My husband and I are lifelong fans of the remarkable 19th Century Scottish writer George McDonald. A poet and Christian minister, McDonald wrote books full of heartwarming characters who overcame hardship with grace and integrity and showed there is infinite potential for good in flawed people (I need to dig those books out!). When we learned that George McDonald was buried in Bordighera, a small coastal town in the far northwest corner of Italy, my husband talked us into making a “pilgrimage” to find McDonald’s grave. We set off on a train from Florence to Bordighera with my parents and way too many suitcases. The cemetery in Bordighera was our only aim and we knew little to nothing about the town. When I lived in Genova, the capital of Liguria, for two years, I usually spent my free time traveling the other direction, towards Portofino and on to Florence.
But SURPRISE! We discovered that Bordighera is full of charm, history, and good food. Having lived in Italy half my life, I should not have been surprised because every paesino (hamlet) has traditions to share and centuries of stories to tell.
Bordighera is a small town on the Italian Riviera, about twelve miles from France. It is known as the “City of Palms” because they provide the fronds used by the Vatican every Palm Sunday. We visited right before Easter, so we heard the story many times of this 500-year-old tradition, and the fact that this is the northernmost point in Europe where palm trees grow.
Straight off the train, I made my companions stop at a focacceria (focaccia shop) to get farinata (…it’s called farinata in English also) before we even dropped off our bags. They had never tasted it, but I had fallen in love with it during my two years in Genova and was eager to eat it again. Farinata is to Liguria (the Italian Riviera region) as focaccia is to the rest of Italy.
Farinata is a type of thin, unleavened pancake, made from chickpea flour. It originated in Genova in the 1200’s and later became a typical food of the region. It is baked in a really hot oven, so the surface gets crusty, the edges get crispy, and yet the inside stays moist. The taste is hard to describe. Savory and yummy is all I can come up with! You must try it. I attempted to make farinata recently. It is one of those recipes that with only three ingredients (chickpea flour, water, olive oil) is somehow still hard to make! Farinata is not widely known, even in Italy, and you won’t find it outside of Liguria.
After dropping off our bags, we began on our “pilgrimage” with a visit to “Casa Coraggio” (Courage House), George McDonald’s house. He named it in tribute to his motto: “Courage! God mend all”. A plaque on the house reads:
“In this Casa Coraggio from 1879 to 1902 lived and worked the Scottish author George McDonald, 1824-1905.”
The first surprise was that on the same building is a second plaque, this one to Edmondo De Amicis. His children’s book Cuore (Heart) has been read by every Italian school child for the past 100 years and I remember it fondly having read it as a child. De Amicis died in Bordighera in 1946 in Casa Coraggio and the plaque commemorates Cuore and the writer who was once the most widely read author in Italy. It reads:
“The 15th of November 1946, here where he left his mortal remains, Bordighera placed and dedicated to Edmondo De Amicis a symbol, in lasting memory from the generations in whom his work inspires goodness and love.”
George McDonald and family were not the only English to live in Bordighera. There was a period at the end of the 19th century, during which the English guests of Bordighera outnumbered the local population which at the time amounted to around 2,000 inhabitants. They came because of the natural beauty (50,000 olive trees and 20,000 palms supposedly at the time), balmy air, and peaceful lifestyle.
So it is not surprising that there was an Anglican church and an English Cemetery in Bordighera. They were our next stops on our “pilgrimage.” The church is close to Casa Coraggio surrounded by lush foliage. The restored church is now a multicultural center. On our way to the English Cemetery, by one of my husband’s famous shortcuts (!), we came across our second surprise. Posters of Claude Monet paintings affixed to walls or railings, overlooking the scenery that inspired the Monet painting. We stood where Monet painted and tried to see the brilliant light and colors that Monet captured. Yes, Monet also had a stay in Bordighera in 1884. In all Monet painted 35 landscapes while in Bordighera and you can happen upon one of his “sites” almost anywhere.
We came upon the cemetery from above, descending a steep rocky path into the mystical quiet of headstones surrounded by lush flora and imposing palm trees. McDonald’s ashes are buried here, marked by a simple cross, along with his wife Louisa and daughters Lilia and Grace.
Having paid our respects to our favorite writer, and documented the occasion with plenty of photos, we headed to find food and found our third surprise…Bordighera Alta (literally Bordighera High). It is the oldest part of the city with narrow streets and little
piazzas dating from medieval times replete with its own legend of salvation from pirates. We entered through Porta del Capo (Door of the Cape – maybe! There are lots of meanings of capo in Italian) after a short climb. There were abundant restaurants to choose from, touting fresh catch of the day, pizza, and fresh pasta. We picked one at random and were not disappointed. We chose our entree from a platter of fresh fish caught that morning. I chose the orata (sea bream – sounds better in Italian). It’s flaky white meat is not too “fishy” and delicious!
The surprises kept coming: The Argentina Promenade, longest pedestrian promenade of the Riviera, inaugurated by Eva Peron in 1947, with the beautiful blue/green Ligurian Sea on one side and Bordighera on the other; Sant’Ampelio church at the end of the promenade, built in the 11th century; the Villa Regina Margherita di Savoia (the Queen Margherita of Savoia villa), the wife of King Umberto I, king of Italy – now a museum site.
After our whirlwind 48 hours, we boarded our train for the Veneto, a reunion with friends, and lots of other charming, interesting Italian places.
So while COVID is still keeping you shackled to your home country, get out a map of Italy and pick a small town in any region of Italy, and plan your next trip. You won’t be disappointed! It will be full of wonder and surprises!