The Italian Riviera is renowned for the pretty villages dotting this stretch of coast known, but there’s much more to discover in Liguria beyond the usual routes if you venture into the interior.
Not too far from the French border lies Val Nervia, a fairytale valley with amazing scenery, picturesque medieval villages and hills covered in vines that produce one of Liguria’s best wines – the Rossese. A tour of Val Nervia makes for the perfect long weekend escape from the city – just pack some comfy shoes, grab your camera and note down these places…
Dolceacqua (which literally means ‘sweet water’) is one of the prettiest villages in the valley, with the impressive ruins of the Doria castle nestled at the top of a hill. The castle is open to the public but be ready for a steep walk up to tiny alleys to reach the entrance! The river Nervia divides the village into two parts: Terra, the oldest section on the eastern bank at the foot of the castle, and Borgo, the more modern part on the opposite side – do not expect fancy shops and stylish buildings though, by ‘modern’ I only mean that there are some little shops and bars, but beside that everything else remain pretty much ‘old-style’. These two areas are connected by an impressive Roman bridge, which is the symbol of Dolceacqua and was portrayed by the Impressionist painter Monet during his trip to Liguria with Renoir in the late 19th century.
Driving up the valley, about 6 km from Dolceacqua, you will find Rocchetta Nervina, a quaint little village surrounded by lush vegetation. Here you can forget the frenzied life in the big city and enjoy some moments of pure peacefulness: this place seems frozen in time, with a labyrinth of alleys lined with very old stone houses, a beautiful Roman bridge and a tiny piazza which is the center of social life as well as the the stage of the many celebrations animating the village especially in the summer months.
Absolute highlight is the rio Barbaira, a tiny creek that has created a series of laghetti, turquoise natural pools immersed in the green surroundings. These can be reached with a short hike from the central piazza and offer a refreshing escape from the summer heat (there’s even a waterfall!) – don’t forget to stop by the tiny shop in the piazza before heading to the laghetti and stock up on picnic goodies. The more adventurous ones can also go canyoning, as well as enjoy some great hike routes to nearby villages.
Back to the main road, it’s time to get ready for the real gem of the valley, Apricale. It’s a short drive from Rocchetta Nervina and along the way you can stop at Isolabona, where it’s worth taking a walk around the hamlet. From the road Apricale appears in all its beauty, with a multitude of houses piled on top of one another.
By now you’ll probably be familiar with the layout of these villages, but Apricale offers something more. Its steep alleys are dressed with hand-painted murals depicting scenes from village life and its inhabitants are somehow obsessed with cats – no joking, cats are everywhere, even painted on the handmade wooden letter boxes that decorate most front doors!
The heart of the village is the medieval piazza, surrounded by the Town Hall, with its pink facade covered in frescoes, the Oratory of San Bartolomeo and the parish church. High above the piazza stands the Castello della Lucertola, a 10th-century castle that houses a museum dedicated to the history of Apricale and is said to be home of two ghosts (that of the village hangman, who used to show the heads of the murdered outside the tower, and that of the countess Cristina Bellomo who died tragically in 1904).
In the summer the piazza becomes the set of various events, such as the Balôn tournament in June (an ancient team game which is slightly reminiscent of baseball) and the plays of the theatre company Teatro della Tosse in August. At the bottom of the village, the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli with its beautiful frescoes is not to be missed.
By the way, did I mention that Apricale is also home to Birrificio Artiginale, a craft brewery that produces excellent artisan beers? Another good reason to plan a trip here!
On the hills above Apricale lies the tiny village of Perinaldo, from where you can enjoy some of the best views over the valley under a pristine blue sky.
Perinaldo gave birth to some famous astronomers and cartographers and today features an astronomical observatory, housed in the former Franciscan convent of San Sebastiano. Other highlights include the Church of San Nicolò da Bari, with a 15th-century wooden crucifix and a beautiful painting attributed to the school of the Italian painter Guercino, and the Maraldi castle, which is said to be home to Napoleon during his Italian campaign.
Perinaldo is also renowned for the production of a particular variety of artichoke imported from nearby Provence over two centuries ago, that has been awarded a Slow Food Presidium and is the protagonist of a famous festival taking place in mid-May.
Feeling worn out after all this exploration? Then head a little further up the valley to Pigna, a tiny mountain village famous for its thermal waters. Here you can take a dip at Grand Hotel Pigna, while enjoying some fine views over the village and the natural surroundings. I must say that this modern complex feels quite out of place amidst the quaint villages of Val Nervia but hey, it’s all in the name of wellness! And after taking care of your body, it’s time to think about your belly and enjoy some excellent traditional dishes with the famous Pigna white bean (another Slow Food Presidium) – try them at Trattoria La Posta.
- The closest airport is Nizza, which is about 50 km away and a car is the best option for touring Val Nervia. Roads are in good conditions and well signposted. Alternatively, you can reach Ventimiglia by train and then try to catch a local bus (here’s the timetable).
- I recommend having a car also in case you crave some crazy nightlife and want a break from the tranquillity of these places – lively Ventimiglia is 14 km away and Sanremo, with its casino and glamorous clubs, is only a 40-minute drive!
- I used Apricale as the base to explore this area and stayed at La Felice Casa di Nonno Battistino, a beautiful villa at the entrance of the village with stunning views over Val Nervia and an enchanting garden with fruit trees.
- While in Apricale, I enjoyed some delicious meals at Apricus Osteria & Bar and Ristorante Da Delio, both offering excellent local food and stunning views over the valley. Don’t miss coniglio alla ligure, Ligurian braised rabbit, Brandacujun, a traditional dish made of stockfish and potatoes, and the pensarole, delicious fried dough balls served with zabaione cream – there’s even a festival taking place in September to celebrate this sweet delicacy!
Until next time,