17 suggestions, things to see and do
Visit Apricale historical centre. The oldest of all the hilltop villages of the valley Nervia, with statutes dating back to 1267. It was partly destroyed but rebuilt in 16th century during a period of falling out between the Grimaldi family of Monaco and the Dorians. The castle, it’s gardens, the museum with village history and square are all worthy of exploration. You may begin your tour at the bottom of the principal street, Via Angeli and walk up to the square or start at the top of the village and climb down San Bartolemeo to the piazza or park near the cemetery and walk the short and relatively level path (easier for pushchairs, wheelchairs and the feint hearted). Whichever approach you take the lanes, tunnels, arches and stairways transport you back to another age. If you start at the bottom, the Santa Maria degli Angeli church at the foot of the village is covered in frescos from 15th century and should not be missed. Note the old wells nearby which provided water for the lower part of the village and were used as baptismal fonts in the Middle Ages. They were reputed to have curative properties.
Whether you climb up or down you can enjoy a coffee in the café in the square and watch the comings and goings of village life. The beautiful village square is a theatre stage in August, a dance floor the last weekend in July, a pitch for Palone in June, kitchen and restaurant for the pansarole festival in September, school playground in term time, home to many spaghetti eating cats and most of village residents over 60!
Post cards and stamps can be bought in the square, little art studios, churches, the museum and shops with local produce add interest as you explore.
Walk around Isolabona. Isola, the Roman word for a confluence of two rivers. There is a lot more inside the village than meets the eye as you pass on the road. In an effort to control the recalcitrant contadini the Dorian family part built the castle (which is now a theatre), as far back as 1287. The village is entered by a bridge over the Nervia. The medieval hump backed bridge was destroyed when the 500 strong German force left at the end of the war. Inside the village proper you may see the little fountain dated 1486, further up the parish church of Maria Maddalena dated 1641, the long square and just to the north of the village on the main road to Pigna, a second church with fine 17th century paintings and fragments of a 15th century fresco. Beyond this in the village cemetery an even older church with another early fresco depicting the Baptism of Christ.The old mill sells good local produce.
Dolceacqua has a lot to offer, the lovely medieval bridge painted by Monet, the main Dorian castle dating back to 12th century and some nice shops (don’t miss the atmospheric olive oil shop on the right hand side just as you are leaving the town going up the valley), cafes and restaurants. Around six in the evening people congregate in the little bars and cafes which put out snacks to encourage drinkers to hang about. A farmers market takes place on Thursdays and local produce festivals on the last Sunday each month throughout the year. This is also the nearest place with banks and cash machines. The hills above offer some nice walks through the orange and lemon groves and the parish church has an interesting 16th century painting.Don't miss the fabulous fireworks in mid August these are a real spectacle!
Oil. The small Taggiasca olive was introduced to Liguria from Palestine by the Franciscan friars in the early Christian period. The olive trees around the monastery at San Pietro are therefore some of the oldest in the area. Don’t be fooled by a young looking tree, check the roots, the trees are regularly cut down and re grown. Olives are the competitive sport of the area one in which all the family are involved. Old men keep a watchful eye on the crop during the autumn and the picking begins sometime from November to January when nets are laid, sticks wielded to shake the olives down and Apes and Cinquecentros weighed down with sacks and boxes stagger to the millers. The produce is weighed and oil yield chalked up on the wall against the family name. Apes return with gallon jars, plastic cans and churns full of green, grassy smelling liquid. At home plates of spaghetti are cooked and the new oil sampled by friends and neighbours. The frantoio Cassini on the road to Pigna, ‘the old frantoio’ in the village of Isolabona and the little shop on the left as you enter Dolceacqua are good places to look and buy. You can also taste oil at farmers markets and of course in local restaurants where a bottle of extra virgin is usually planted on your table for free! It is all cold pressed these days and therefore extra virgin. If you are around in December or January you can watch the process in Cassini’s.
The Hanbury Botanical Garden. Overlooking the sea were established in 1867 on the border between Latte and Menton by Sir Thomas and his brother, They were destroyed during the second world war but are now restored to their former splendour by Genova University. My sisters who are great gardeners love this place!
Music, dancing and theatre. There is lots on locally in summer. In winter if you get fed up of rural living or have a wet day Monaco, Nice and San Remo are not far away. Most villages put on classical, folk and popular music in their squares in the summer, details of these are available in tourist offices and on notice boards. The Isolabona Harp Festival takes place in the second and third weeks of July. Apricale has a number of classical concerts in its castle during the summer months, popular concerts in the piazza at weekends and theatre in the square in August. Each village has at least one village dance, Isolabona attracts the young crowd from the local school and is much preferred by the younger members of our family. Apricale dance is for all ages and usually happens on the last weekend in July, when they shake plenty of flour on the pavestones of the pizza so that stiff old men can glide about as if they have grown castors. The tent at the bottom of the valley in Camporosso holds dances every weekend. These are run by the local communist party and often include a supper of goat and beans! Haud me back! as they say in Glasgow.
