Ventimiglia, Italy: Travel and shopping on the molto-cheap

Visit another country with the whole family, stock up on cheap booze and clothes, and eat a three-course meal -- all for about $141.50. The destination is Ventimiglia, Italy, the Tijuana of the Ligurian Coast. You get the Italian experience in a border-town, day-trip gulp, then it's back to the French Riviera.

Ventimiglia is the perfect way to stretch a Cote d'Azur vacation into a multicultural tour on the molto-cheap. Of course you already have to be in the south of France to take advantage of the savings, but don't quibble. Ventimiglia is a fine place to visit when you're in the neighborhood.

My wife and I took our 3 year old son and 7 year old daughter on the special Carte Isabelle ticket from 46 miles away in Cannes for about $44 round trip total. The ticket allows you to make as many stops as you want, so the transfer in Monaco could turn into a side trip to a Monte Carlo casino if you want to get all James Bond about it. This voyage, however, was about a change of scenery without making the scene and going broke.The first thing we did in Ventimiglia was eat lunch at a touristy charmer called Gimma. Locals were eating there too, so we took our chances. We had three plates of spaghetti and clams, another of plain spaghetti, a serving of calamari (the best dish of all), veal scallopini and two triple-ball bowls of gelato, not to mention a half-caraf of wine and liter of bottled water for about $56 (optional small tip included.)

After a visit to a second shaded playground with a rail theme, we then joined the mostly French bargain hunters on the retail trail. We bought a bag of locally made rainbow bowtie pasta for $4, a 10-ounce bottle of Italian aftershave for $10, a pair of glittery silver sneakers ($13), an M&M filled helicopter ($3), and a $5 bottle of Pastis. You would think the latter would be cheaper in the south of France, where it's made, but Ventimiglia is the region's booze-run capital, with prices 20 to 35 percent cheaper than its northern neighbor.

To finish our day, we took four pieces of pizza ($6.50) on the return ride back to Cannes, bringing the grand total to $141.50.

Keep in mind that locals and tourists gladly pay the train fare just to hit the town's mega-market on Fridays. The seaside village combines a bit of scruffiness with Old World postcard imagery that makes you want to shout Mama Mia. The travel books and blogs mention a cave and a Roman theater. For a crowd that is 99.9% there for the deals, the sites might as well be ancient history.

Ventimiglia's now-suppressed sidewalk black market of luxe knockoffs used to add a roguish allure. Now the city is just a fun, economical way to see another country and be back in your hotel room before the sun sets. Just don't sleep in the park. Even ready-to-spend daytrippers like us got rousted by the police like penniless bums.

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