Apricale, a thousand years of history

Two thousand years before Christ an ancient Ligurian people inhabited this area. ‘Apricalese’, the language spoken by young and old in Apricale today and probably many other characteristics of the current inhabitants are derived from these early Ligurians. It is hard to say with any certainty how much of the local infrastructure of cobbled mule tracks, terraced hillsides and the remains of viaducts in river valleys, was laid down during Roman times (before 475) or how much of the local agricultural know-how of wine making, pizza baking, sun drying and salting of produce we also owe to the Romans, who were settled for many hundreds of years in the flat lands at the mouth of the valley Nervia around Camporosso.

Nervia valley was a route for the salt caravans which brought vast quantities of this precious commodity all the way from North Africa. The story of Apricale village itself is said to begin with salt trading Celts from Northern Europe who trod the mule tracks down through the valley to the Mediterranean. The story goes that one of their number fathered a child with a Ligurian girl and they established their home on the gentle eastern slopes of the Nervia valley. The little settlement which they founded, attracted monks who brought the Christian faith and the taggiasca olive from Palestine. They built the now ruined monastery, sometime around 900. Precisely when and why this first settlement moved from a sunny slope, well supplied with springs, to the rocky knife edge between two rivers is not recorded. The Benedictine monks of San Pietro certainly abandoned a well-built monastery on a fertile piece of land and the villagers their cemetery and parish church. We can only guess that the move would have been related to protecting the community from bandits and predatory nobles or was made to avoid religious persecution by Saracens, who were based near San Tropez from 800 (and brought water wheel technology to this part of Italy). Many hilltop villages were built across Northern Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries, to protect people and their rapidly growing wealth of traded goods and livestock. In addition wolves roamed about and within living memory could still be heard at night on the hillsides around the village.

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 eventually controlled much of the Ligurian coast. Apricale, although a trading satellite of Ventimiglia, seems to have been a 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 Grimaldis 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 Dorians 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, down to the coast. 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 organization 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, some of Apricale’s citizens would have been able to read these public notices. Amongst the human rights laid down in the constitution of 1528, of the wider Republic of Liguria in this period we can find the Dorian’s agreeing to the demand that everyone has 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 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 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. 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 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 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 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 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 still 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 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 current approach road from Isolabona was built just before the 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 vistors 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, mostly current residents make a living from agriculture, tourism and the building trade. In late the 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 to travel further afield to seek a livelihood.

Those farming lower down the valley farmers found new markets, sending early tomatoes and flowers to Northern Europe. On some south facing slopes around Apricale this is still possible but competition from air-freighted fruit and flowers grown in Africa, is killing the local trade. 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. Many of those who went didn’t return, the original owners of Via Angeli 60 were amongst these migrants. Some returned with funds to open their own restaurants, including Lula, the father of the current proprieter of Il Vecchio Forno in Isolabona and Mario, who established La Favorita, the first hotel and traditional apricalese restaurant.

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 date back to this time. 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, increasing repression and eventual internment and extermination in Trieste. During the war many local conscripts refused to fight alongside Nazi soldiers or risk their lives for Mussolini’s regime, they chose to join the partisans, particularly after the Italian government collapsed in 1943.

For many, 25th April 1945 is remembered as the day when Italy liberated itself from Facism and Nazi occupation. The moment is recorded in street names and plaques across Italy. Between late ‘43 and ‘45 a virtual guerilla 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 republic. Guns and explosives were smuggled, railway bridges sabotaged and locomotives destroyed. A well kept little plaque on the road to Perinaldo and a memorial in Castel Vittorio record the brutal execution of local partisans.

Sometime after the Armistice with Germany in September 1943, the village 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. The departing 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. At the end of the war in 1945 the whole area was visibly war torn.

Unprecedented post war prosperity in Italy brought new roads, post office and medical services, regular buses, a growing number of cars and television to the village. In the last few years, the advent of cheap supermarkets in Camporosso and the arrival of wi-fi and mobile phones continue to have an effect on 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. New 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.

Rising property prices and absentee owners of second homes may have a negative effect on village 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 and visitors are welcomed by the growing number of 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, processions and pansarole making, brings many of Apricale’s former residents home. The old ways are now supplemented by art exhibitions, music recitals, puppet shows and plays. 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:

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