by Pia Parolin
On the occasion of a 50 year anniversary of a friend, we wanted to organise something really special with a group of ladies. And in the year 2019, is there something more romantic than being received by a prince? And furthermore, receiving a passport of one of the smallest micro nations in the world? All of this is possible in the picturesque village of Seborga, hidden in the charming hills behind the Mediterranean Sea in Northwestern Italy, near the French border.
If you are looking for an old beautiful Italian village with friendly people who smile when you photograph them, Seborga will fit the bill nicely and add picturesque views on top of it. And much more than this!
In a small rented bus we went up the winding roads which lead from the Mediterranean sea through fields of flowers and greenhouses. Just before reaching the summit of the hill, a monument indicates that we enter the Principality of Seborga, an area of 14 sq. km located in the Italian region of Liguria.
The Principality´s flag with blue and white stripes and a red cross in the middle was waving in the mild wind on a bright sunny day. At the entrance of the village stood a man who was awaiting us: we learned that he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs in person. After a warm welcome he gave us a guided city tour which started with an old church right at the village entrance.
Seborga is an old perched village up on top of a mountain, with houses that are a few hundred years old, standing so close that they seem to be all one. Beautiful squares open up in the middle of the village which was founded in the year 954.
Since 1079, Seborga has a prince: the Pope gave the abbot the authorization to bear the name of prince. However, Seborga’s independence ended in the Middle Ages, when Seborga became part of the feudal holdings of the Counts of Ventimiglia. In the 18th century it was sold to what would become Italy. But after a long break and winding historic events, during which this little town was just one of hundreds of Italian villages, the Prince came back!
In the year 1963, a Seborgan named Giorgio Carbone brought back life into Seborga’s history of independence. He found documents in the archives of the Vatican which demonstrated, as the Seborgans claim, the validity of the status of Seborga as independent from Italy. The sale of the city was invalid as proven by some documents found by the villager. So for most residents of Seborga, this tiny village is not part of Italy! They consider it as an independent principality and declared their independence, without weapons and wars. Recently, a new Prince – Marcello Menegatto – was elected for seven years. Yes, in Seborga the status of prince is not inherited but is elective. This way, Seborga stands in line with other elective monarchies like the Vatican, Malaysia or Samoa!
Today, the village counts 300 inhabitants who all know each other – much in contrast to most Italians who have no idea that there is a hidden monarchy amongst them! Seborga residents all speak Italian but they have their own Seborga id cards, their own stamps, and their own local currency. Since 1666, the local money is the Luigino, a copy of the then common French “Gold Louis”. While is not accepted outside the village walls, Prince Giorgio I started reprinting the coins in the 1990s. One Luigino is worth 6 US Dollars, making it the most valuable currency in the world!
Seborga has its own special holidays with festivities and parades, and its volunteer defense force, originally known as the Knights of St Bernard.
The portraits of the reigning couple are present at every corner of the village. Prince Marcello I is married to Princess Nina, a German lady he met during college times in Montreux, Switzerland. She is much appreciated by the Seborgans who elected her as “Crown Councillor” (Consigliere della Corona).
We got to know all these stories and histories while we walked through the medieval streets under the lead of the Minister. He took us to the summit of a mountain top location where the view was breathtaking.
From there, the view spans over 4 countries: The Principate of Seborga, Italy in the foreground, the Principality of Monaco (the high buildings behind the villa and the trees) and France in the background.
The entire village is medieval, hardly accessible by cars. When you walk through the small shadowy streets, you breathe the air of ancient history. After every corner you find a new picture postcard with the stereotypes you expect in rural Italy. Seborga, like surrounding Italy, is traditionally catholic and the big churches document this in a beautiful way.
We learned that the local economy is traditionally focused on flower farming, agriculture, and tourism. Seborga is home to the Mimosa and is currently one of the major producers of this beautiful yellow flowering tree in Italy.
Tourism is not really massive, so for those who love to discover silent roads and a unique museum with a huge collection of fantastic musical instruments and old gramophones, this is the right place to spend a couple of hours.
After we visited the historical site where independency was declared, it was finally the time to receive our Seborga tourist passports! We were very excited and looked forward to meeting a real prince! But then, sadly, we were informed that the Prince was not there to receive us. In fact, on his house at the entrance of the village, the flag was not hoisted, which indicates that the Prince is absent. The villagers told us he might be back on time to meet our ladies group who came all the way to celebrate his Principality.
Finally, the Ministry of Interiors came to meet us in a room with memorabilia. She handed each one of us our brand new passport, with our pictures and an official stamp and signature.
After a nice lunch on the main square, we left Seborga with the intention to come back one day and meet the Prince in person. The Seborgans told us that he is usually in residence during festivities, when he takes the time to greet every single person who is present.
Maybe this village will never really be independent, maybe the Seborgans play a game for themselves, but they do it all together and they all have this smile on their lips indicating: “Yes, we know this all seems weird, but we love to live outside reality here and there. We play together and share wonderful moments like in a fairy tale.”
Who cares about the real world and real politics that lie far away, down the winding road? They all have a beautiful story to tell and they know that their struggle for independence is as serious as the passport they release to visitors. No one has to fear weapons and wars to protect their Principality. Their weapon is the open smile which let us be part of their fairy tale for a day.
Being a photographer, sharing these smiles and capturing them with our photographs is very rewarding. By spreading their story with our pictures we can contribute to their dream of being a real Principality.
About the Author
Born and raised in Italy, Pia Parolin studied biology in Germany and in Brazilian Amazonia. A passionate tropical ecologist with PhD, she always carries her camera with her since the day her father gave her the first Minolta at the age of 9. Living on the French Riviera since 2005, she loves to capture light, colours and movements.
Want to see more of Italy? Join me here in September 2019 for a photo tour of the best my country has to offer.