The sleepy hinterland of the Italian Riviera

I’ve been three times to Liguria. I never really planned to, but sometimes life has different plans for you…
On my first occasion I visited the Cinque Terre, unanimously considered the highlight of the area. Fair enough I guess, five villages clinging on precariously to the cliffs with the blue waters of the Ligurian Sea below: there’s worse when it comes to scenery.
But to be 100% honest, it was all a bit too touristy and I discovered much more about Liguria and its hilltop villages during my next two visits.
On one of those occasions I was invited to stay in a luxurious and fully restored apartment in the heart of the Nervia valley, in the hilltop village of Pigna. It’s a sleepy place of +/- 900 inhabitants, where a cappuccino costs €1.50 and a meal sets you back half the price of what you would pay in the UK. It was pretty clear that tourism hadn’t taken over the area yet!
Needless to say that, when I got invited to go on a four day walking trip to discover more of the region, I was more than happy to accept!

Liguria is more than the Cinque Terre,  it’s more than the Italian Riviera. The Ligurian hinterland is a place of authentic village life, of stone houses and carruggi (little alleys leading to the sea), of stunning mountain scenery and of damn good olive oil!

Pigna

The most beautiful villages in Liguria:

Apricale
Apricale derives from “Apricus” meaning “exposed to the sun”. It’s the oldest of all the hilltop villages in the Nervia Valley, making it a perfect place to start! Its story is said to have begun with salt trading Celts from Northern Europe who trod the mule tracks down through the valley to the Mediterranean.

The distinctive pine-cone shaped village of today began sometime before the mid 13th century. Records go back to 1267, establishing it as the first independent village in the whole of Liguria.
The village centre preserves part of the medieval walls, three doors with pointed arches and an ancient castle. Have an aperitivo on the main square, in the shadow of the pastel-pink church.

Dolceacqua
This attractive village is divided in two by the Nervia river, crossed by a medieval bridge built in the 15th century. Monet came to Dolceacqua several times to paint pictures of the town’s bridge, castle and houses.
It is this older part of the village, called Terra, that is of most interest to visitors, with the main Dorian castle (dating back to 12th century) at the foot of the Rebuffao mountain overlooking the village. Dolceacqua has some nice shops, cafes & restaurants and a pretty decent red wine called Rossese.

Pigna
I had the chance to stay in Pigna for five days.  Getting my early morning coffee in the local bakery, lunch at the restaurant next door and a tasty aperitivo overlooking the village are memories that will stay a lifetime.  Pigna has no real “must sees”. It’s just a place where local life goes on the way it did for centuries, a perfect place to settle down for a while.  A labyrinth of winding, narrow lanes and steep steps leads up to the historic centre and church. No supermarkets or high street chains here, instead two small “alimentari”.

There are plenty of hiking opportunities too. Follow the Via Crucis that leads up from the village all the way to the Chiesa della Madonna di Passoscio. You’ll pass numerous little chapels, stare open-mouthed at the breathtaking views over the valley and simply appreciate the wonder of nature.

Ventimiglia
Ventimiglia is located at the mouth of the Roia river, where it flows into the Ligurian Sea. It’s the first major town you’ll pass across the border with France and the starting point of the Riviera dei Fiori, the Riviera of Flowers. You’ll quickly realize where the name is coming from: greenhouses are scattered all around the surrounding mountains.
As with many places in the area, the town is divided into two parts:  the medieval part, the so-called “Ventimiglia Alta” and the modern town.

From the train station, in the modern part, it’s a short walk across the bridge to the beach, which to be honest, isn’t that great. The higher old town is where you’ll want to be!
The medieval old town served as the fortified city centre through the 1800s. The faded and crumbling facades of the buildings is what gives it so much character. The Cathedral is worth to have a closer look at, though during my visit it seemed to double up as a playground for local kids…

Cervo
My experience in Cervo could be called rather unsual. How else would you describe your visit when you are followed by an amateur photograph so he can capture you and the village of Cervo at its best in order for him to win a photo contest?
This was all part of my walking trip in the Riviera dei Fiori.
And I must say, Cervo was probably the highlight of the trip. It’s officially classed as one of the most beautiful villages of Italy
The church towers over the village and was founded by coral hunters who used to live in this area.

