The Italian hinterlands: Dolceacqua and the villages of the Nervia Valley


The villages of Pigna and Castelvittorio in the beautiful Nervia valley, a short hop from the French Riviera and a great culture shock!

An effortless excursion through the Nervia valley in Italy to the villages of Dolceacqua, Rocchetta Nervina, Isolabona, Apricale, Pigna and Castelvittorio, as well as some recommended restaurants.

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 and is one of my favourite coastal valleys of the Riviera, with a winning combination of beautiful scenery, picturesque medieval villages and great Ligurian food at reasonable prices, all within only about 40 minutes drive from Monaco or an hour from Nice!

I would definitely recommend following this itinerary by car, as it affords far more flexibility than public transport, which is slow and tedious due to the very infrequent and unreliable bus lines, so you won’t really optimise your trip. Besides, 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 easily within a day, or else just 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 and rather unattractive industrial town of Camporosso, the valley narrows down and the scenery become greener, and within a few minutes, you’ll be in Dolceacqua.

Dolceacqua

The Doria castle and the Ponte Romano of Dolceacqua

The largest village in the valley, Dolceacqua 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.

Claude Monet’s 1884 vision of Dolceacqua, pretty accurate!

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, so wouldn’t really advise bothering, especially in the heat of the summer – the castle is nicer from a distance rather than viewed from the inside. Then head off across the Ponte Romano to Borgo, which has a nice square with frequent markets and plenty of good places to eat (see the end of this article for recommendations).

View over Borgo and the Ponte Romano by night, 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 and sound and light show which is well worth it due to the spectacular backdrop of the bridge and the castle, despite the village being absolutely packed out so come early!

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 isn’t the most spectacular of the valley, but is extremely quaint, quiet and is located in a beautiful natural setting on the meanders of the river, with some canyoning possibilities if you are after some outdoor activities.

One of the green streets of Rocchetta Nervina

The countryside just outside Rocchetta Nervina

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 quick wander around.

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.

Isolabona, located on a small island on the Nervia river

It’s worth stopping over 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 and another ruined castle built by the Dorias on top of a hill, though much 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.

The heart of Isolabona

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.

Apricale, one of the main attractions of Val Nervia, just off the main valley

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 quite a nice base if you want to stay overnight, especially in the summer months.

Pigna and Castelvittorio 

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, even though the villages themselves are nothing too exceptional.

Castelvittorio viewed from Pigna

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 and not really worth it as there’s not much to see up there apart from a large church and some typical medieval streets which are a bit more run down than the other villages (not that many restaurants either).

One of the typical streets of Pigna

One advantage once you’ve climbed your way up is the great view over the valley, especially north towards the rival village of Castelvittorio, 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 in a rather uninspiring modern high-rise building just down the road (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 and there are also hotel rooms there, though the accommodation is rather overpriced according to most online reviews. 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 to the nearby village of Castelvittorio, perched high in the green hills, which pretty much marks the end of the Nervia valley. The village is best viewed from afar in Pigna as the place itself is quite run-down, especially compared to the villages further south, though there are still some pretty streets, a nice square and some pretty good local restaurants (which I still need 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 Castelvittorio spent quite a long time under the administration of Piemonte, whereas the neighbouring village of Pigna was under Genovese administration.

Once you’re done with the northernmost villages, it’s only a short drive back to the coastline in Ventimiglia (around 35 minutes) and then you can take the motorway or the coastal road back to the French Riviera.

WHERE TO EAT AND STAY?   

It would be a crime to travel to Val Nervia and not to taste any of the delicious regional specialities, which are very different from what can be found in France or even on the Italian coastline: the hearty specialities of the valley involve game (wild boar, deer, rabbit), roast meat including goat, lamb, cold meats, wild mushrooms, white Pigna beans and the local freshly-pressed olive oil, all washed down with the local Rossese di Dolceacqua red wine. Try out some of the very filling and reasonably-priced Italian set menus including hot and cold starters, pasta, meat and dessert.

A typical cold meat starter at the Lago Bin hotel: note the wild boar ham stuffed with porcini mushrooms, delicious!

Some of the typical Rossese di Dolceacqua wines from Val Nervia

A word of advice though if you take this kind of menu: go easy on the pasta dish as otherwise you won’t be able to eat the meat or the dessert, which would be a shame. Most restaurants in Italy add a cover charge of around 2 to 3 € per person depending on the level of the restaurant, technically to cover the price of the bread sticks and other stuff provided on the table but mainly a trumped-up tip – up to you to decide if the service is good enough to deserve an additional tip afterwards (if they are friendly, which is generally the case in the Nervia Valley and outside of the main tourist spots in Liguria, I tend to add another 10% to the bill, which is more than enough in Italy).

Dolceacqua

–          The Pizzeria Il Borgo located on the main square in Borgo (across the river from the Castle) is open both for lunch and dinner serves excellent pizzas and other local dishes at prices impossible to find on the French side of the border.

