Welcome to Seborga | The Extraordinary Story of the Italian Village That Thinks It’s a Country
Princess Nina of Seborga explains why this tiny town of 300 people decided to declare independence
On the top of a hill, at the top of a long windy road, tucked away in the northwestern corner of Italy, sits a tiny, picturesque village. In that village, there’s a pretty cobblestone square; in that square, there’s an old stone house, and in that house, there lives a prince.
If the village of Seborga sounds like it’s been lifted straight from the pages of a fairytale, it looks like it too. With its mountain top location, medieval streets and traditional Catholic church, it fits the picture postcard stereotype of rural Italy.
Except, Seborga isn’t part of Italy at all. At least not according to its residents, who maintain that Seborga is the capital of a proudly independent nation – complete with its own flag, currency and, yes, its very own prince.
“Seborga isn’t part of Italy – it’s the capital of a proudly independent nation, complete with its own flag, currency and its very own prince.”
It might sound crazy (this being the 21st Century and everything), but although his chief supporters are a group of Knights Templar (an order that all but disappeared around the time of the crusades) both Prince Marcello I and his claim to the throne are very current, and very real. So real in fact that there have even been impostors trying to usurp him (of which more later).
Visit Seborga, and the evidence of its independence is everywhere. Portraits of the monarch hang in all the buildings. His liveried guardia, resplendent in their blue berets, greet tourists with a smart salute as they drive up the approach road, and the Seborgan flag, a combination of blue and white stripes, flutters from many of the buildings. Local shops carry signs stating that they accept the Seborgan Liguino (currently equivalent to six US dollars) and the coat of arms is proudly displayed on Seborgan license plates. So how did this small settlement come to declare itself an independent country? And more importantly, why?
“Well, it’s not like one day we just woke up and thought we should be independent because it’s cool,” says Princess Nina Menegatto, Marcello’s wife. “We have documents which state that we have never been officially annexed to Italy, so it happened by mistake basically.”
Their claim rests on the fact that in 1729, Seborga and the 14 or so square kilometres around it were supposedly bought by the Kingdom of Sardinia (which in turn was later subsumed into Italy). Yet as Princess Nina explains, “the sales contract was never officially signed, stamped and paid for. So actually it’s not valid.” There’s evidence that prior to this document the principality was effectively self-administered as far back as 954. “And that’s why we claim our independence.”
What appears to have been a bureaucratic oversight might have remained just that however, were it not for the efforts of one diligent archive digger. In the 1960s, the head of the local flower-growers co-op Giorgio Carbone began exploring the town’s history – first as an outpost of the nearby Monastery of Lerins (in modern day France), and then as an autonomous principality ruled by monks, supported by the crusading order of the Knights Templar.
It was he who uncovered the evidence of Seborga’s independence, and convinced the locals to vote for its independence in a referendum. Having decided to abide by the Seborgan monastic tradition of electing their rulers, the population of the newly independent country then duly elected him Prince Giorgio I – or “His Tremendousness Prince Giorgio I”, to give him his full title.
“He was definitely a special character,” says Princess Nina, remembering Giorgio fondly. “He was a very smart man, a businessman, who spoke several languages. OK, he was a little crazy too, because what he did was a little crazy, especially at the beginning. But in the end, he put Seborga on the map, so what he did was pretty amazing.”
Giorgio’s independence drive was undoubtedly helped by the strength of the local community, and his standing in it. “Seborga is like a big family – everyone knows everyone,” says Nina. But of course there was an economic argument too.
“The people of the newly independent country then duly elected him Prince Giorgio I – or ‘His Tremendousness Prince Giorgio I’, to give him his full title.”
“[The village] lives off agriculture and the flower business, these are the main sources of income,” explains Princess Nina. “But for tourism obviously the story of the principality helps.”
“The restaurants and the souvenir shops, for example, they live off tourism. People are curious so they come up to check us out – ‘why is this a principality, what’s going on here?’” Tourist numbers, she believes, are still rising as a result. “We have Japanese tourists in Seborga now which we never used to have before.”
