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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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).
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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.
– 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.
– 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…