Apricale history

(For lots more information and interesting days out visit: Museo Preistorico dei Balzi Rosso, Museo Forte dell’Annunziata Ventimiglia, Museo Archeologico di Nervia, Ventimiglia, Musee Departemental des Merveilles, Tende)

Ancient times

Several hundred years before Christ an ancient Ligurian people inhabited this area. They took their animals onto the mountains to graze in summer, they built the landscape of terraced hills to grow their crops. *By the 5th century BC they had developed salt production and a system of mule tracks and staging posts for the salt trade. Salt was a precious commodity. Winter survival was made bearable in northern places by salt fish, meat and cheese making. Without preserves long sea voyages could not be made and armies could not march.

‘Apricalese’, the language spoken by young and old in Apricale today and probably many other characteristics of Apricale life are most likely derived from these early Ligurians. It is hard to say with any certainty when the local infrastructure of cobbled mule tracks and terraced hillsides was built. Much is certainly pre-Roman, with the remains of viaducts in river valleys that we can see today being laid down during Roman times from 89 BC (when Ventimiglia residents were granted Roman citizenship) and 565 AD when  Roman power waned and Liguria was devastated by plague. Much of the local know-how about sun drying and salting of garden produce probably dates back to pre roman times. Wine making and pizza baking we probably owe to the Romans, who built the coast road and settled for many hundreds of years in the flat lands between the mouth of the valley Nervia and the mouth of the Roya. Their amphitheatre, fort and other sites can be visited in Ventimiglia.

The Nervia valley was a route for salt trading. The story of Apricale village itself is said to begin with salt trading Celts/ Ligurians who trod the mule tracks up and down the valley and over the mountains further north. Folklore says that one of these traders fathered a child with a local girl and they established their home on the gentle eastern slopes of the Nervia valley, above what is now Camping della Rosa. Their little settlement attracted monks, around 800 (when the christian faith divided into Roman and Greek Orthodox). These hard working Benedictine monks brought the taggiasca olive from Palestine along with conversion to their roman version of christianity and established a handsome but now ruined monastery. The olive covered hillsides and oil production which became so important to village life, began with know how brought by these monks. Their religious ideas, devotion to hard work and church building also shaped village life, including the saints days which are still celebrated.

Precisely when and why this first settlement abandoned it’s cemetery and parish church, moved from a fertile piece of land on a sunny slope, well supplied with springs, to the rocky knife - edge between two rivers in the tenth or eleventh century is not recorded. But the Benedictines were in decline,  by the eleventh century commerce was growing and northern Italy was on its way to becoming the economic and artistic capital of Europe. Where spring water was available, hilltop villages were established across Northern Italy offering market spaces for trade and protection to people and their rapidly growing wealth of traded goods and livestock. Apricale with it’s piazza and public spring water at the heart of the village, is one of the earliest and a very small example of such villages. Communes kept both church and landlords at arms length and offered their citizens some political and religious freedom at a time when powerful men were appropriating land and establishing what we now call feudal rights over communities. Apricale attached itself to Genoa and attempted to fend off religious and feudal predators.

The Comune of Apricale

The distinctive pine-cone shaped village we see today was begun sometime before the mid 13th century. The Comune of Apricale has records going back to 1267, with statues from the count of Vengtimiglia, establishing it as the first independent village in the whole of Liguria. These documents can be viewed with lots of other interesting material in the village museum. We know that in this part of the world around the 12th and 13th centuries a number of towns and cities emerged which were governed by a council of leading families. Genova was the largest, and controlled much of the Ligurian coast. Apricale, although a trading satellite of Ventimiglia, seems to have been one such, small but independently governed community. Such places developed distinctive ideas of citizenship and resisted the feudal lord and peasant relationships, which pre-dominated elsewhere in Europe at that time. The people of Apricale intended, as far as possible, to develop their own livelihoods rather than labour in support of a distant leisured class.

However, by the 15th century most of these free city states, including Genova, had lost their independence. With support from Popes or Emperors, landed families were encouraged to seize feudal control of communities such as Apricale. The Dorians fought the Savoy princes and the Grimaldi princes of Monaco for dominance in the Nervia valley. Vendettas between these would be feudal barons, eventually induced small communities like Apricale to accept the rule of one or other lord. By the early fifteen hundreds the House of Doria had built their castle in the core of the village only for it to be destroyed by the Grimaldi’s in 1523. At this time the piazza, surrounding buildings, public fountain and principal streets were already well established.