In the end though, what seems to have convinced the locals (all 300 or so of them) to vote in favour of independence was that they genuinely bought into the claim. “People really commit,” says Princess Nina. “If you ask them what kind of nationality they have, they would say ‘I’m Italian and I’m Seborgan.’”
Her and her husband, the current prince, are a case in point. Neither was born in the principality, and in fact only moved here from nearby Monaco in the early 2000s. “We fell in love with the place. My husband discovered an old house in the square which was totally destroyed and he decided to restructure the whole building. People really appreciated [someone] investing in the village. ”It was this that lead to Marcello being asked to stand for election as the next prince.
“I told him first that he’s crazy, because it sounds all a bit crazy,” Nina says. “But then I read into the whole story and actually thought it sounded really interesting.”
Fast forward a few years and the couple are firmly committed to their elected roles. (“Officially there is no princess because you cannot inherit the title, you have to be elected,” says Nina, but explains that officially she’s also Seborga’s Minister of Foreign Affairs).
They head up the procession of Templar Knights on Seborgan National Day, and even lead overseas delegations (they recently visited India). “It’s history, it’s fact, it’s not that we invented this,” Princess Nina says. “We are much different than all other micronations because we do have history.”
Interpretations of history are rarely set in stone however, and nationhood can be a fragile thing – as the recent, close-run referendums in Scotland and Catalonia have shown. When your claim to be a country is little more than a generation old, and based on an historic oversight, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’ll face challenges.
Seborga found out just how fragile countries can be two years ago when, to their horror, an impostor began popping up on the internet. “I don’t know if you have heard of this it was all over the news,” says Princess Nina. “It’s a French guy, an impostor who pretends to be the prince of Seborga.
“He visited Seborga once and then opened a website and pretended to be a prince. French people rather fall on that site because it’s in French and it’s really annoying.”
“We don’t earn money here in Seborga, all of the members of the principality are volunteers – it’s very time-consuming and then you have people like this who destroy everything we do it’s not nice,” says Nina. The rightful Seborgan authorities have taken legal action to force the false prince to cease and desist, but as long as his Google game remains strong, “it’s not easy to stop this stuff”.
It would be easy to laugh this off as a petty squabble, but against the background of Brexit and with the election of a new, nationalist-leaning government in Italy, Seborga’s claims to independence throw up all sorts of questions about national identity, what a country really is, and who gets to decide.
If the false prince can be brushed off as an irritant, the outside world’s refusal to recognise Seborga potentially presents more of an existential threat. Nina and Prince Marcello have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, established diplomatic missions around the world, and are considering applying for observer status at the UN. “Obviously what we want is independence,” Nina says, but admits that it’s unlikely the Italian government will ever grant it.
“It’s not like we’re going to go in the square and fight Italy with knives or anything”
“Look at all the other countries where they want to be independent – look at Catalonia,” she says, “but you know nothing is impossible. Look at what happens with Brexit, look at Trump. Who knows what will happen in future?”
One thing Princess Nina does know is that regardless of Italy’s attitude, the Seborgans will never take it as far as the Catalan independence movement. “Our lawyers have the case, but it’s not like we’re going to go in the square and fight Italy with knives or anything. Absolutely not, no.” She sounds horrified at the thought.
In the end, as well being the as Prince and Princess of a proudly independent nation, Marcello and Nina are ordinary private citizens with ordinary private lives. “We have a reputation, we have other jobs, so we won’t jeopardise this. So it’s all 100 percent legal.”
This might suggest that the notion of Seborga as a nation is unlikely to gain traction internationally anytime soon. But equally, their lack of legal recognition isn’t going to stop visitors from flocking to this fairytale kingdom – and nor should it. After all it is, as Nina says, “really quite magical”.
You can find out more about about Seborga and its history on the official Principality of Seborga website