

Down the hill, in the northern outskirts of the town of Bordighera, is the Bel Sit Bordighera Hotel (Via dei Colli 120, 18012 Bordighera [IM], Italy; tel. 011-39-184-26-4114 or 26-4499, fax 011-39-184-26-4134). Plain, with all modern conveniences and English-speaking staff; bed and breakfast, about $85.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.


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