My friend Teresa from Alliance Français in Atlanta famously quipped “I didn’t learn French at French class but sure did make wonderful friends”. As for me, I’m still struggling with French but I can confidently say that I made a few amazing friends. On my second day in Nice, I embarked the 9-am train from Nice to Villefranche to catch up with one such friend Lucinda. Lucinda spends a month at a French immersion school on the French Riviera almost every year and has nifty ideas for things-to-do up her sleeve. So when she told me that the Italian border was just a hop, skip, and a train ride away from Nice, I knew it would be a shame not to go. So a day trip to Ventimiglia, Italy it was.
The baller that Lucinda is, swapped the train idea for an Uber so we could practice French with the driver while driving there. So after about an hour of exchanging with our young Parisian Uber driver who moved to the south for a better life, we stuck our toes into Italy and had our “I crossed the border from France to Italy just to buy mozzarella and pesto moment”.
Italian Black-Friday (every week) if you will
Real talk: Italy boasts some of the best food in the world and the produce used to make it is at its very best in the many local markets around the country. In Ventimiglia, the local market is especially a biiig deal. Every Friday, a large open-air market opens up on the beautiful boardwalk by the Ligurian sea. Farmers and vendors come from all over Liguria to sell locally-grown produce, freshly baked goods, wine, flowers, herbs, plants and other artisanal products at dirt-cheap prices. So don’t be surprised if you people marching on the roads or on the train with massive shopping carts. It’s probably the French on a serious mission to shop until they drop 😉
Fortunately for us, we were visiting the day after the crazy Friday crowds had retreated, so it was relatively quiet. Even though we didn’t get to witness the open-air
madness market :P, there was still a covered market (open every day) that sold ripe fruits, crisp veggies, delicious diary and other Italian goodies for reasonable prices. Not ones to squander a good opportunity, we spent a fair chunk of the morning stocking up as much food as we could humanly carry around. After many deliberations, my spoils included two jars of basil pesto, half a kilo of tomatoes (YAY for the metric system!), a bottle of lemon olive oil, truffle and egg pasta, a creamy block of burrata and a jar of hazelnut jam. YUM! Pro-tip: If you ever end up in an Italian farmer’s market, do yourself a favor, and buy everything you can because it doesn’t get better. You could eat a raw tomato and it will be better than dessert you have ever tasted.
After many deliberations, my spoils included two jars of basil pesto, half a kilo of tomatoes (YAY for the metric system!), a bottle of lemon olive oil, truffle and egg pasta, a creamy block of burrata and a jar of hazelnut jam. YUM! Pro-tip: If you ever end up in an Italian farmer’s market, do yourself a favor, and buy everything you can because it doesn’t get better. Even the raw tomatoes are delicious and juicy. Before Italy, I never felt that way about a tomato or any other fruit for that matter. Except for mangoes ofc, that’s whole new story.
Fresh off the Uber in Ventimiglia, Italy
All the grocery-shopping made us hungry and we turned to the locals for lunch recommendations. Thanks to a friendly local’s suggestion, we ended up at the terrace of a charming restaurant called A Modo Mio a few blocks down the covered market in the new part of the town. Then Lucinda stepped out to make a call and I had my first awkward FOB moment. There was a little tray on the table and when the waitress brought me a basket of bread and olive oil, I poured the olive oil into the tray. Then I proceeded to scoop pieces of bread with olive oil from the tray. The waitress returned to take my order, she looked flabbergasted at my setup and burst into laughter, invited her explaining something in rapid Italian. Later I learned that I had mistaken the ashtray for a dish. EW EW EW! LOL! We all shared a laugh. By then formalities (and my shame) were out of the door, so I just told the waitress or Lucinda (I can’t remember) to surprise me, which is a scary game to play when you are a vegetarian really. But luckily for me, the story ended well and the waitress’ pick blew my mind. I was served a local specialty called “barbagiuai”, sort of looked like dumplings if you will, with butternut squash and cheese. The dish was so flavorful and each ravioli pasta melted in my mouth. Mamma Mia! You can’t not go to this restaurant if you find yourself in Ventimiglia. 🙂
Strolls at the bridge over River Roia
After the scrumptious lunch, we decided to take a break from eating and shopping for food (How obnoxious!) and explore Ventimiglia beyond its culinary exploits. We crossed the bridge from the new town into the old town and entered the city walls. Until the 5th century, Ventimiglia flourished as a Roman town called Albintimulium. Perched on a hill, today the old town is wonderfully preserved and still retains a medieval air. We spent the entire afternoon exploring the haphazard network of cobbled streets. We frequently paused to drink water from the gargoyles at the quaint squares and to marvel at the rustic houses and the historic Romanesque church. When we reached the top of the hill, we were greeted with a cool sea-breeze and picture-perfect views of the Ligurian Sea. There were no other tourists besides us. The locals were hospitable and welcomed us with big smiles. My favorite thing about the day was watching chubby bambinos playing soccer in front of the main church and cheering them on. Before catching the train back, we enjoyed macchiatos at the café outside. It was a day well-spent I would say. La Dolce Vita even! 🙂
Have you ever visiting this fascinating and rustic town? or any other border town for that matter? What is your favorite?