–          La Rampa, located on the main square is famous for having some of the best pizzas in Italy. It’s open only at night and doesn’t take reservations, so you need to turn up at 7pm when it opens or risk waiting a bit. However, when I went there, I was slightly disappointed by the pizzas which whilst being pretty good, weren’t as exceptional as the hype suggested.

Eating out in Dolceacqua at night, here locals from the valley having pizza at La Rampa

–          There are two traditional “agriturismi” on the opposite side of the river in the Terra part of the village beneath the castle and lost in the small streets behind the large church which I’ve never tried but which have a great reputation amongst the locals: U Fundu and I Gumbi da U Zena (the latter is only open from Thursdays to Sundays). Both have typical gastronomic menus at between 20€ and 30€ and have their own olive oils, so well worth trying – I’ll definitely stop by to review them on my next trip to the valley.

Rocchetta Nervina

–          On the road to Rocchetta, about 1 km before the medieval village, you cannot miss the Lago Bin Hotel and restaurant, which is a pretty comfortable resort with a swimming pool that I like to visit to take a quick weekend break in the spring or the autumn. Prices are reasonable in basic 3-star rooms which are nothing special but afford a nice place to sleep overlooking the valley and the possibility of waking up, enjoying a great view from your balcony and having breakfast in the peaceful valley is absolutely priceless. Watch out for special off-season deals on their website. The restaurant, without being exceptional, is pretty decent too, with good quality and very filling local fare and a reasonable wine list. Just be aware that the decoration of stuffed animals can be rather jarring at the dinner table, as are the crowds of locals indulging in wedding parties on weekends with some very cheesy live music.

Breakfast al fresco at the Lago Bin Hotel in Rocchetta Nervina, great to breathe some fresh air in the morning!

Apricale

–          La Favorita, located on the left of the main road just before arriving in the centre of the village (about 500m before the entrance), has great roast and grilled meat.

–          La Capanna da Baci’ is another more upmarket place in the village just underneath the main square that has an excellent reputation with the locals who live in the valley. It also has some rooms for people wanting to spend the night on the spot.

–          If you want to spend the night in the village, check out the Apricus Locanda guesthouse which has a limited amount of pretty traditional and renovated rooms, though not particularly cheap (around 100€ per night). I’m mainly recommending it because it has some very good reviews and standards of family-run places of this type are generally pretty high in the region. For those staying in Apricale, be aware that the  whole village is pedestrian, so if you have luggage, you’ll need to park at the foot of the village, then drag your cases uphill.

Isolabona

–          There’s nowhere decent that I know of in the centre of the village, but if you carry on about a kilometre north towards Pigna, I can definitely recommend the U Cian agriturismo (on the left hand side of the main road, watch out for the signs), which has a very refined and reasonably priced gastronomic menu that, although filling, puts quality before quantity. The setting is also very traditional, with great views over the valley.

Serving the delicious pasta course in copper bowls at U Cian

Pigna and Castelvittorio

–          There is a great family-owned place where I once had lunch at the bottom of the village (opposite a pretty ancient petrol station which seems to come straight out of the Sicily section of the Godfather film) – unfortunately I can’t remember the name but there’s a great view over Castelvittorio and the aforementioned petrol station.

View over Castelvittorio from the excellent but un-named restaurant in Pigna, this should help you track it down!

The food was really excellent, with a delicious goat stew simmered with some Pigna beans at a very reasonable price. Next time I head up there, I’ll take note of the name but if you know it in the meantime, please let me know! Apparently there are also a couple of good restaurants up in Castelvittorio which have great reviews, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try them yet, so if you know of any, please feel free to comment below.

GETTING THERE

–          By car: By far the recommended option, from Nice or Monaco just take the A8 motorway across the Italian border and exit in Ventimiglia. From there, cross the city centre (avoid Friday mornings due to the market-related traffic) and once you’ve crossed over the railway tracks at the eastern end, head inland towards Dolceacqua. The road is very well-signposted so you can’t miss it.

How to get to Val Nervia by car from the Riviera, it’s not far at all!

–          By public transport: not recommended unless you’re going to a specific spot in the valley (for example staying in a guesthouse in Dolceacqua or Apricale). In that case, take a train to Ventimiglia station then a bus to Dolceacqua and the other villages – you can find the timetables here. Just make sure you’re not in a hurry…

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17 thoughts on “The Italian hinterlands: Dolceacqua and the villages of the Nervia Valley

  1. It was very stimulating to read your experiences from the Nervia Valley. It made me revisit all these nice places, while sitting in Sweden!
    A pity, however, that you did not try one of the best restaurants in the whole valley, Bruno’s in Isolabona. Next time you will visit Isolabona you will find that restaurant just 100 metres from the crossing where you turn left on your way to Apricale.

