THE ITALIAN HINTERLAND -  PIGNA AND THE VILLAGES OF THE NERVIA VALLEY


Imagine a place with refined beaches, swaying palm trees framing old small fishing towns, authentic and well preserved historical villages set like hidden gems in the mountains.  Enchanting rocky villages such as Pigna, Apricale, Dolceacqua, to mention a few perched on the edge of a mountain top where time has stopped and the traditions have not changed.
This is the part of Liguria sheltered by the Maritime Alps, rich in exotic gardens thanks to the mild and sunny climate all year around, where the Mediterranean light has been celebrated by international painters, where you meet local and simple people still cultivating and distilling the lavender with passion from generations.
An area where the food is made of simple and genuine ingredients, aromatic herbs, superb wines such as Rossese and one of the best extra virgin olive oil produced in the world, the "taggiasca" one!  A land where you'll really know more about the Ligurian culinary traditions.
This is a hidden corner of nature and deep culture of Italy where you can experience what the real Italian life is all about and where you are assured a life-changing experience.
Exploring this part of Liguria until the elegant Montecarlo and the tiny lovely villages on the French Riviera is a delight.  An effortless journey through the Nervia Valley and beyond.  Just across the border into Italy, the valley of the Nervia river (more colloquially known as “Valnervia”) is located just behind the eastern sections of Ventimiglia, all within only about 45 minutes drive from Monaco and Nice!                        Come and stay with us....and let your Italian dream come true!
 
I would recommend exploring the area by car, as it affords far more flexibility than public transport, although both are an option.  The roads are well-paved, without too many bends and therefore easy to drive down since the valley is at a pretty low altitude, unlike most of its French counterparts.  Also, the villages are a short hop from one another, around 10-15 minutes drive, so you can see everything within a day or leisurely within a week, take your pick depending on what you fancy from the descriptions below.
After heading up from the eastern part of Ventimiglia into the hills through the flower-growing region, the valley narrows down and the scenery become greener, and within a few minutes, you’ll be in Dolceacqua.
 
Dolceacqua

 
 
 
 
 
 
 


The largest village in the valley, is also the first you will see and is one of the most spectacular, with the very impressive ruins of the Doria Castle perched high on top of the hill on the eastern bank of the Nervia.  The village is divided into two sections: Terra, which is the oldest section on the eastern bank directly beneath the castle, and Borgo which is the more “modern” part of town on the opposite bank of the Nervia (“modern” means there’s a supermarket and shops but apart from that, both sides are pretty ancient).  Both sides are connected by the Ponte Romano, a beautiful 15th century humpback bridge made of bricks: the view of the bridge and the Castle above it was immortalised by Monet in one of his late 19th century paintings.
Just get lost in the small streets and staircases of Terra, which are full of art galleries, local olive oil and wine shops and are absolutely magical at night when the whole place is lit up.  It’s quite a steep climb up to the castle ruins, but the views are spectacular if you can made it up – the castle is also delightful viewed from a distance.  Then head off across the Ponte Romano to Borgo, which has a nice square with frequent markets and plenty of good places to eat.
For something a little different and one of the most unlikely attractions one could find in a medieval Italian village: a 3D mini-cinema with surround sound and special aromatic effects.  The premises are quirky, old fashioned and charming, and a pleasant cool escape from the heat outside.  Well worth a visit.  
View over Borgo and the Ponte Romano by night, and the banks of the Nervia are a lovely place for an after-dinner scroll!
Every summer (generally the Saturday after 15 August), there is an excellent fireworks, sound and light show which is well worth seeing due to the spectacular backdrop of the bridge and the castle.  Arrive early, as it gets very busy!  
Wine tasting for individuals and groups can be arranged at the foot of the Castello Doria
Information and reservations: 0184 229507 / +39 3371004228
e-mail: dolceacqua@enotecaregionaleliguria.it
 
Rocchetta Nervina
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


The unspoilt village of Rocchetta Nervina.
Heading up the valley a few minutes north of Dolceacqua, you can do a slight detour and turn left off the main road towards the village of Rocchetta Nervina, about 5 minutes drive along a narrow but relatively easy road.  This small village is extremely quaint, quiet and is located in a beautiful natural setting on the meanders of the river, maybe the most spectacular of all is it offers Canyoning!  Here you can dive in crystal clear water, swim in natural pools and go abseiling in waterfalls with some canyoning possibilities if you are after some outdoor activities.
There are a couple of small restaurants on the square at the entrance of the village and plenty of medieval streets lined with potted plants to just wander around, so it’s a nice place for a leisurely stroll.
 
