Monday, March 15, 2010
Near San Remo, Italy, just a few miles northeast of Bordighera, the tiny, self-proclaimed principality of Seborga sits on a hilltop six miles inland from the Italian Riviera. On clear days its neighboring principality, Monaco, seems just a sword's throw away.
Until his death in November, 2009, Prince George I had ruled over the 362 citizens of Seborga ever since they reestablished their independence from Italy in 1963. A flower grower by trade, George (in photo above) was elected ruler by the villagers and then went on to appoint a parliament of twenty-four priors and eight cabinet ministers. He even drew up the principality’s blue and white crest. When the prince finally succumbed to a long illness, the obituary in the New York Times stated, “He took to the throne with panache, wearing sash, sword and large rosette medallions as he held court at the Bianca Azurra bar.” He accepted no salary, never invaded another country, and never taxed his subjects. He would leave his table at a restaurant and greet visitors to his principality with a heartfelt handshake. Prince George was referred to, then and now, as “His Tremendousness” (Sua Tremendita Giorgio I).
Seborga issues its own stamps, license plates, passports and currency. The Seborgan “luigino” is worth around US $6 and can be spent in local bars and shops. The approximately 100,000 tourists who descend upon Seborga each year gobble up these coins, stamps and passports while supporting local restaurants and four B&Bs (there are no hotels as yet).
Seborga has a patron saint, St. Bernard, and even a Latin motto on its coat of arms – sub umbra sede (sit in the shade). The blue and white sentry box at the Italian border does just that – it sits in the shade.
The town center is Piazza San Martino, with its fine mosaic courtyard in front of the colorful parish church and the Palazzo des Monaci. A web of hilly alleyways, low colonnades, and cobbled streets leads from there to all corners of the village. Photos from top: the Palazzo, street scene and the Church of St. Martin.
Seborga enjoys an exceptionally mild Mediterranean climate, which facilitates the principal industry of cultivating and exporting flowers world-wide, as is the case with its surrounding Ligurian neighboring villages.
Seborga's history is ancient and colorful. In 1079 Seborga became the first Cistercian state, as the abbots were also Princes of Seborga. Thus it was Prince-Abbot Edward who ordained the first nine Templars (Knights of St. Barnard) at Seborga in September, 1118. In 2006 Prince George I reestablished the order of the Knights of Seborga.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna excluded Seborga in its redistribution of European territories after the Napoleonic wars, and even later the tiny principality was not included in the listing of territories incorporated in the unification of Italy in the 1860s. Thus monarch Victor Emmanuel II never held sway over Seborga.
In 2006, when the Prince announced his abdication, there was some tongue-in-cheek bantering between Prince George I and Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet (photo below), who came forward to claim to be the rightful heir to the throne of Seborga. She wrote to Italy’s president, offering to return the principality to the state.
But Prince George I claimed the "princess" had no right to give away his realm. The only thing they did agree on is the belief that Seborga is the oldest principality in Europe.
George I, formerly known as George Carbone, declared Seborga’s independence from the Italian state because, he claimed, when the principality was sold to the Kings of Savoy and Sardinia in 1729, the sale was never officially or properly recorded. Ever since then, Seborga has been missing from historical records that would challenge its independence, including the aforementioned effort to unify Italy in 1861 and the formation of a republic in 1946. Local historians note that Benito Mussolini himself said that Seborga “certainly does not form part of Italy.” The Vatican also supports the independence of Seborga.
"Princess" Yasmine claimed to be a descendant of a much earlier ruler of the principality, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th century. “This girl cannot give away something she does not own,” said Prince George, convinced that his challenger is “not even a princess,” because neither the Holy Roman Empire nor the House of Hohenstaufen still exists. And besides, it is Prince George who, upon discovering the town's charter in 1950, led the populace in re-establishing themselves as a Monaco-like independent city state, after the populace had elected him Prince Regent.
Prince George I, at the age of 70, announced his abdication in January, 2006, after an uninterrupted reign of 43 years. While the declaration by the Prince stated the reason for his abdication as “a need for renewal, as the throne needs new energy,” it appears that the Prince and the Italian Mayor of the town were locked in a bitter dispute over modern paving materials that the Italian authorities wanted to install in the forecourt of the ancient (1258) Cistercian church of St. Bernard (shown below).
The Prince bristled that the Italian representatives were not respecting the history and importance of the church site to the citizens of Seborga. Adding to this crisis a pretender to the throne knocking at the door, in November, 2006, the Prince, in a shocking turn of events, rescinded his announcement of abdication. It was reported in the press as “His change of mind,” with a capital “H.” Ironically, it was in this same church of St. Bernard that a solemn funeral mass for Prince George was held on December 5, 2009; the Prince had died on November 29 at the age of 73.
Italy itself doesn’t pay too much attention to Seborga’s claims to independence, so long as the citizens continue to pay taxes to Italy and vote in national elections. Seborga also has a mayor, who serves as the official representative of the town to jurisdictions of Italy. Skeptical Italians have accused Seborga's independence as being nothing more than a ruse to attract tourists. Well, it hasn’t hurt.
August 20 is celebrated as Seborga’s National Day, with the Festival of St. Bernard (St. Bernard, the Patron Saint of Seborga, died on August 20, 1153, during the Crusades). Your humble blogger was on Seborgan soil on August 20, 2001, when hundreds of blue and white flags were waving their welcome to any and all comers.
Our party even shared a luncheon with H.R.H. Prince George I, by simply taking a table in the restaurant where the Prince was enjoying his midday meal. We were received warmly and were well nourished by a plate of local rabbit with a mustard sauce. Unfortunately, we had business in Monaco and could not stay in Seborga for the subsequent religious procession, chamber music concert and parade. Imagine our dismay to learn that we had missed the annual “Seborga Tutta Birra” (beer festival) held in late June; in addition to barbeques and live music, we had been denied personal witness to the annual “Miss Maglietta Bagnata” (Miss Wet T-shirt) competition organized by the Seborgan Tourist Office. Apparently Seborga celebrates traditions both ancient and modern. We also learned, by reading a pamphlet in the tourist office, that in the previous year Seborga had officially applied for membership in the United Nations.