Here is something for your bucket list:
Crossing Borders on Foot
We are crossing borders all the time, more than any generation before us, but choose to do so in the most uncivilized way possible – most of the time above the clouds on our way from one identikit airport to the next.
Trains and cars are little better. Often, we only notice that we are in a different country when the mobile phone network has switched to another provider (If it’s BFR, it must be Belgium.) We have managed to become alienated not only from our natural environment but even from the systems that we ourselves have imposed on it, in some process of “meta-alienation”. How twisted is that?
There is something to be said in favour of the Iron Curtain: crossing a border without knowing it would have been much harder in the Old Days.
I once spent half a night in a coach on a border crossing from Bavaria to Czechoslovakia, half asleep and the other half of me freezing to death, and whenever I looked up, I got the same view: a dimly lit station, a watchtower, a barbed-wire fence and men in uniform scurrying to and fro.
On another coach from the USSR to Finland, it took us about ten minutes to traverse an idyllic no-man’s-land forest, in total silence because two stern-looking and heavily armed Soviet border guards had boarded on the Russian side, and when we arrived in Finland (and the two soldiers had left), all passengers broke out into spontaneous cheer. It was, quite literally, like escaping from a prison.
In the Old Days, nothing worked as effectively against left-wing illusions as a trip to the Workers’ Paradise.
European frontiers are not like that anymore, of course, but to me, they still echo romantic notions of smugglers, outlaws on the run and life-or-death escapes into Nazi-Free Switzerland while singing Do-Re-Mi with Julie Andrews.
So when we were last visiting Menton on the French Riviera, and I finally found out how close the Italian border actually was, there was no holding me back. (Actually, when you stand in the east of the town, facing the marina, look to the coastline on your left hand size, and about half way up you can see the metal roof of the border station.)
Walk towards your left from the marina, always keeping on the main street with the sea on your right hand side, and once you have passed Garavan harbour and Garavan train station, you are only a few steps away.
You should have an ID with you, just in case (what if they let you through unhindered but stopped you on your way back? you never know), but neither we nor anybody else we saw on that afternoon was challenged by the border guards.
Now we are in Italy. What’s there to do – apart from buying Italian biscuits and some (relatively) cheap cigarettes in the shop next to the frontier, having an espresso in the self-service cafeteria and shouting “Ciao Bella” at passing girls in short skirts?
Well, there is a tourism office where you can inquire about walking tours near Imperia and San Remo on the Italian side of the border, for the next time when you pass by and are less in a hurry. There is a surprisingly expensive restaurant. There are prehistoric caves and there is a very nice-looking museum attached to them – visited, when we were there, by a bunch of well-behaved and well-dressed Italian school kids, just to show that this is really a part of Italy and not some outlying border post in the middle of no-man’s-land. And there are also some reminders of a time when the border between France and Italy must have been a lot less friendly place than it is today.
What you can’t do is to walk to Ventimiglia, the first town on the Italian side of the border but much further away from it than Menton. You could walk through the tunnel to have a peek at what Italy looks like on the other side, but you would be disappointed – there is only a succession of more tunnels with the odd mountainside villa thrown in, and it would take a fairly long walk before you see the first shop, never mind a cafe where you can sit down, have another espresso and harass more young Italian ladies.
Better to stay on the near side of the tunnel and walk past the prehistorical caves down a stony path to the beach. The path does not lead you very far, but there is a nice and generally quiet bay there, and if you had the foresight of bringing your swimming trunks, you can take a dip.
If you want to visit Ventimiglia, walk back a few hundred meters to Garavan station (which you find right in the back of the Ibis Budget hotel) and take the train – it’s only one stop, and you can buy a ticket for a couple of Euros at the automatic dispenser. You will be surprised how different Ventimiglia feels from Menton – same coast, different country.
Not all borders, it seems, exist only in our minds.