Seborga may seem like any other sleepy hilltop Italian village, with its fresco-covered church, medieval architecture and two competing local restaurants where the old men of the village gather to drink Vermentino wine before lunch. Yet tensions are running high among the 300 inhabitants of this tiny hamlet overlooking the Italian Riviera, following the arrival of a mysterious wealthy sect.
The Madonna di Alvenia sect, led by Frenchman Stéphane Ravel d’Estienne, has been drawn to Seborga by its mythical connections with the Knight Templars, Christendom’s evangelical 12th-century crusaders.
In 1118, Abbot Edward, Prince of Seborga, ordained the first nine Templars as Knights of St Bernard, the town’s patron saint, before they set off for Jerusalem. Today, Brother Riccardo Bonsi is the International Grand Prior of Venerabilis Equester Ordo Sacri Principatus Sancti Sepulchri, an order of Templar Knights.
Seborga declared its independence from Italy in the 1960s, arguing that it was never incorporated properly into the country when it was unified in 1861. Its inhabitants argue that when the village was sold in 1729 to the Savoys, the deal was not correctly registered. As a consequence, Seborga was left in limbo, belonging to no state. Although nobody but the Seborgans recognise their nominal principality as an independent country, they live in hope.
“Everything is special about Seborga; it’s a magical place,” says Princess Nina, wife of the current ruler, the extravagantly titled His Tremendousness Marcello I, also known as local businessman Marcello Menegatto. She sits next to the prince’s crown; a framed portrait of him in the background. “Its history and its geographical position on a 1,500ft-high hill, just half an hour’s drive from Monaco and the French border, make it completely unique . . . it’s paradise.”
Delia Gradi, who runs the local tobacco shop, says: “People here dream of independence — they feel it — and hopefully they’ll have it one day.” Nodding to a client buying cigarettes, she adds: “And we’re optimistic about the tourism the principality brings as well. The other day we had a big group of tourists from Japan”.
In a tiny village where it is almost impossible to go unobserved, Ravel d’Estienne and his partner, Marie-Dominique, draw particular attention. Dressed only in white, with a yellow sun stitched onto their clothes, the locals refer to them as “I Bianchi” — The Whites — and gossip spreads as to why they first came to their sleepy medieval village.
“Some years ago, Stéphane arrived from France with his previous wife . . . No one knows why they came here and why they started buying houses,” says an 80-year-old Seborga native who wished to remain anonymous. The silver-haired woman sits on a bench overlooking the sea. “Sometimes I see them arriving with a big truck from which they start unloading old paintings, mirrors and antique furniture. I think they came here . . . because we’re isolated from the rest of the world and they can do whatever they want, undisturbed. There is nothing here, not even a police station.”
She is not the only one to be intrigued. Another elderly woman, who was listening to our conversation, joined in. “There is nothing good about them, I don’t really like them . . . I just say hello to them, but they’re not my type. They buy houses exclusively in the centre of the village. They bought one very close to mine . . . they refurbish them but then they leave them there and don’t really interact with anyone.”
However, not everyone is against the newcomers. In the main square of Seborga, many inhabitants decline to comment, instead gesturing to an old but energetic woman watering the flowers. “You have to ask her!” one villager says.
Jocelyne Ruppe has lived in Seborga “for many, many years”, although she demurs when asked her age. “Do not ask such questions to a lady. I will never tell you! But I can tell you that everything in Seborga is great,” she says.
“It’s because of me that [Ravel] came here. I met him in France several years ago and now they are here and they’ve already bought a lot of houses — about a dozen, including one over there.” She points towards a group of buildings. “And they are still buying. They helped many people who had been trying to sell their houses but couldn’t find a buyer. They are respectable people. They don’t disturb anyone and they are great neighbours. When they go to France, I even ask them to buy me Camembert cheese and paté — much cheaper on the other side of the border. People complain, but it’s the Seborgans themselves who sell their houses to them.”
According to an official document last updated on 24 November 2016, Ravel owns 18 properties in Seborga, almost all of them residential. One of them, in the centre of the village, has been converted into an oratory. It boasts a statue of the Madonna di Alvenia, a separate sculpture representing the resurrection of Christ, a carpet featuring a rising sun (the logo of the group) and the flag of Seborga, with its nine stripes representing the first nine Templars to arrive in the village.
Another of their properties is the group’s headquarters, not difficult to find as everyone in the village knows where they live. Ravel and his partner Marie-Dominique, both dressed in white, answer the doorbell and, after a second’s hesitation, invite the FT in to talk.
“I came here to Seborga after I experienced some extraordinary things,” Ravel says, seated at a desk in the centre of the room, flanked by two statues of the Madonna di Alvenia.
“I met the Creator, who spoke to me, and that’s why I founded our association,” he says. “I came here because the Great Secret of Seborga has been revealed to me: the spiritual treasure of the Templars was deposited here after the first Crusade.
“I came here to reveal it and shed light on it. [We know that] the divine is coming and there will be the rebirth of the world.”
Asked about why they are buying up so much of the village and how he feels about the suspicions of the locals, Ravel laughs. “Rumours spread fast. I have six children and Marie-Dominique has three . . . the houses are for our friends and family. We inherited some money, so we sold the properties we had in France and started buying here.”
The houses they bought so far, Ravel insists, are “for personal use” and the purchase is not connected to the group.
Yet despite Ravel’s candid answers, it is hard to ignore myriad rumours that have been sparked by this two-person sect.
One villager said that something Ravel once told him seemed to be a reference to a second Messiah, the second coming of Christ.
Others, however, dismiss this as gossip, wishing, perhaps fruitlessly given its rich, mythical past, that Seborga were “a village like all the others in the area”.
“All these characters, the Whites, all these knights,” exclaims one villager, sitting in front of the church.
“I cannot understand what they are doing; all this surreal talk of speaking to the dead? We are adults, come on!”