Apricale continued to trade in a great range of different produce. The long established web of mule routes brought butter, milk and cheese from the high mountains to the north. Spices and chick peas arrived from North Africa. Salt and dried cod came up from the ports along the coast. All the fruits, fish, corn and vegetables of the Mediterranean region were sold in local markets and were combined with the oil and wild herbs available from the hillsides. The distinctive Ligurian food, which attracts so many visitors to the region, was born from this rich mix.

The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli at the foot of the village is the oldest church and was built sometime in the 1200s, close to the wells, which were once believed to have miraculous properties. One of the first known illustrations relating to Apricale is a design made by Pietro Bonaccorsi in 1534, (and sold in USA in 1997 for $57,000), for an altar panel which was installed in this little church. The church of St Rocco above the village was built in 1576, St Vincent and St Martin on the Perinaldo side are much later additions. These pretty little churches on the old trading paths just outside the village were used as safe havens by traders arriving too late to enter the village at night.

Papers kept in the village museum record the Comune’s role in the early years. Ensuring order, by identifying and escorting requisitioned soldiers, setting fair weights and measures and repairing the churches, mule tracks and bridges in the locality. In addition, there are records of the organisation and provision of a range of services for the benefit of Apricale’s citizens; hiring bakers to run the communal ovens and millers to work the olive mill at agreed prices, buying grain from the Roya valley to be placed in communal storage for non-profit sales to local people and buying gun powder to protect the community from bandits.

In 17th and 18th centuries and probably before, village accounts detailing all such transactions were read three times a year outside the church on a Sunday and pinned up on the door of the Municipio, the same building that we can see today. Well before these dates Apricale had a little school, we may therefore presume that even at this time, many of Apricale’s citizens would have been able to read these public notices. Amongst the human rights laid down in the Ligurian constitution of 1528, we can find the Dorians agreeing to the demand that everyone had a right to an education.

The Comune also provided a collective voice to defend Apricale’s population of small landholders against a predatory church and state. For example, we can note a petition to the Bishop of Ventimiglia, dated 1589, protesting against his command that Apricale build a new church. The petition argues that the people of the village are too ‘poor individually and collectively’ to build a new church but agrees to make repairs to the existing building.  (The Bishop had been upset by smoke from domestic fires filling the church when he visited!) Another example, a letter sent by the comune to the Marquis of Dolceacqua protesting his plan to build an oil mill beside the existing one, which belonged to the comune, and arguing that there is insufficient water to run two mills. The battle by the villagers to mill their own oil without paying tythes appears to have been won at this time. But a little later the lords must have built something because the comune threatened to sue the Maquis if he tried to force the Apricalese citizens to use his mill, rather than their own. The comune argued that there existed a very long standing legal agreement with the House of Doria to respect the rights of village olive growers to freely mill their own oil. To prevent further disputes and strengthen the comune’s arm, in 1653, the Marquis was forced to put on public record in a manifesto or charter, all the agreements and promises that the Dorian lords had made with the Apricale community over several centuries.

The Comune again rose to defend its citizens after the French revolution when Apricale was first occupied and then annexed to France by Napoleon, acting for the French Revolutionary Directorate in 1796. Maybe the existing communal mill was seized by the napoleonic army, because a little later, the now ruined oil mill beside the hump backed bridge in the valley of the river Mandancio was built by the people of Apricale for their own use, in order to escape the payment of ten per cent milling tax collected by the Emperor. The ruins of this mill can still be seen in the valley. The mill finally fell into disuse in the 1930’s (it appears on local maps as Nobbio’s mill).

The village escapes an earthquake

The latter half of the 19th century was a period of prosperity in Apricale. The village escaped the serious earthquake, which destroyed the already ruined castle in Dolceacqua and the church full of Ash Wednesday worshippers in Bajardo in 1887. Apricale’s population grew from 1,800 in 1861 to 2,161 in 1901. Visitors at the turn of the century noted the lack of really needy families and the plentiful supplies of food and wine available in the locality. Village and countryside were never separate, almost all of Apricale’s residents had (and still have) land on the hillsides outside the village from which they could feed themselves and earn a living, growing and marketing the traditional products of the area; olive oil, wine, chestnut flour and dried figs. Going to your land daily, bringing home your produce, discussing when to pick and when to plant and enjoying harvest gatherings in your hillside rustico still have a place in the rhythm of local life. Both men and women worked the land. Pictures from the turn of the century show men using the traditional long chestnut batons to knock down the olives from the trees, whilst women gathered them up. Also women carrying heavy loads of firewood and farm produce on their backs and heads. There is mention in one traveller’s notes of women leading and riding mules, which transported goods up and down the steep slopes around the village. The mule tracks, such as the footpath above the village which circles over Vernunte to the monastery ruins of San Pietro, still provide access to the surrounding hills for walkers and are used by local families to access their plots of land (until ten years ago by Ape or Cinquecento but increasingly by four wheel drive vehicles!). Fifty years ago the hillsides around the village would have looked quite different having been gnawed quite bare by goats. Most of the woodland we see today is of quite recent origin and hides extensive tracks and ancient terracing which is slowly disintegrating.