Isolabona   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Back onto the main road and heading up the Nervia Valley, it’s just under 10 minutes to the next village, Isolabona which is thus named because part of it is located on a small island in the middle of the Nervia.
It’s well worth stopping for a walk around the village, which is pretty colourful and well-maintained, with the traditional olive oil and wine shops, a few beautiful squares (notably Piazza Piccola and Piazza Grande) and churches as well as another ruined castle built by the Dorias on top of a hill, though less impressive than the huge one in Dolceacqua.  Also the location is stunning, surrounded by the green hills of the valley and the luxuriant vegetation.  You can also take a dip in one of the many rock pools if you fancy cooling off.
 
Apricale 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 





From the centre of Isolabona, turn off the main road into the Merdanzo valley and take a small detour to the perched village of Apricale, which is a short 5 minute drive away and well worth it – for most visitors, it’s the most beautiful village in the valley, though I personally prefer the slightly livelier and more accessible Dolceacqua.  After Pigna of course!
The setting is pretty stunning, perched a bit like Rocchetta Nervina on a rocky spur and it’s a very nice place to wander around, even though by now you’ll be pretty familiar with the layout of all the villages so they’ll all start to look the same!  Of note is the large main square and the coloured facade of the 1863 town hall with its beautiful pink frescoes, in contrast with some of the stark brick facades of the other streets.  The square is dominated by the 11th century Castello della Lucertola which saw the domination of the village switch between the Dorias, the Savoy royal family and other local families.  Apricale is also full of small shops, some small hotels and very typical restaurants, generally more upmarket than in the other villages, so is worth a second visit in the evening.
 
 
Pigna and Castel Vittorio 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The stretch of the valley north of Isolabona on the way to Pigna is probably the most beautiful, with incredibly lush vegetation and the craggy summits of the Alps looming in the distance, making a great contrast between the palm trees and the rocky terrain just behind.  Just the scenery makes the short trip up to the next villages worthwhile.
The village of Pigna is located on the side of a hill, Lord of the Rings style: getting up to the village from the main road is a bit of a climb, but the advantage once you’ve climbed your way up is the great view over the valley, especially north towards the rival village of Castel Vittorio, only about 2 kilometres away as the crow flies – you can even hear the church bells from there.
The village is most famous for its nearby thermal baths, the Terme di Pigna, which are located just down the road (in probably the only modern building in the whole valley north of Dolceacqua).  If you want to relax, you can get a day pass for the use of the swimming pools, jacuzzi and sauna at a reasonable rate.  Something else the village is famous for is its white beans, which are grown nearby and which you can find in the local game stews.
You can also head off by foot to the nearby village of Castel Vittorio, perched high in the green hills, which pretty much marks the end of the Nervia valley.  The village is a beautiful view from Pigna, and there are some pretty streets, a nice square and some good local restaurants to try.
You can really tell that this is the final frontier before the southern Alps, as the Nervia Valley ends just to the north and the atmosphere of the village is quite a bit colder than the other places.  Also, despite them being close by, historically Castel Vittorio spent quite a long time under the administration of Piemonte, whereas the neighbouring village of Pigna was under Genovese administration.
 
Buggio
 
 
 
 
 
 
Five kilometres further up the valley from Pigna and you’ll arrive at the enclosed village of Buggio, which nestles at the foot of Mount Toraggio.  It’s set in a natural basin which is framed by a few rocky peaks of the Alpes Maritimes.  Nearby stands the venerated church of San Syagrio, dedicated to the Bishop of Nice (later made a saint) after a visit to Buggio for the annual confirmation service.  The village lanes and alleys and its rocky peak are filled with a timeless atmosphere.  All this is conducive to refreshing walks from one vineyard and olive-grove to the next, up to the protected land towards the woods and pastures as far as mounts Ceppo, Pietravecchia and Toraggio.  Here one comes face to face with a large variety of rare botanical species.  It is possible to catch glimpses of marmots, chamois, harrier eagles and golden eagles along the old salt route and Alpine paths, signs that the environment is still untainted here.
Once you’re done with the northernmost villages, it’s only a short drive to the coastline in Ventimiglia (around 25 minutes) where you can start to explore the coast towns along the Italian Riviera or you can take the motorway or the coastal road and head to the French Riviera.
 
PIGNA WHITE BEAN
[Slow Food Presidium] Slow Food Presidium
 
 
 
 
 
 
Characteristics:
The Pigna White Bean, together with the Badalucco and Conio (towns near Imperia) Beans, is one of the Slow Food Presidia within the Park territory. This plant reached Liguria in the 17th century from Spain through the ships coming from the New World by way of Provence, and it found here its ideal habitat. On the dry terraced lands of the hinterland the most suitable areas for the plantations are situated in the highest places, where lands are properly drained and water comes from the springs and is very chalky and rich in mineral salts. 
The Pigna white bean has been present in the territories of Pigna, Buggio and Castel Vittorio for more than 300 years. 
The cultivated areas are situated in the areas called "abrigu" in dialect, that means "exposed to the sun", where the hills have gentle slopes suitable for cultivation. 
They say that the territories where this bean is usually cultivated has been used since the Roman period. 