Taggia
Taggia was an important commercial port during the Roman domination.  The ancient Roman stone bridge with its perfectly preserved arches still spans across the Argentina river nowadays and is one of the must sees of Taggia. The medieval town with its narrow alleyways and piazzas (check out Piazza Santissima Trinita!) is another one of these Ligurian treasures not to be missed! I loved the row of vaulted covered shops on the main street as well. Apparently the vaults are there to protect against earthquakes.

As most medieval town centres in the area, Taggia is situated in the hills. Down below is the modern part, called Arma di Taggia, THE place to go for some downtime on one of the sandy beaches.

The old town of San Remo
Yes, the city has a casino, yes it has a famous festival and yes it’s the end of a popular cycling race, but if you’re in San Remo, you must check out the old town, called La Pigna.
The name Pigna means “pine cone”.  The name derives from the way the town developed: it was formed around the castle and little by little walls were built in a concentric way around it. You can still see some of the medieval arches like the Porta Palma.
La Pigna is a world away from the downtown part with its busy streets, vibrant squares and wide boulevards.  History boards are dotted around the medieval part to make the most of your visit. Make sure to check out the Piazza Oratorio dei Dolori, with its vaulted arches, the Piazza del Capitolo with the ancient jail and courthouse and the Piazza della Cisterna.

Bussana Vecchia
I hesitated to include Bussana Veccia in this list, first of all because it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but mostly because Bussana Vecchia officially doesn’t exist! It’s a former ghost town, abandoned since the 1887 earthquake.  A few international “artistic entrepreneurs” however decided to bring it back to life by moving to Bussana to live a simple life amongst the ruins and selling their works of art to tourists. Since the houses are officially uninhabitable, the artists don’t pay any taxes, so needless to say the Italian government is less than impressed by it all.
I found the place rather fake. The artists were clearly living from tourists coming to check out the “occupied and abandoned village” and I didn’t find any real soul to it.
The ruins of the Chiesa di Sant’Egidio with its collapsed roof is the highlight of the place.

Bussana Vecchia

Vernazza
I couldn’t talk about the most beautiful villages in Liguria without at least including one of the villages of the Cinque Terre. Even if they are very touristy,  they are definitely worth checking out! I preferred doing it the slow way by staying a week in the area and walking from village to village and into the forested hills. It’s hard to pick the prettiest village of the Cinque Terre, but I would probably go for Vernazza. It’s the steepest village of all five, with narrow alleyways leading up to the sea. The views from the path towards Monterosso are simply stunning and sitting by the small harbour eating your al-fresco lunch is an experience you will remember long after your trip to Liguria has come to an end.

Vernazza

Have you been to Liguria? Any other villages I should add?

4 Replies to “The sleepy hinterland of the Italian Riviera”

  1. Sarah Wilkie

    I have visited the CT and found them very pretty but yes, over-touristy in parts, especially Vernazza. I preferred Riomaggiore which had more local colour imho. Now you have ‘sold’ me on the idea of visiting other parts of Liguria – it looks so lovely!

    Reply
    • Els Post author

      Yes, Riomaggiore is stunning as well! Glad I got you into discovering more of Liguria, another place to add on the ever growing list, right? 🙂

      Reply
  2. Miss Footloose

    Hoi Els, (I am Dutch)
    I love little villages. I live in the South of France in a small Medieval village of 600 people! I’ve been to Italy a number of times and my husband and I love getting lost down small roads into the mountains and find isolated places apparently forgotten by time. I have not been to Ventimiglia, but know about the refugee camp there, many desperate people trying to get into France. Did you not see them?

    Reply
    • Els Post author

      Hoi! 🙂 Living in a small medieval village in the South of France seems like a true dream! I am planning on doing house-sitting for a while so will hopefully end up in this beautiful corner of the world! I hadn’t heard of the refugee camp in Ventimiglia and definitely didn’t see it, I assume it would be on the outskirts… Such a sad situation, isn’t it?

      Reply

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