The late 19th and early 20th century

The current approach road from Isolabona was built  around turn of the 20th century and allowed the first horse drawn carriages to come up to Apricale from Ventimiglia. Before that time a narrow mule track followed the river up from the Nervia valley dividing into two paths below the village, with one fork becoming Via Angeli and the other swinging round the base of the village to cross the little humped backed bridge over the river beside the mill and rise very steeply up to Perinaldo. The village in the 1800s was not quite as isolated as the lack of a road might suggest. Apricale has welcomed traders and tourists throughout its history. The coast road from Genova to Marseilles, which had existed since Roman times, was rebuilt by Napoleon and later railways linked Nice with London. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Bordighera became a popular winter resort for the growing British middle class, following a hugely popular romantic English novel set in the town. The more adventurous amongst the visitors hiked up to Perinaldo and on down to Apricale. Thinking themselves miles from anywhere, they were surprised to find a nice trattoria and two hotels close to the piazza, just as visitors marvel at the range of restaurants available in the village today.

The 20th century was marked by a steady decline in Apricale’s population to below 600 in 1981. Since that date the numbers living in Apricale have revived a little to 607, current residents mostly make a living from agriculture, tourism and the building trade. In the late 19th century the young men of the Nervia valley often travelled outside the area to find paid work along the Cote d’Azur, in the resorts of Bordighera, Monaco and Nice. From the 1920s onwards the inability to mechanise farming on the steep slopes and the falling price of Apricale’s traditional products, led young men and women to travel further afield to seek a livelihood.

Small farmers found new markets, sending early tomatoes and flowers to Nice and San Remo and from there to Northern Europe. On some south facing slopes around Apricale supplying flower growers is still possible but now this is mostly shrubs such as ruskus and mimosa for flower arrangements because competition from air-freighted fruit and flowers grown in Africa, is killing the local trade in vegetables and flowers. Young people continued to leave the village to seek paid work in the trades they knew; tourist hotels and restaurants, but they often travelled much further across Europe and still do. Many of those who away went didn’t return, the original owners of our home in Via Angeli were amongst these migrants. Some returned with funds to open their own restaurants, including Lula, the grandfather of the current proprietor of Il Vecchio Forno in Isolabona and Mario Anfosso, who established La Favorita, the first hotel and traditional ‘apricalese’ restaurant.

The first world war

The first world war also contributed to the fall in Apricale’s population. Italy sacrificed over half a million young men and vast resources in an unpopular  fight against Austria which expanded the young Italian state to include Trieste and Gorizia in the east. Mussolini came to power in the social unrest and poverty which followed. In 1923. Shortly after Mussolini took power, the upper section of ‘Via Quattro Novembre’ (the road which encircles the village) was renamed ‘Avenue of Remembrance’ ‘Vialle della Remembranza’ with a tree planted to remember each young man who had not returned and a plaque fixed to buildings to show the change of name. You can still count Apricale’s loss as you walk around the village. During the Mussolini years families were encouraged to build little rustic shelters on their plots outside the village rather than waste time and energy walking to and fro each day. Many local rusticos which have been bought and settled by incomers, date back to this time.

The Second World War

In the years leading up to the Second World War Italy was divided politically. Mussolini came to power in 1922 with minority support and the Nervia valley, like the rest of Italy, had its share of those who opposed and those who supported his growing dictatorship. From the 1930s onwards, Jewish families with homes in Bordighera and elsewhere along the coast, faced exclusion from trade and education and increasing repression. Many faced eventual internment and extermination in Trieste, after a concentration camp was established in Comperosso, and Jews and others were rounded up. Italy was allied with Germany from 1936 and was gradually drawn into war. In June 1940 they declared war on France, seizing and occupying a swathe of border territory in the south which included Gap, Menton and the Roya valley which they held until the Armistice was signed in September 1943.  During the war many local youngsters refused to fight alongside Nazi soldiers or risk their lives for Mussolini’s regime. They chose to join the partisans, oppose fascism, and support freedom of speech and parliamentary democracy. Unable to tell their parents of their intentions young men and women from local villages stole away at night to join hidden bands of resistance fighters. After the Italian government collapsed in 1943, and allied forces invaded from the south, the german army invaded from the north and a German puppet state was established with the help of collaborating fascists. Many lost their lives fighting to rid their country of these invaders. German behaviour was brutal, on the personal orders of Hitler,10 Italians were to be executed for every dead German. To their credit many german soldiers were not prepared to carry out such reprisals but some did, as the monument in Castel Vittorio records. Between late 1943 and 1945 a guerrilla war was fought on the Ligurian coastal strip and along the mountainous border with France. Border fortifications dating from that time can be explored by those who venture up to Gouta and onto the slopes of Monte Grai and Petra Vecchia. In August 1944 partisans in Pigna declared the village to be an independent socialist republic. Guns and explosives were smuggled, railway bridges sabotaged and locomotives destroyed. A plaque on the main road in Pigna, another well kept little plaque on the road to Perinaldo record the role of local partisans.

