Researched and written by Helen Blanc-Francard
Clarence’s arrival and the time he spent in Bordighera coincided with the rapid and complete metamorphosis of the town. In the matter of a few decades the slumbering, isolated fishing village it had been for past centuries was transformed into a thriving and cosmopolitan seaside resort of the Victorian era. Along with its growth its international reputation developed and visitors flocked to enjoy its newly-built, luxurious and convivial hotels, splendid private villas, beneficially healthy climate and an environment lush with exotic palms, semi-tropical vegetation and carefully tended gardens.
The visually rich (sometimes erratic) montage of black-and-white postcards and photographs linked below illustrates just how extraordinary this pace of change was. The images show that, during the rare period of peace, prosperity and refined sensibilities of the Belle Époque, just why the glittering Mediterranean coast beyond the sweeping bay of Menton became famous across the world as the Riviera dei Fiori.
To enjoy some of the details that relate to Clarence’s time and to imagine the sights, sounds and even the smells of the hustling, bustling daily life in Bordighera - do watch the video montage in ‘full screen’ mode with its accompanying (and rather atmospheric) accompanying music. Here it is…
Once upon a time in Bordighera - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7--4v6dOKRo
Somewhere you might spot Clarence’s bicycle propped up against a roadside kerb when he dashes into a shop or visits a bank. After all, the bank and travel agency (Agenzia Berry, photo top, with two dromedaries (the one-humped camel, C. dromedarius), established in 1881 by Edward Berry, his nephew, can also be seen opposite the rather grand "British Stores" (2nd photo, Via Vittorio Emanuele) Clarence must often be out and about: you will glimpse his name painted boldly across the entrance of the 'Ambulatorio Municipale' (3rd photo).
The earliest images though show that a peasant lifestyle prevailed before the great building boom. The almost empty rocky coastal landscape is ribboned with meandering stone tracks and punctuated by clusters of huddled stone buildings. At the centre of the town shadowy arched streets lead to sunlit squares and the tall facades of Romanesque churches. On the edge of town a lonely chapel stands on a seemingly remote headland, presumably to offer the population of local fishermen the chance to say an arriving prayer of thanks.
Following the invention of affordable, portable wooden and brass-lensed cameras, roaming itinerant photographers tended to photograph everything they saw. So we see clichés of newly widened roads being paved; a network of iron tramlines laid along streets; the construction of a fine station to welcome the arrival of transcontinental steam trains. All this for the visitors and tourists pouring in to what is now ‘a destination’, a place designed for pleasure and amusement. Things are going so fast it is bound to end in tears and, indeed in another photo, a rather fine automobile has crash-landed onto the beach.
To cater to the demands of the European visitors, banks, shops, restaurants and cafés jostle for space along the Via Vittorio Emanuele. New garages are built to fuel the new cars and policemen are needed to direct the traffic and even the occasional file of camels and Palm Sunday soldiers on bicycles. Gas lamps and then electric lights are installed to light the main thoroughfares. Striding wooden telegraph poles indicate that a new era of connectivity has arrived.
The clash of the old and new is visible everywhere. Donkey carts can be seen navigating between smart horse-drawn carriages, early automobiles and articulated trams. Look carefully and you can see that the long-cultivated olive groves, artichoke and flower fields in the very centre of town are fast disappearing to make way for splendidly ornate and turreted villas, magnificent, stucco-embellished hotels, theatres and municipal buildings. In a final confident surge of decadent opulence, a monumental casino, studded with electric light bulbs, is built on a rocky spur jutting into the sea. This really is La Belle Époque.
Even municipal clocks are there to remind the townsfolk that time has taken on another significance. You will see that a carriage driver, waiting for a client outside The Royal Hotel, hardly has time to slake his thirst at a nearby water trough whilst attendant beach servants on the shore clearly have to wait patiently for fully dressed and hatted bathers to finish their dip in the sea.
An epilogue? On the 12th February 1941, long after Clarence's death in 1918, Francisco Franco will wait for Benito Mussolini in the former residence of Queen Margherita of Savoy (opposite the Museo Bicknell) to discuss the formation of a Latin alliance to wage war against the allied forces in WW2. It was a waste of time because terms were never agreed.
Researched and written by Helen Blanc-Francard