    Thanks for your article,
    Karl Eric Ericson

    • Dear Karl,

      Many thanks for the address and for pointing out where it is – I will definitely try out Bruno’s next time I head into the Nervia valley!

      Best wishes, Kevin

  2. Dear Kevin. I am English and my partner is Italian, and we have a B & B in Pigna. The restaurant you mention in your article, opposite the petrol pump belongs to my Partner;s sister, Carla Alberti. The restaurant is called La Posta. Yes, you are right the food is lovely and is all totally home cooked. If you return to Pigna, please come to see us.
    Best wishes. Val & Vilmo

    • Dear Kevin…. compliments on your blog. It is excellent. By the way in my first message, I forgot to tell you the restaurants in Castel Vittorio – one is called Il Portico and the other is U Busciun. Both are very good.
      Val & Vilmo

  3. The restaurant name you’re looking for in Pigna is La Posta ran by owner Carla it is a fabulous family run place with great home cooked food. There is a good wood fired oven pizza, live music etc at the Sul Ponte bar on the bridge coming into the village which is well supported by both locals and a busy crowd of visitors in summer months. There is also the Old Terme restaurant, with great views over Pigna for outside dining in summer and a substantial menu of traditional ligurian food. You see, Pigna is worth a visit!! 🙂
    The best restaurant in Castel Vittorio is Del Portica, again a fantastic family run place near the church, enjoy pasta ‘tutti’ and sample an amazing range of fresh pasta dishes followed by wild boar, snails, lamb, rabbit, then homemade deserts and coffee with as much red or white wine you can drink for 25-30 euros…fantastic! enjoy, all the best, a home owner in Pigna, Ian

  4. Thanks for a nice tour… but still, you have to go to Castelvittorio and Pigna to eat! I don´t know about the one opposit to the petrol station, BUT please go to Restaurant Busciun in Castelvittorio, Ristorante Osteria det Portico and Grand Hotel Antice Terme di Pigna. Susanne Marie / Denmark

  5. Kevin,

    Your blog was such a lucky find for us. We were in Monaco recently for the Grand Prix, but longed to return to Italy. I found your blog and knew you were a kindred spirit. We rented a car for the day and visited Ventimiglia, Dolceacqua and Apricale. Great food, lovely settings, just an incredible day. We ended the day sitting on the beach near the residential section of Ventimiglia (even fell asleep on the smooth stones). You have a gift for exploration, far more insightful than the typical travel guides. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

    • Erik,
      Many thanks for your kind words, delighted that you were able to follow my advice and enjoyed your day! I’ve been a bit busy travelling on business lately but am preparing several articles for the summer season. Hope you come back to the Rivera soon!

  6. Just got back from the Nice area – we are sure glad we made the side trip to these villages – explored 2 or them in depth – what a medieval feeling. Would love to return and stay awhile. Only problem was trying to find a mentioned restuarant open for lunch. Did find a local one that was good. We really like the Nice area and could easily do a “carless” week or more using the buses and trains to small villages. Thanks Kevin

    mentioned your blog in a Fodors write up I did on our trip as a good source of info

  7. I can second the comments by Susan Semple – Pigna is indeed worth a visit. La Posta (opposite the petrol station) does wonderful home-cooked Ligurian food, the Sul Ponte bar is a vibrant place to be especially in the summer months with it’s live music and the Hotel Terme is renowned for it’s food. If you go to Del Portica in Castel Vittorio go hungry!

  8. Hello,

    I was preparing my journey to Isolabona while I came across this blog.
    I wanted to thank you ALOT for the usefull info I found here which helped me very much!

  9. Hello,

    While preparing my journey to Isolabona I came across this blog, which helped me ALOT.
    Thank you very much for all the usefull info!!

  10. As I sit in Melbourne (Australia) trying desperately hard to work out an itinerary in a limited time, luckily stumbled upon your blog which I thank you so much for. Lots of exactly the information I needed, so very much appreciated, and thanks also to those who have added helpful comments. I will be there late July, can’t wait!!!

  11. Hi Kevin. We’ve just done this tour today after an excellent morning in the market in Ventimiglia – see separate post. We really enjoyed it and your blog with all the guidance was invaluable. Dolceacquas was the highlight, and we imagined all sort of dark deeds that might take place as we wandered the passages of the Terra side of the town. It was pretty deserted today but we expected that. The drive to Rocchetta Nervia, Isolabona, Apricale, Pigna and Castelvittorio was really interesting, although we probably wouldn’t bother with the last two another time. We did find a nice coffee with a local proprietor in the piazza outside the church in Apricale (Il Ciassa I think ?) and had a nice chat with him.

    • Thanks again Richard, glad that you enjoyed yourselves! I agree that Pigna and Castelvittorio must have been pretty dead at this time of year, but they are much nicer in the summer months and that’s the area where you find the nicest landscapes.

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