Some readers may not be aware of this, but Italy is just round the corner from the French Riviera… In fact, if you are in Menton, you can easily walk across the border! The Italian town of Ventimiglia is located at the terminus of the coastal railway line that runs between Nice and Monaco, so you can easily have an “I’ve set foot in Italy” moment during your visit on the Riviera and add it to your countries’ list if you’ve never been to places like Rome, Florence or Venice.
Ventimiglia is pretty much like any other border town, so nothing too spectacular, but most visitors tend to travel there for its (in)famous Friday clothes and leather good market. I figured last month that I may as well give it a go one of these days to see what it is really like and if the crowded trains and traffic jams encountered every Friday were actually worth it, so I took a train early on a very warm and sunny September’s morning and gave it a go. Here’s my verdict…
Yes, the train that I hopped on in Monaco was actually jam-packed with elderly French people with shopping carts so I figured there must be some amazing deals at the Friday market. After a short 25-minute train ride along some stunning coastline (keep your eyes for some great panoramas of Monaco between Roquebrune-Cap Martin and Carnolès stations, as well as some amazing coastline and surfing beaches between Menton-Garavan and Ventimiglia itself), I got off in the rather grotty Mussolinian-style train station and followed the crowds through the rather picturesque “new town” towards the covered market.
This part, with typical local fruits, vegetables and fish and open virtually all week, not just on Fridays, is actually very pleasant and well worth the visit. The prices are generally lower and the quality higher than what you will find across the French border, with plenty of typical Italian produce such as dried tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
However, the typical Friday section left plenty to be desired: plenty of stalls of rather unoriginal and not so cheap (ie. more or less the same price as in the high street) handbags, shoes and clothes: I’ll leave you to judge from the photos below. So the watchword for this part is: don’t bother braving the Ventimiglia crowds on a Friday, it really isn’t worth it.
Despite this, the rest of Ventimiglia is definitely worth a look around. The place might seem pretty shabby and run-down when you arrive and certainly not as pristine as the French side of the border, especially Menton, but has its hidden charms, which you don’t have to wait until Friday to discover, unless you want to share the town with “bargain” hunting tourists who will get ripped off.
Get away from the bustling shopping streets full of cheap and tacky alcohol shops surrounding the train station (yes, certain spirits like pastis are much cheaper in Italy than in France) and head towards the Roya river that separates the modern part of town (where the train station is) and the older medieval section, known as “Piazza”, on top of the hill. On the way, you can see some typical Mussolinian/fascist ie. rather ugly architecture in the town hall that dominates the square near the market and the river.
You can first follow the river down towards the beach which is extremely pebbly but affords lovely views of the coastline westwards in the direction of France, and where you can see Monaco and Cap Ferrat on a clear day. The beach area is nothing too special, just a long strip of beach restaurants which are quite dead anytime other than summer evenings.
Then head back across the Roya with the pedestrian footbridge: the area is very pleasant, with fishermen, plenty of waterfowl (ducks, swans and coots) and very large trout swimming in the shallow and crystal clear river water.
Walk up the slope to the heart of the medieval old town: to be honest, Ventimiglia’s “Piazza” is quite picturesque with plenty of small alleyways, old stone houses, ancient shops and a little square but there are plenty of much more charming and original old Italian villages nearby, especially in the Nervia valley, a bit further inland. But if you only have a day in Italy, you may as well check it out. There are also a couple of churches worth a photo and some nice views over the Roya Valley and the coastline, even though some parts of the area, heading northwards, are nastily industrial and bisected by the Nice-Genoa motorway.
One good thing about visiting Italy is always the food: generally prices tend to be similar to those found in France, especially in upmarket places, but the quality is normally much higher, so better value for money. In the bustling shopping streets of the “new town” surrounding the train station, you can find plenty of cheap and good quality bakeries and cake shops to get a nice snack, as well as some good Italian coffee and ice cream.
The best places to eat can be found in the area across the Roya river, just below the old town, with a few cheap pizzerias and plenty of seafood and fish speciality restaurants – for those of you who like fish, you should try some Ligurian specialities such as fritto misto (fried anchovies and sardines) – in Italy you tend to get real fish as opposed to the frozen calamari rings and plastic “gambas” that you will find on the menu of some tourist traps in France.
For pasta lovers, Pasta e Basta (see Tripadvisor page) is the place to go, just around the tip of the old town, facing the sea. The homemade pasta is absolutely out of this world, though far from cheap by Italian standards (anything between 10 € and 16 € depending on how refined your combination of sauce and pasta is). But honestly, I think it is worth it, given the size and quality of the portions. The place is very popular with people travelling across the border from France and Monaco for a nice meal, so make sure you book in advance, especially on weekends.
By train: the easiest option is by far the train, as Ventimiglia is the terminus of the coastal line that runs from St Raphael, via Nice and Monaco. Allow about 25 minutes from Monaco (3.50€ single trip ) and 50 minutes from Nice (7 € single) – this option is the smoothest and the most comfortable but, as I mentioned earlier, try to avoid Fridays if you don’t want your ankles knocked in by shopping cart wielding old ladies looking for a pseudo-bargain at the market. Timetables on the French train website.
By bus: it is possible to get there by public bus, but a real hassle so only do it if you want to save some money but have a huge amount of time to spare, or else if you have an inexplicable phobia of taking the train… Take the line 100 bus from Nice or Monaco to its terminus in Menton (1 €, a bus every 15 minutes on average), then switch over to the 905 bus in the direction of Tende – it’s a 15 minute, 1 € ride to Ventimiglia but the buses on this line are very few and far between (see timetables here) so I would just take the train.
By car: nice and quick by the A8 motorway east from Nice (45 minutes) or Monaco (30 minutes) but you need to find somewhere to park once you get into town, try the railway station for minimal hassle. Don’t even try to venture anywhere near Ventimiglia by car on a Friday (this includes if you’re heading to any of the inland valleys) as the traffic across the town is a nightmare and you’ll immediately regret it. But if you follow my advice, you won’t be visiting on a Friday, so it won’t matter!
So in conclusion, if you only have a day to check out Italy and are using the train, Ventimiglia is just about worth the visit: the atmosphere is relatively pleasant and you definitely feel, coming from France, that you’re in a different country, which is your main reason for going there. Just don’t bother waiting for the Friday market, believe me, it really isn’t worth the hassle – on the contrary, try to avoid that day if you can. And bear in mind that if you have a bit more time, there are much nicer places to visit nearby in the hinterlands behind Ventimiglia or a bit further down the coast, as long as you have a car.