Apricale was occupied by the German army and all of its citizens, including the parish priest, were driven out of their homes to live on their land outside the village. Apricale’s families took their goats and moved into their rustic shelters on the hillsides. The indignity of this event still arouses strong feelings amongst those who remember it, whatever their politics might have been before the war, they retained an inependent spirit and a determination to preserve their way of life. A house close to the road just above the wells under the village was converted to imprison local resistance fighters. The departing German army, in 1945, destroyed several lovely medieval bridges over the Nervia including the crossing which leads from the main road in Isolabona into the historic centre of the village (the current bridge is a copy). The medieval bridge in Dolceacqua was spared because it was considered to span a route of no strategic or commercial importance. For many, April 1945, the date when Mussolini was shot, is commemorated as Italy’s liberation from Fascism. At the end of the war in late 1945 the whole of valley Nervia and the coast was visibly war torn.

Post war prosperity

Post war prosperity in Italy brought new roads, a post office, medical services and regular buses to Apricale. Little, three wheeled Api replaced mules and a different kind of foreigner began to arrive. Cars created the need for designated car parks. In the 1960s a group of artists decorated village walls and founded the studio, Atelier. One Fresco in the village commemorates a group of Danish visitors, one of whom arranged the donation of a minibus to take older children to schools lower down the valley. Some visiting foreigners bought homes, including a number of friendly Germans. Since 2000 the advent of cheap supermarkets in Camporosso and the arrival of wi-fi and mobile phones have continued to change village life. Not so long ago bread was baked in the village everyday and within living memory quite close to the square, you could find the ‘comestibili’ alongside other little grocers, a butcher, a tobacconist, haberdashery, cobblers and a pharmacy.

Since 2000

A new range of shops have opened to sell postcards, artwork and souvenirs to cater for modern tourists. All of which helps to keep the village alive. Rapid transport links to France and Monaco have brought customers to keep Apricale’s restaurants busy throughout the year and Nice airport now brings visitors on cheap flights from Northern Europe. There are now thirty different nationalities settled in apricale, raising children, sculpting and painting, growing saffron and vegetables, working online, making cheese, cooking in restaurants, running cafes or simply relaxing in the village whenever they can.

Rising property prices and absentee owners of second homes may have a negative effect on village life in the long term. But for the moment, tourist euros have revitalised olive oil production and independent wine, craft and cheese making. Incomers provide work for local builders who have repaired many abandoned rustico’s as second homes. Incomers and visitors are welcomed by the growing number of local people selling disused family property or running bed and breakfast establishments.

The castle, comune building and public fountain continue to enclose a very special public space where the traditional festivals, religious days and dances, which have long been part of Apricale life, continue. The 8th September the ‘Festa Patronale’ with music and pansarole making, bring many of Apricale’s former residents home. Many of the old ways are now supplemented by art exhibitions, recitals, pop music, puppet shows and plays. Every summer for the last 27 years the theatre group Teatro della Tosse fro Genova arrive to perform in the piazza. We now have open access wi-fi available too.

Apricale continues to welcome people, to adapt and to survive.


Material for this brief history is drawn from local sources and conversations as well as a number of publications including:

Rosen William, Justinians Flea, 2007

Marco Cassini, Apricale Storia Fotografica 1880 -1950, 2006.

Gordan Home, Along the Rivieras of France and Italy, J M Dent and Co 1908.

William Scott, Rock villages of the Riviera, British Library, 1898.

Tom Behan, The Italian Resistance, Pluto press 2009.

B.P. Smollet, Travels through France and Italy, 1767

Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, Italian Riviera 1999

Giuliano Procacci, History of the Italian People, 1968

Lena Mohler, Apricale, Insieme, Together, 2017