Val Nervia is perhaps one of the most beautiful valleys anywhere on the western Riviera. It stretches for some twenty kilometres from the sea to the ridges of the Alpes Maritimes, a majestic group of mountains whose sweeping prospect gives it the name of piccole Dolomiti di Liguria (“little Dolomites of Liguria”).
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Near the coast, the abundance of water flowing through the wide, rocky bed of the river Nervia, bursting with vegetation (reeds and shrubs), makes it an area of great natural interest which is known as a “zona umida” (wetland). The properties of the river are much appreciated by migrating birds who take refuge there during their long flights in Spring and Autumn, using it as a breeding ground.
After Camporosso one comes to Dolceacqua, a place steeped in ancient history, evidence of which is seen in the parish church of San Giorgio (10th-11th century) which stands a short distance outside the village. The great French impressionist Claude Monet immortalised this picturesque village in several paintings. The oldest part of Dolceacqua, known as a “Téra”, stands on the left bank of the river. Here a muddled assortment of houses stands in the shadow of the castle, an important example of military architecture, which stands proud on the rock like a cathedral.
To reach the castle one crosses a tortuous maze of lanes, covered alleyways, arches and ancient tumbledown houses, interspersed here and there with aristocratic “palazzi” (the palazzo Caminata is the best example, with its door depicting the coat of arms of the Doria family, feudal lords of the village). Today the former residences are home to craft workshops and fragrant wine-shops where one can enjoy the best of the generous local wine, “Rossese”. The baroque parish church of Sant’Antonio Abate with its imposing seventeenth century bell tower is well worth a visit, no matter how short, to admire the outstanding polyptych of Santa Devota by Ludovico Brea.
Until fairly recently, the only way to reach the “Borgo” quarter on the other side of the river was by crossing an elegant, harmoniously designed late-Medieval bridge with a single thirty-three metre span: an architectural masterpiece and “jewel of lightness…”. The oratory of San Sebastiano in the “Borgo” houses the treasured fig-wood statue of the saint (sculpted, some critics maintain by the Genoese artist Anton Maria Maragliano, 1664-1771) which presides over the celebrations held in his honour every year on 20th January or the nearest Sunday (see page 18 for a description of the ceremonies). Set amid olive trees in a magnificent position on the hill above the “Borgo” stands the chapel of San Bernardo; the beautiful series of frescoes attributed to Domenico Emanuele Maccari di Pigna (15th century) is well worth the climb.
Less than a kilometre outside Dolceacqua, the road veers to the left and leads to Rocchetta Nervina, an ancient village made up of shadowy houses which appear to be huddled together for protection. The fortified village, located at the point where two turbulent mountain streams meet and crossed by two hog-backed stone bridges, has an unusual Y-shaped layout. The parish church of Santo Stefano, refurbished in the style of the baroque in the 18th century, still has its original door with fifteenth century lintel. On display in the oratory of the Annunziata is the votive offering which tells of the heroic resistance put up by the inhabitants of Rocchetta (1625) to Corsican troops fighting for the Republic of Genoa.
Returning to the main road to continue up the valley one comes to Isolabona. Its most interesting architectural feature is the octagonal fountain (1486) in the old centre. Formerly governed by the Doria family, Isolabona was built in a strategic position and is defended by a castle with square-shaped keep. The castle, now restored to its original splendour, is the setting for important artistic and cultural events during the Summer.
Further along the road through the valley is the late-Medieval sanctuary of Nostra Signora delle Grazie, before which stands a classical-style pronaos, decorated with a wealth of frescoes by Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585). Not far from here is the church of San Giovanni Battista where one can see a depiction of the Baptism of Christ by an unknown fifteenth century artist. Apricale To reach Apricale (the village of the sun, as the name would suggest), after Isolabona leave the road for Val Nervia and take the fork which leads to the valley of the Merdanzo, a mountain stream. Apricale lies just around a corner, perched on a slope surrounded by olive trees.
