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Destination: Italy

Move Over Monaco

The hill town of Seborga, where a 'prince' plays the ruling game

May 04, 1997|PATRICIA BEESON | Beeson is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada

SEBORGA, Italy — "Attenzione!" said the "prince," stabbing his index finger at me as I again struggled to break in. Prince Giorgio I, the 60-year-old bachelor ruler of the would-be principality of Seborga near Italy's border with France, was in the process of delivering a monologue on his realm's historic claims to being a principality--entirely independent of Italy--and was quite unstoppable. Talking steadily, His Serene Highness reached for his pack of Nazionales resting on the table in front of him. He had, in fact, recently cut back to 80 cigarettes a day, but this, I suspected, wasn't to be a morning of restraint.

While the prince lit up, my friend Mark Dezzani, who had come along as my interpreter, seized his opportunity. Mark, raised in England, of Italian parents, knew everyone in Seborga, having spent 10 years here. But, in the manner of low comedy, the prince would deliver a seven-minute spiel, forcing Mark into one-minute English summaries.

My eyes wandered between translations--for through the windows behind the prince's head, the October sun shone over a stupendous view, and 1,600 feet down the steep mountain that plunged to Bordighera, the molten Ligurian Sea reflected it. From there one's eyes swept to the right, over rich terraced slopes planted with broom brush, mimosa, figs and olives; then on to the Italian border, five miles distant; and beyond, to the serried coastal ranges of France, paling as they receded westward. And only 18 miles away, where one of the nearer mountain chains dipped to the sea, the cream-colored clutter of Monte Carlo, in that other infinitely ritzier principality of Monaco, could clearly be seen climbing up the foot of its steep cliffs against a backdrop of the Co^te d'Azur.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 1997 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Seborga, Italy--Due to an editing error, a map accompanying "Move Over Monaco" (May 4) incorrectly labeled one of Italy's neighboring countries as Yugoslavia. The correct neighboring countries are Croatia and Slovenia.

Seborga, with about 2,000 inhabitants in its 14 square miles, 362 of them in its "capital" of the same name, perches almost at the very top of its mountain. "You need a large-scale map to find it," warned my sister Mary Stewart and my brother-in-law Peter Harris, who had visited Seborga before and were accompanying us there from their home near St. Tropez.

But though small in size, this village has developed big ideas. Seborga has declared itself a sovereign state.

With opulent role model Monaco literally under its nose, Seborga's claim is not surprising. If Seborga achieved independence from Italy, perhaps it, too, could become a new tax haven for international investors. A hilltop Monaco, no less! And on what is Seborga's claim of independence based? Just that it has never ceased to be a principality, insist the Seborgans. This, in greatly expanded form, was the burden of the rambling princely monologue.

Seborga, the prince divulged, had been presented as a gift in 954 to a local body of Benedictine monks by the counts of the nearby town of Ventimiglia. The counts granted it principality status complete with its own "prince-aAbbot."

Nothing changed Seborga's situation until 1729, when it was sold to the king of Savoy and Sardinia. Or rather, thought to have been sold. For, thanks to sloppy clerical work in Sardinia's Land Property Office, the sale was never registered.

Mark--who with his ponytail and jeans looked incredibly young to be the journalist, filmmaker and commentator with Radio Monte Carlo that he is--had talked earlier about his old friend the prince, who, as Giorgio Carbone the flower broker, exports locally grown mimosa to France. "Giorgio's been regarded as prince since 1963, when he was elected by public acclamation," he explained. "He just seemed to grow into the role naturally. He was a mover and shaker, organizing fiestas in his garden and playing the princely part in a horse and carriage. Seborga's always been called the 'Ancient Principality,' so people just started to call him 'prince.' "

But it wasn't until Seborga's annual Feast Day of St. Bernard on Aug. 20, 1995, that the principality actually declared its independence. Hitherto, Rome had said remarkably little about the situation, having had far greater concerns on its plate than secessionist flag-waving. But suddenly it has sharply roused itself, and this June in San Remo the prince and his minister of finance, Giancarlo Bavassano, will defend themselves against charges that they have neglected to pay taxes on sales of four handsome new Seborgan coins bearing Giorgio I's likeness, six decorative postage stamps and other businesses. The prince naturally will argue that Seborga is independent of Italy, and therefore not answerable to these charges.

Giorgio's subjects reelected him for life in September 1995. But according to the constitution set up since the establishment of his "reign," he must be reconfirmed by the villagers every seven years. Certainly, his popularity seems undeniable and heartwarming as he makes his way through town.

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