Letter from Europe

Ligurian passion

Issue no. 2010/16


The long-standing English infatuation with the French Riviera has been well documented, but much less has been written about English affections for the coast of Liguria. Yet the influence of the Hanbury family, and other English settlers in this part of Italy, is still very evident today.

Dear fellow travellers

The long-standing British infatuation with the French Riviera has been well documented, although in truth the towns along what we now call the Côte d'Azur were hardly very French at all when Brits first appropriated them as favoured wintering spots. It was only in 1860 that much of the Nice to Menton littoral was ceded to France by the Kingdom of Sardinia. Monaco of course jealously guarded its independence, a little coastal principality in a region of famously fluid borders.

By the time Nizza became Nice, the place was already full of hotels with reassuring names like Westminster and Windsor, and the coastal boulevards were abuzz with English voices. The French writer Alexandre Dumas could identify the English female from afar: "pale, frail women without the strength to live elsewhere, who come to Nice each winter to die," he wrote. Cemeteries along the French Riviera coast record the casualties of winter tourism. Tuberculosis was indiscriminate and colonels and counts were as likely to be afflicted as poets and philosophers.

But head east across the Italian frontier, and much less has been written about the English on the Riviera di Ponente. This is the westernmost part of Liguria, the Italian region that lies just over the border from the French town of Menton. Compared with the French side of the border, Liguria is more restrained, less ostentatiously glitzy. And yet here in the land of pesto, focaccia and green window shutters, there is also an indelible mark of Englishness.

In 1855, British readers had devoured a racy novel called Doctor Antonio: A Tale of Italy. The story was set in Bordighera and told of the romantic attachment of a young English countess to an Italian doctor, the Antonio of the title. It was not long before the English were flocking to Bordighera in their thousands and many of them were quickly seduced by the romance of the Ligurian coast.

The arrival in Liguria of the Hanbury family in March 1867 sealed the English presence on this fragment of Italy. We wrote about the Hanbury estate at Capo Mortola in hidden europe 27. It is a glorious spot, which we have visited again recently. The Italian authorities are keen to remind visitors that the Hanbury Gardens have been looked over by Italian and not English gardeners for fifty years now, a theme much to the fore in a little exhibition in the Palazzo Orengo in the Hanbury Gardens which was formally opened last Friday.

Although the Hanbury estate may have been recovered for Italy, everywhere along this stretch of coast there are reminders of English affection for Liguria. English libraries and Anglican churches in Bordighera and Alassio once served an English elite in search of winter warmth. The Brits certainly had a peculiar knack of exporting their own values and culture. During our wanderings along the coast, we found in a second hand bookshop a marvellous little volume compiled in the 1920s by Emily Rose Dickenson of Alassio, which instructed Italian servants on how best to prepare traditional English dishes for their English masters and mistresses. There was, it seems, no Ligurian substitute for real English trifle.

And when it came to the serious matter of sports, the British left their mark throughout Liguria. Italy's oldest professional football club is Genoa CFC, founded in 1893. That suffix stands for Cricket and Football Club. Whether cricket really is still played there, we are not sure, but that even the name has survived is extraordinary.

Liguria and England go together. Even the red-on-white Cross of St George was borrowed by the English from Genoa. And nowhere is the English passion for Liguria more perfectly seen than in the Hanbury Gardens. You can see our online gallery of images of the gardens here.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)