Pasta and palm trees en route to Provence

It’s the last place Italians go to grab a real cappuccino before crossing the border into France, and it’s the first place they go for a fix on the way back. You might say Ventimiglia, the border town between Italy and France, is the Windsor-Detroit corridor of the Riviera. But with better coffee.

The French flock to the tiny seaside Ligurian town for inexpensive chocolate and liquor as well as the legendary Friday market that swells through its streets, stretching along the beachfront boardwalk and hugging the sea. Every week, rain or shine, the market stalls – and there are more than 500 of them – tempt throngs of visitors with everything from cashmere sweaters and leather shoes to Hello Kitty handbags and craggy wedges of Parmesan cheese.

Beyond its reputation as a retail therapy resort, the other reason for visiting Ventimiglia is a practical one: People taking the train between France and Italy are obliged to stop here. This wasn’t always the case. Trains used to go directly from say, Marseilles to Milan or Genoa to Nice, until the SNCF, France’s national railway service, and Italy’s Trenitalia failed to renew their contract for 2010. Now, passengers have to stop at the Ventimiglia station, buy tickets and change trains before continuing in either direction. The inconvenience is exacerbated by the fact that this station offers no escalators or elevators, so travellers are forced to lug their luggage through the process.

But there’s good news too. Ventimiglia, which may seem uninspiring at first blush, offers many delightful and delicious ways to break up a long day of travel. In fact, most of its popular diversions can be reached within a 10-minute walk of the station. That’s great news for visitors who opt to stroll into town with suitcases in tow and may wish to stay for only an hour or two. The train station does offer a baggage check service, ideal for anyone who wants to go beyond the carnival of commerce and sample something other than restaurants boasting “menu touristique” (hamburgers and fries).

The first thing to know is that Ventimiglia is actually two towns in one – the mostly modern lower town outside the station, and Ventimiglia Alta, the medieval town located across the River Roia, its colourful crumbling façade perched high on the crest of a rock. Visitors who arrive by train should step out of the station and follow the street in front of them that widens into the Piazza della Liberta, a large square dramatically lined with palm trees. If it’s a Friday, it will be nearly impossible to avoid being swept up in the bargain-hunting buzz of the open-air market that spreads in every direction from this intersection. Here, you can also find an entrance to the stunning public park that is filled with plenty more palm trees as well as fountains, benches and delightful children’s play areas. It’s a great spot to rest weary feet, enjoy a picnic or while away hours with energetic kids.

For those looking to experience some of the town’s true local flavour, start the day where the locals do, at the town’s other market, the Mercato dei Fiori. Feast your eyes on the stunning selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh handmade pastas, breads, fish and cured meats and cheeses. Watch for the area dedicated to local growers and producers where grey-haired nonnas proudly display gorgeous leafy greens, fresh herbs and beans plucked from their gardens, as well as their own marinated taggiasca olives.

Heading in the direction of the old town, look for a coffee bar and gelato shop with a name that is hard to forget: “Hey! Remember.” Owner Lillo Di Franco has been running this neighbourhood haunt with his wife, Margherita, for 24 years. She is responsible for serving superb cups of espresso while Lillo – a bit of a mad scientist in the kitchen – dreams up new ice cream flavours, his personal passion for more than 40 years. Some recent creations included white chocolate and olive oil, beet, local banana and various wild fruits and flowers he picks in the mountains surrounding Ventimiglia. The lemon gelato is made with fruit from his garden and has the perfect sweet-tart balance.

Fuelled with caffeine and sugar, it’s now an easy stroll across the Ponte Doria footbridge over the Roia River and up the narrow cobbled streets and steep alleyways of Ventimiglia’s beautiful old town. From the Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of the Assunta to the 11th-century octagonal Baptistry and along the 16th-century walls of the town to the isolated monastic church of San Michele, there is much to explore.

The fact that most other visitors to Ventimiglia will be busy bartering over leather goods at the market means you may have the medieval streets to yourself.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Getting There

-By train from Italy: Trenitalia’s Genova-Ventimiglia line (www.trenitalia.com; $21).

-By train from France: SNCF’s Marseilles-Nice-Ventimiglia line (www.sncf.com/en_EN; prices vary).

-By plane: 40 kilometres from Nice airport; 150 km from Genoa airport.

Where to stay

Hotel Sea Gull Via Marconi 24; 39-0184-351726; http://www.seagullhotel.it. Near the town centre, with a view of the sea.

La Terrazza dei Pelargoni Via Garibaldi 24; 39-347-26-08-908;www.laterrazzadeipelargoni.it. In the summer, the homemade breakfast is served in the terrace-garden in this bed and breakfast in the medieval town.

Where to go

Gaziello Frantoio Da Olive Via S. Secondo 14 – da Via Cavour 17; 39-0184-351456; www.oliogaziello.com/oliogaziello/home-e.htm. In a residential building behind the town’s main street is a family-run olive-oil mill. Bottles of the delicately flavoured nectar are sold here at a small fraction of the price.

Geppy’s Wine Bar Via Hanbury 3; 39-0184-358109. Open for lunch, closed Sundays. This is a family-run trattoria with an inexpensive menu of Ligurian dishes (pastas, stockfish, wild boar) that change daily. Steps from the train station.

Pasticceria Viale Via Cavour 56; 39-0184-352869; www.pasticceriaviale.it. This century-old pastry shop is the place to find traditional and regional specialties. Also famous for Rossina cake made with red wine and for fashioning objects from dark chocolate.

S.W.