Pallone elastico is played in the village squares, scored a bit like tennis, played a bit like squash. A contest takes place between teams from each of the villages of the valley on weekday afternoons during June and July. Matches leading up to the championships are posted locally.
Wine. Napolean is reputed to have called the local Rossese “delicious nectar” and shipped cases of it to France! Many families make their own wine from home grown Rossese grapes and some of the local shops sell these. They vary wildly in quality and price is no guide! The two main commercial producers are Gajaudo on the road from Isolabona to Pigna and Foresti under the autostrada in Camporosso (take the left route at the roundabout) In both places you can taste before you buy and also in the several smaller cooperatives in Dolceacqua old town. We like the wine from the next valley of Soldano where small producers began the process of restoring the reputation of rossese. Enzo Guigliano is a name to look for. To taste a wider range of Italian wines there is a nice shop on the right as you come through Dolceacqua from Apricale. The grocers in Isolabona has good Prosecco and Rossese too. There are also weekly wine tasting evenings in Dolceacqua (enquire at the tourist office on the square). See the wine page on this website for further information.
Trains. If you want to shop in San Remo or Nice, or visit any of the small towns on the Italian and French Riviera park outside the station and take the train.Our grandchildren love to ride on a double-decker train to Nice for a day spent trying on shoes, checking out make-up and lingerie shops near Gallerie- Lafayette followed by dinner in the old flower market where you can mooch around the handicraft stalls before getting the train home.
If you like train rides or have small children to entertain we recommend the train to Limone. Our grandson particularly appreciated this more than 45 tunnel spectacular (we stopped counting) mountain route up from Ventimiglia. Walking and Skiing access is very close to the station but our little grandson just wanted to get straight back on the train and see it all again going back down! The Museum of marvels in Tende is good for all ages and records the fantastic rock art of the valley.
Menton has good gift shops and the streets are lively in the evenings in summer with face painting, hair braiding, and buskers (one regular plays the bagpipes), ice cream stalls and beach trampolines to entertain children. However little you spend the shops will gift-wrap. So it’s a good place to buy little souvenirs for school friends and scented soap and lavender bags for aunties. Don’t miss the fireworks on Bastille Day!
Ice Cream. So far not mentioned but not to be missed. The bar in Isolabona has small but tasty selection, Dolceacqua has a specialist shop with plenty of choice and the sea fronts in Ventimiglia, Bordighera and Menton have a huge range of shops with a vast range of flavours. Take your pick! Most people in the area have a little portfolio of jobs. We had a chap clear blocked sewers in Amarin whose other job was running an ice cream parlour in Vallecrosia.
Casinos. Accessible by train or road in less than an hour. By train, park in the station at Ventimiglia, choose between San Remo or Monte Carlo. Take your passport for identification and check the last train back, summer timetables have services well after midnight allowing plenty of time to break the bank!.
Biardo (or Baijardo in dialect). Drive or walk up to the highest village for a panoramic view of the whole area. Two hundred people died when the roof of the now ruined church of San Nicolo at the top of the town, collapsed during an earthquake on Ash Wednesday in 1893, which partly destroyed the town. There is a good and very cheap rustic restaurant in the main street. The tree raising festival in springtime commemorates the woodsman skills of the village. A combination of the narrow street and wine drinking add an alarming level of tension to the spectacle.
Roquebrune and the oldest olive tree. Roquebrune is on the promontory beyond Menton. Drive round the cap or take the motorway. Perched high above the Mediterranean this hill top village with fortress allows you to gaze down on Monte Carlo harbour. It is reputed to have a 1000 year old olive tree. This is a nice little excursion in spring or autumn. If you keep going on round the cap, which isn’t too busy, in May, you can admire the boats in the harbour at close range and drive the rally circuit in Monaco which is all laid out ready for the race too start.
Cassini astronomical observatory. Perinaldo is the very fitting birthplace one of Italy’s greatest astronomers (1625 – 1712) (who discovered the first asteroid, the first moons of Saturn, the speed at which Mars, Venus and Jupiter rotate and much more). Check the tourist information in Apricale, Dolceacqua or on the main street in Ventimiglia for the timing of astronomical evenings at the Observatory.
Markets. Thursdays for fruit, vegetables and cheese in Dolceacua. Everyday in Ventimiglia. Visit the farmers stalls on the far right hand side of Ventimiglia market for fungi, sundried tomatoes, little bunches of herbs and ministrone veg ready chopped. They will usually offer recipes if you ask ‘what do you do with this?’ Every Friday is the big street market, when getting through the town can be very slow because the French rush over the border for cheap food, clothing, leather goods and all those very Italian kitchen gadgets like frothers for cappuccino, parmesan graters and of course espresso pots. My sisters and I love the shoe stalls!