Market day in Albenga, Italy in Liguria
When I’m at my vacation home and wake up really early, the first thing I think is maybe I should head to Italy. I love being able to say that… “Oh, I’m going to Italy for the day.” It sounds so casually chic. And having a place in the South of France, I can reach the crappiest boarder of a beautiful country in 40 minutes. Go further along the Ligurian coast and you find numerous lovely little gems of distinct villages. Today is Wednesday and it’s market day in Albenga.
Being the nerd I am, I quickly check a print out of markets that’s stuck to my fridge. Yes, I printed it out because I scribble notes – yes, with a pen. Where I’ve been, did I like it, restaurants tried, points of interest, when it’s on, where and how many stalls? Ok, big nerd! Any rate, I like info and don’t want to be faffing about when I’m rushing to the train to beat the Monaco crowd! When friends are in town I want alternative places to go that are interesting and authentic. For a good wonder around, markets need to have at least 100 stalls, and Wednesday is market day in Albenga.
Albenga is an hour from the French border by train, right on the Med in Liguria, Italy. I don’t drive. Well, I do, but I don’t. I prefer planes, trains and buses. Transport here is excellent, clean and generally efficient, except when there’s a strike. And not spending time in my car like I did when I lived in Chicago is a welcomed change.
I buy a roundtrip ticket to Ventimiglia, Italy, and once across the Italian border, I buy a round trip to wherever further into Italy. It’s ALWAYS cheaper to buy Italian travel WITHIN Italy. Train travel in France is expensive compared to other countries, so only buy a ticket just beyond the border of the next country. Then get off and by another local ticket. If you know exactly when you want to go, book online at the French rail website or the Italian one. Caveat being, when you book online you need to choose the exact train you will take, and for me that’s too much stress. I like to show up when I’m ready. I also love stepping off the train just across the Italian boarder and heading for my first real cappuccino and pane cioccolato in a long time. Ironically, the cafe is called the American bar, just outside the station. It has that smell and buzz of having arrived in Italy. I nurse my cappuccino, practice my Italian with the waiter and inhale the gritty, sticky Vespa-ed air.
Back on the train, I arrive in Albenga. The market is 5 minutes from the station. Exit straight out of the station and continue until you come to Via Patrioti. Turn right and you’ll run into the market on Via Dalmazia. It goes the whole length up to Viale Pontelungo where you turn left to go into Old Town.
Italian markets can be a bit of a mishmash, and Ligurian cities even mishmashier. Some are hit and miss. I rarely plan to buy anything at the markets except maybe produce, parmesan or olive oil. But I just love the buzz of a city when it’s market day. Everyone comes out for the weekly shop, and navigating the stalls can be quite a challenge. You need patience. You’re often stuck behind a baby stroller-come shopping cart while dodging children. Sometimes you have to duck below clothes hanging all over. Then there are the locals who’ve not seen one another for a week who stop in the middle, blocking the way to have a big, ‘Ciao.’ “Ciao, Come stai? Tutto bene?” Ciao, Ciao…..” A polite little, ‘Scusate,’ gives me passage.
Nowadays, a mix of Italian and Asian vendors sell a bit of everything – shoes, poorly-sewn clothes, lingerie, beach ware, pots/pans, tablecloths, cell phone covers, sheets, kitchen gadgets … you name it. It reminds me when my suitcase was stolen in Calabria. I shopped at the market for the basic essentials – undies, bras, few tops, pants. They were just to cover me, not put me on the cover of Vogue! You get the picture.
However, the produce, while inexpensive, is very good quality. You can easily justify the cost of a train ticket with the difference you save by buying in Italy. Parmesan cheese alone is typically €10 less a kilo than in France! Fruits and vegetables are easily €.50 to €2 cheaper if you shop around. A litre of olive oil, cheaper. It’s always good to go with a foldable shopping trolley tucked in your backpack. Yes, back to being a nerd.
The food vendors are always buzzier than the rest, and there is usually a crowd hovering around the butchers impatiently waiting for their number to be called. There’s typically a selection of ready-roasted meats and vegetables to enjoy at a table nearby or for a quick lunch at home. I quickly buy and move on, as there are others on my heels!
Today’s shop was modest – cherries, bag of dried porcini mushrooms, pesto sauce, some olives and sundried tomatoes – things that travel well.
For me, it’s just a treat to spend a day in a different country soaking up the energy of everyday life, and helping out the local vendors. With my shop finished, I was itching to head to the old town, which I hadn’t seen on my last trip.
Old Town is a pre-Roman as well as medieval settlement dating back to the 4th century BC. The Baptistery, one of the oldest early Christian buildings in northern Italy, and the Cathedral of St. Michael Archangel date back to the 4th and 5th centuries, but both were renovated in the late 1800’s and the 1960’s respectively to how they are today. They are a lovely melange of Baroque and Romanesque styles. And much of the rest of the Old Town stems from the 13th and 14th centuries.
It’s lovely with its ancient arched passage-ways with bars, restaurants and shops discreetly tucked underneath. Overhead, the Old Town was adorned with banners to patron saint, Sant’ Eulalia after the recent Palio Storico di Albenga. Well worth a visit. St Michael’s has free entry and the Baptistry costs €5.
All this wondering around and delicious smells makes me hungry, so I typically seek out a restaurant that looks authentic, and not real modern. I also look for older staff lingering about. I quite like a good mom and pop shop that appears to have been in business awhile. Today’s off the beaten path restaurant was Ristorante Al Falcone, Via Roma 55. It’s a charming shady spot with a view of St. Michael’s with a breezy covered terrace.
The terrace had 10 tables and the menu is partly scribbled on a chalk board. There, two women were wizzing about impatiently taking orders, placing orders on the wrong tables, mixing up drink orders, and the whole time, laughing at all their screw-ups. In fact, all of us were looking at one another and laughing at them. They both were charmingly, visibly missing a few teeth. Hmmm. Better check out the desserts!
I don’t know what it is about Liguria, but I love Spaghetti alle Vongole. The ingredients just taste better with virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, a dash of local white wine, and fresh steamed clams, and this was no exception. A hefty plate costs €9 like many of the main dishes. The plate of the day was oven-roasted octopus with quartered potatoes and carmelized onions for €12. If pizza is your passion, most range from €5-7. Add 1/4 litre of wine for €3, and coffee for €1. This place is a steal! Desserts? I simply had no room!
Although I usually head back in the afternoon, you could easily make a full day of it by heading to the beach either before or after your market stomp. They have a lovely stretch of clean beach along Lungomare Doria where you can rent a lounge chair and umbrella for a 1/2 day and grab a bite to eat at the adjoining restaurants. Or simply stretch out your beach towel and enjoy the Mediterranean sun. A refreshing dip in this steamy heat today would have been ideal, but the idea of hot olives and cherries was not! Next time I need to plan ahead.
The market is open every Wednesday throughout the year on Via Dalmazia.