Filling the bottom of the Nervia Valley Dolceacqua was the fiefdom and birthplace of the powerful Doria clan. It spawned Renaissance admiral Andrea Doria. The Doria clan lorded it over the Republic of Genoa in its 16th-17th-century heyday.
A medieval stone footbridge arches over the Nervia River, which is more a creek clogged with boulders than the rushing river I’d expected from the tourist brochures—and from umpteen photos and paintings, including a famous one by the Impressionist Claude Monet.
Monet spent a happy winter on the Italian Riviera, painting many scenes in the vicinity of Bordighera. He was struck by the light, the color and the vegetation of Liguria, and found Dolceacqua, with its half-ruined castle and high-arched bridge, particularly evocative.
From the river the village’s many spiraling, buttressed passageways lead via a carved stone Madonna in a niche to the Doria castle, perched high above.
Guelf and Ghibelline factions did battle in Dolceacqua in the 1200s-1300s. But it was the French and Spanish who destroyed the castle about 250 years ago. No one has yet figured out how to rebuild it successfully. But the tumbledown character of the castle is actually a big part of its charm.
Even when the weather is warm in Dolceacqua the temperature inside the alleyways of the village remains cool, almost cold, as in a cathedral. I could see my breath. More than a cathedral, however, the hewn tunnels evoked a shell. I was the hermit crab slipping into its convolutions.
Dolceacqua is a thriving winemaking village. The hills around are stippled with Rossese di Dolceacqua vines that yield a light red beloved of Ligurians but rarely exported. As I wandered through the medieval tangle, sun slanting through cracks between house-towers, I came across old barrels in wine-perfumed alleys. Rivulets of red ran in the gutters as winemakers cleaned their equipment.
In the process of being gentrified, Dolceacqua is no longer rough-and-ready. The locals are struggling to preserve their agricultural landscape and lifestyle: the Riviera’s beaches, casinos and crowds are only a few minutes away. Judging by the success of the light, fruity local olive oil, made with handpicked Taggiasca olives, and some of the best Ligurian red wines going, which also originate here, Dolceacqua’s farmers and winemakers might just manage to stave off the less attractive aspects of mass tourism and keep their refuge alive for locals and intrepid travelers alike.
Travel Tip: Getting to the Rock Villages via the Riviera dei Fiori:
The Riviera dei Fiori is closer to Nice (about 20 miles) than Genoa (about 100 miles). Both have international airports. Direct trains from both serve Bordighera and San Remo, the cities nearest the Rock Villages, with offices of the main car rental agencies.
Weather and temperature: the climate is mild from spring through fall on the coast but nights are always chilly in mountain areas.
Budget several days to inch along the mountain roads to the Rock Villages and a dozen other nearby perched or nestled hamlets such as Pigna, Triora, Badalucco and Bussana Vecchia.
To visit the Perinaldo Osservatorio G. D. Cassini (the Cassini observatory, see part one of the series) contact Cooperativa Omnia, Tel/Fax: +39/0184-356611 or go to www.comune.perinaldo.im.it
The Castello della Lucertola history museum in Apricale is open Tue-Sun 4-7pm in summer, Tue-Sat 2-8pm the rest of the year and Sun 10:30-noon, 2-7pm. Go to www.apricale.org for more information.
Our favorite hotels in the area include:
Royal Hotel San Remo
Corse Imperatrice 80
Book a room
This 5-star luxury palace set in landscaped gardens overlooking the seaside promenade in San Remo is the epitome of Riviera elegance. We enjoyed a perfect stay here.
For a modest but comfortable hotel up in the Rock Villages, we recommend Apricale as a base:
Book a room in Apricale
For addresses and opening hours, and much more on the Riviera dei Fiori and the Rock Villages, plus sites throughout Liguria, its history, culture, food, wine, hiking trails, treks, guided tours, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia and more, keep reading WanderingLiguria and pick up our books, Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa and Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera.