A Second Look At San Remo

6th September 2013

Katie Beck returns to the ‘City of Flowers’

Once thought of as Italy’s answer to the glamorous beaches of Cannes, somewhere along the way Sanremo seems to have fallen from grace. But the ‘City of Flowers’ is every bit as alluring now as it ever was, with upscale shopping streets, a glamorous old world casino, countless delectable Italian dining options, a market for every day of the week and a wide stretch of sun-drenched coast at its feet.

Situated in the north west of Italy, in Liguria, Sanremo began as a Roman settlement. As the eastern boundary of the Riviera dei Fiori (riviera of flowers) – named for the region’s historic flower production – and with an idyllic Mediterranean climate, the city is still awash in fragrant climbing jasmine and bright bougainvillea blooms. Its ancient past is perfectly preserved in La Pigna – the steep and curving ancient walled city carved into the hillside overlooking the town below.

About an hour east of Nice Cote d’Azur airport and three hours west of Milan, Sanremo is easy to get to and served by a coastal train and ample bus routes. Once you arrive, you’ll be spoiled for choice in every way possible. Right in the centre of town, Via Matteotti, is the main street, lined with all manner of shops and cafés with tables outside: perfect for people-watching. Caffè Ducale, a bar/restaurant at 145 Via Matteotti, is elegant and refined and offers everything from a simple espresso to a large wine and champagne selection.

Shopping options range from high street to upscale with windows full of lingerie, evening gowns, furs, men’s suits and stunning leather shoes, all vying for attention. As soon as the summer sun fades and temperatures drop below 15 degrees the streets are full of women in fur coats and you get a glimpse of what it must have been like in these same streets in the 1950s and 60s when starlets and millionaires vacationed here.

Another nod to a glamorous past is the Ariston Theatre, home to the annual Sanremo Music Festival, which put the city on the map back in 1951, and inspired the creation of the Eurovision Song Contest. Over 60 years later, the festival is still going strong and attracts thousands of Italians and foreigners each summer.

The Casino

Beyond the shops, Via Matteotti leads to the imposing Grand Casino. Built in 1901, it’s credited as the birthplace of telesina – a variant of five card stud – and plays host to both Italian and European poker tournaments.

The city also has a lasting connection with Russian nobility, starting with Empress Maria Aleksandrovna who was captivated by Sanremo after visiting in the late 1800s. So bewitched was she by the beauty of the seafront that she had a row of palm trees planted there, and the wide, tree-lined promenade now calls her name to mind: Corso della Imperatrice. Strolling along the walkway with soft breezes and views of the vast Mediterranean, it’s easy to see what won her over.

Years later, the Russia/Sanremo connection still endures. Next door to the casino, the Russian Orthodox Church with its beautifully ornate, colourful onion domes has just celebrated hundredth birthday. Entrance to the small interior is 1 euro, but it’s the view from the outside that is most impressive.

To experience the true glamour of this iconic city, book a room at the aptly named Royal Hotel Sanremo. Built in 1872, it has undergone a massive renovation in the last few years and is the picture of class. With a large swimming pool facing the ocean, private beach access, a handful of smart restaurants and bars, and stunning rooms, it deserves its reputation as the best hotel in the city. Luxury doesn’t come cheap, though. Standard rooms start at around 370 Euros per night.

For a real taste of local flavours, head to Mercato Annonario, a large indoor marketplace in Piazza Eroi Sanremesi at the base of the old city. It’s a cavernous space packed with fresh fruit, vegetables, Italian cheeses, handmade pasta, aged meats and gleaming bottles of the freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil for which Liguria is known. The impressive fish market is right next-door, and sells freshly caught fish and seafood direct from the Mediterranean. Both markets are open Monday to Friday from 6am to 1:30 pm and on Saturdays until 7:30 pm.

On Tuesdays and Saturday mornings the surrounding streets are transformed into a bustling clothing market with stall after stall of cashmere scarves and sweaters, and tables piled high with colourful leather handbags, gloves and shoes.

For a glimpse of history, cross the street facing the market and begin the steep climb through St Stephan’s Gate, the gothic stone archway which marks the entrance into Sanremo’s old city. The area consists of steep winding streets with vaulted archways built into the hillside and is thought to resemble the scales of a pine cone, hence its name: La Pigna. The walled city is said to have been founded in the year 1000 and served as a fortress against Saracen raids in the Middle Ages before it was overtaken by the Genoese in the 13th century. Strolling along the nearly perfectly preserved ancient streets really is like walking back in time. The narrow stone roads are still mostly residential with a few tiny grocery stores and restaurants scattered throughout.

To reward your efforts head to the Spaghetteria il Mulattiere, named for the mules that used to be tied along the steep streets and well worth the uphill climb. This family-run establishment oozes charm and the atmosphere is overwhelmingly authentic and welcoming. You can’t help but feel that you’re sitting in someone’s well-worn dining room. The food is classic Italian fare with an emphasis on local Ligurian produce and fresh seafood and the wine is both good and cheap.

Whether it’s the mild Mediterranean climate that tempts you, or the sumptuous Italian cuisine, or the overall glamour of the Italian Riviera, Sanremo has all the ingredients for a fabulous city break. Just don’t tell anyone…

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