Processing: 
The production area is located at an altitude between 300 m and 800 m above sea level, at the foot of the Ligurian Alps (Mounts Toraggio and Pietravecchia) in small plots whose access is often difficult for the usual mechanical means. The cultivations are usually located near small water courses in order to make the irrigation procedures easier. Irrigation is realized in a traditional way, with a natural flow by means of small canals, or with modern techniques by means of sprinklers. 
The annual production ranges between 4000 and 4500 kilograms. The sowing, organized in rows, is carried out in May, while for the harvesting farmers have to wait until September, when the legume is dried. Legumes belong to the climbing plants: the Pigna variety is pinkish, almost beige, with a thin outer hull, egg-shaped and smaller than the Conio and Badalucco beans. Their consistency is pulpy, their texture soft and delicate, their taste recalls that of chestnut and fresh nuts. 
They are very good when dried, but they can also be tasted fresh in the winter dishes. The best way to eat them is to stew them and season them with extra-virgin olive oil. 
Their preparation requires a long time because they need a night-long soaking. Then they have to be stewed in water for 35 minutes after the water starts to boil, with garlic, laurel leaves, some spoons of oil and salt at the end. They are ready when the beans are tender but compact and do not melt. In the Pigna territory this typical dish is served with goat meat. 

Production places:
Pigna (principal town and part of Buggio), Castel Vittorio
 
 
WINES OF THE NERVIA VALLEY
The Rossese grape is not well known but has been grown locally for hundreds of years and is still cultivated and processed by hand, using only Copper Sulphate to control pests.
Gordon Home, an English traveller writing in 1908, commented on the ‘songs and laughter’ at harvest time, the ‘baskets full of luscious purple grapes’ carried into the village of Apricale and the wonderful fruits and changing colours to be experienced on the hillsides in autumn.
Many local families still have a little vineyard and a cantina in which to store their home produce.  The most skilled make some lovely wine for family consumption and distil good grappa too.  Gordon Home recommended tasting as the only way to distinguish poor quality from ‘truly wonderful’, so not much has changed!  Price is not necessarily the best guide.  More and more family vineyards are selling wine commercially.  Napoleon was reputed to admire the red wine of the area.  It’s reputation is steadily being revived by visitor interest and the efforts of local entrepreneurs.
 
Testalonga
Our current favourite, right beside Terra Biance is a small one man and his mother operation with wine to rival their bigger neighbour’s.  This wine is fermented in wooden barrels without yeast or additives in the cantina from which the wine is sold in Dolceacqua.  To taste and buy find the store room to the right the tourist information or follow the little signs saying Testalonga which point to the back street and cantina where the wine is made.  If in doubt ask the locals, they will point you in the right direction.  This traditional organic Rossese with distinctive brown paper label has a delicious deceptively light but earthy quality and Doc registration.  Mother and son also produce a coloured Vermintino typical of the Nervia area, which takes around 4 years to mature.  Very good, but with no doc registration because of the off white colour produced by fermenting over the grape skins.  Price 10 euros from the cantina, more if you buy in local shops.
 
Guglielmi Enzo
Located in Soldano which is not in the valley Nervia but his vines are to be found on the eastern slopes of the valley.  The wine is sold from a cantina below Enzo’s home in this village just above Vallecrosia, on the road to Perinaldo.  Enzo produces two qualities of rather black current flavoured Rossese, a bargain at 6 and 7.50 euros.  Soldano producers such as Guliami are reputed to have rescued the Rossese grape from the European wine lake years and begun the process of re-establishing it’s reputation.  Guliami’s wine is also available in good restaurants such as Delio in Apricale.
 
Gajaudo
One of the larger producers, by local standards, using grapes from a variety of local vinyards.  You can see the large cantina in the valley on the left hand side of the road up to Pigna.  Gajaudo produce good red and white Doc wines from local grapes which are sold from the cantina and in shops and restaurants around the area.  Two qualities of fresh, clean, berry flavoured and tawny coloured Rossese wine are available at reasonable prices.
 
Foresti
This is a smaller commercial producer, again using local grapes from various producers, conveniently located between Dolceacqua and Camporosso on the main road.  Like Gajaudo, Foresti make a typically light and not quite red wine from locally grown Rossese grapes.  Foresti has a clean, astringent quality which blends well with local dishes and is available in the better restaurants.
 
Terre Biance
This beautiful vineyard commands fabulous views over the valley (to find it take the left turn from the Rocchetta road towards La Colla).  Two generations have produced wine commercially in this lovely spot using traditional methods.  Only copper sulphate, the distinctive blue Bordeaux Mix is used in cultivation.  This family now grow a range of grapes and are making a several good Doc status wines which you can taste if you visit: a smooth and rich Rossese, a rich deep wine which is Rossese mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and a range of whites.  In all sixty thousand litres per year are produced.  Vineyard prices start from 11 euros (top of the local price range but worth it).