Before the village an unpaved side track leads to the ruins of the Roman church of San Pietro in Ento (11th century) which stands on a small plateau. Returning to the main road, alongside a spring (thought to have miraculous therapeutic properties for many years) one finds the 13th century church of Santa Maria in Albis (now Madonna degli Angeli) which was modified at the time of the baroque. Inside is an extensive series of frescoes from different eras, including the Incoronazione della Vergine (Coronation of the Virgin) which dates back to the 1400s. To enter the ancient fortified village (now decorated with original murals by contemporary artists) one passes steep lanes, covered alleyways and stone archivolts before reaching the main square which stands, quite unexpectedly, bathed in glorious light below the rock.
Here the scene is quite stunning: sweeping stone arches, a pre-Renaissance drinking trough with fountain, painted loggias and palazzi, baroque and nineteenth century prospects and the imposing buttresses of the castle. On the right of the piazza stands the oratory of San Bartolomeo, forming a religious backdrop to the whole. With its baroque facade dominated by the slender bell tower, the church is the resting place for a fine 16th century wooden polyptych depicting the saint. Slightly higher up on the opposite side of the square is the parish church of the Purificazione di Maria Vergine (rather too modern in style following refurbishment work last century), the bell tower of which stands over a thirteenth century tower. To the side of the church lies the feudal castle (now known as the castello della Lucertola) with its hanging gardens.
The castle has been fully restored and is now the backdrop for artistic and cultural events. The Art Nouveau style frescoed rooms house a museum which is well worth a visit (the collection covers painting, theatre, historical treasures, local stories and legends and, most interesting of all, the “statutes” of Apricale – the oldest in Liguria). On leaving the village and heading for Bajardo one comes across the cemetery and Roman church of Sant’Antonio (13th century) with its baroque facade and frescoes painted in the 1400s. A visit to Apricale is not complete without a stop in its craft workshops and studios (there are engraving and ceramics schools, the latter for budding artists).
Finally, enjoy a meal in one of Apricale’s renowned restaurants and trattorias; what better place to plan a return trip, perhaps in Summer when the whole village becomes a stage for a season of plays, shows and concerts, the “Balun” tournament (played with a special ball) and a chance to celebrate “natural” cuisine.
The hills to the south-west of Apricale are dominated by Perinaldo, an ancient village which stands atop the ridge giving panoramic views over the spontaneous flora (painting the slopes in a never-ending variety of colours as the seasons come and go) and woods filled with chestnut and pine trees. The far-off outlines of mounts Bignone, Ceppo, Toraggio, Pietravecchia and Grai can be made out on one side; on the other side the eye is drawn towards the sea.
Perinaldo looks upwards beyond the horizon towards the blue of the heavens; here the sky is untainted by air and light pollution with some of the clearest views in the area. The mountainous terrain means that winds reach the very highest points, preventing clouds and unsettled weather from staying around too long. These conditions were first appreciated over two hundred years ago by an illustrious son of the village, Gian Domenico Cassini, the first of four generations of astronomers.
His reputation stretched as far as the court of the Sun King (Louis XIV) and his discoveries form the basis of modern astronomy: he was the first to identify four of the seventeen moons of Saturn and divide up the rings of the planet (the method he used still bears his name). Cassini also calculated the distance between the Earth and our nearest planets. He measured the time taken for Mars, Venus and Jupiter to complete one whole rotation and described the dust belt encircling the latter. The famous astronomer also lent his name to the modern-day Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titania. He lives on in the village of his birth through the observatory housed in the former Franciscan convent of San Sebastiano on the eastern outskirts (guided “tours” of the night sky are held here on a regular basis). Adjacent to the observatory are the town hall and church of Sant’Antonio da Padova with its triangular-based sui generis bell tower.
Visitors to Apricale should stop off at the Castello Maraldi (said to be the birthplace of Cassini and home to Napoleon and General Massena during the Italian campaign) and the parish church of San Nicolò (1489, the date carved in the lintel above the right-hand door, the porta degli uomini). Here one can admire the painting delle anime (of the souls), attributed to the school of Guercino, in the right aisle. On the facade of the priest’s lodgings, formerly the Summer residence and hunting lodge of the Marchesi Doria di Dolceacqua, is an old sundial, built to the specifications of Cassini’s grandson, the astronomer Gian Domenico Maraldi. Lastly, outside the walls of Perinaldo the country church of Nostra Signora della Visitazione is a reminder of the “Poggio dei rei” and the far-off atonement rites of the penitents who gathered there on pilgrimage. Back to part III Next to Nervia Valley II