Visiting Dolceacqua in Liguria Italy With a Small Dog
The fun thing about being on the Côte d’Azur in France is how easy it is to dip into Italy, even if for just a few hours. Since formation of the European Union, there isn’t even a border crossing worth mentioning. Nice! That is how I ended up visiting Dolceacqua.
Dolce/aqua means “sweet water.” It’s such a lovely name but sadly, the name doesn’t have an equally lovely romantic past. Rather, the name likely stems from Roman times as an honour to the largest local property owner – a dude named Dulcius. Over time, the name changed to Duciaca, then Dulcisaqua, and eventually Dolceaqua. But no one knows the story for sure.
I think the name has more to do with the lovely river that runs at the foot of the village and the spectacular arched bridge that connects the oldest part of town over the river to the newer part. That bridge is something else!
In any case, the first document that mentions Dolceacqua dates back to 1151. What happened before that is up for storytelling!
This village is also, like so many on the Côte d’Azur, built on a hill. To switch things up and keep you on your toes, Dear Reader, I’m going to take a different approach to telling you about this hilly village. Instead of going from bottom up, I’m starting at the tippy top with the castle and working down!
We didn’t go in to the castle, not because I wasn’t allowed to – I was – but because our hosts informed us there’s little to see inside. The castle is a location for concerts and such, and I am certain the views from the top of the tower must be exceptional, but, sadly, the castle has lost much of its grandeur. The walls now remind you more of the fortress that it was in medieval times rather than the Renaissance gem it became. At that time, the castle was an elegant fortified residence with large rooms, rich frescoes and furnishings. All of this was arranged around a central court and surrounded by impressive defensive walls armed with, what was at the time, the latest in war machinery. The Dorias – as the locals call the castle after the infamous family that built and owned it for generations – withstood many sieges but on the 27th of July, 1744, French and Spanish heavy artillery finally won out and the castle was partially destroyed. The damage was enough to render the castle unlivable. The Dorias family abandoned the castle and moved to the 16th-century palace near the parish church.
An earthquake in 1887 further damaged what had already become a ruin. Shortly thereafter, the castle became the property of the municipality of Dolceacqua and underwent restoration. Most of the work was just to maintain the castle’s structural integrity so restoration favoured the medieval roots. Although, I did hear a rumour that some of the rooms may soon be restored to their renaissance grandeur. That would be nice!
Dolceacqua is split into two halves. The new part, called Borgo, dates back to the 15th century – so not all that new really. Borgo grew out of a need for room for population growth. Terra, the older part of the village, found on the other side of the river at the foot of the castle, had run out of space.
When you visit Dolceacqua, you will arrive in Borgo, where you can park. If you go, here is a great little pamphlet you can download to help get you situated. (You’re welcome!)
It was well past lunchtime when we arrived in Borgo, and although our hosts’ favourite restaurant was closed, we found a fantastic little restaurant to have lunch. The bipeds ordered the special of the day – rabbit. It was delicious! We were particularly fond of the tiny little black olives included in the stew. All of the dishes we tried were simple, hearty, and a joy for the taste buds. Oh, and the restaurant was very pet friendly! I wasn’t even the only dog to eat inside! Nope! Two tables behind us had two LARGE dogs sleeping under the table while the humans (obviously hikers) ate. YAY!
As I mentioned at the start, the two halves of Dolceacqua are connected by an elegant, arched bridge that arc-spans 33 metres (108.26 feet) over the Nervia river. This bridge is famous in its own right: the well-known impressionist painter Claude Monet painted it several times in 1884. He called the bridge “a jewel of lightness.”
When you cross the bridge from Borgo into Terra, you enter a pedestrian zone. And no wonder! Everything is steeply uphill, and all the paths are very narrow and paved with shiny, slippery stones. This meant what for me, Dear Reader?! OFF-LEASH TIME! Ah, the freedom of it all. *sigh*
Among many chapels, ruined monasteries, and more, Terra has two parish churches. You will find the first, Saint Antonio, as soon as you cross the bridge. The Baroque-styled church is unusual in that it incorporates part of the village fortifications into its bell tower. A clever way to save on building materials? No pets inside of course … although … in a bag on a quiet day … just sayin’. *tail wag*
The second church is more … hmm … flamboyant, if you can use that word. The San Giorgio’s Church is in the Romanesque style with Gothic and Baroque additions. The rare wooden ceiling was painted in the 15th-century. The tombs of Stefano Doria (1589) and Giulio Doria (l608) – the Dorias of castle fame – are in the crypt. The stone slabs over their tombs are decorated with stone likenesses dressed in the armour of the time.
I had such an amazing time discovering the charming, old part of Dolceacqua. I found many tiny winding paths, ladies chatting in the shade who wanted to give me some loving, tiny stores selling all sorts of wares, and so much more. Although a little dark, with everything being built so tightly together, Terra was a wonderful spot to explore. I highly recommend a visit. Do note that if you have bad knees or a bad back, you will find the steepness of it all a challenge.
As I sniffed about, I noticed symbols of the old pagan beliefs still visible here and there in the village. There are even a few murals.
An interesting “anti-pagan” secular tradition – the Festa della Michetta – is still celebrated in Dolceacqua. You see, way back, the lords of the castle had the right to … umm, how shall I put this … “de-flower” any new bride in the village then hand her back to her new husband. Horrible, eh? This tradition – primae noctis – had been going on for years when on August 16, 1364, a young bride adamantly refused to give herself to the Marquis. Doria sent to her prison but the population of Dolceacqua rose up against him. They succeeded and forced the Marquis Doria to stop this abuse of power. Now, every year on the 16th of August, there is a festival to celebrate the event. The women of the village mark the festival by creating “michetta” – a specialty sweet – as a symbol of love and freedom. One old lady told me it was really a symbol of proper common sense prevailing. I like her view.
The area is surrounded by silver olive groves that produce the tiny olives we enjoyed in our rabbit stew. The olives are still picked here the old fashioned way: beaten down by the village men and collected below by the women and children. Afterwards, the olives are crushed in “gombi,” big stone containers. The olive pulp is layered in the gombi and squeezed. The final result is extra-virgin olive oil, an excellent local product that is far better than anything you might find in your grocery store.
Near the village, there are many greenhouses that employ most of the folk that live in the area. These greenhouses are the primary economic activity for the area with their production of roses, tangerine trees, mimosas, and decorative green plants that are picked up daily and sent to the flower market of Sanremo.
The village is also famous for the production of Rossese di Dolceacqua, a red wine with a soft, aromatic and sweet taste and an alcoholic strength of 12 percent. When the alcoholic strength reaches 13 percent or more, it is called Superiore.) The Rossese is obtained from a unique vine that only grows in the region; thus, it’s production is limited. You can only get this wine on location, so a great gift to bring home to loved ones!
In review: Dolceacqua is possibly the most important medieval village in the Nervia valley. At least the locals will certainly tell you so, and I can’t find many reasons to argue with them! Dolceacqua has not forgotten its cultural identity. The village oozes oodles of charm through its monuments, works of art, history, and traditions. It is a village where life goes on serenely following the rhythm and habits of a long established people that are barely a part of the modern world. I never saw a local with an iPhone, laptop, or any other such devices. Instead of air-conditioning, they all sat gossiping happily in the shady, windy pathways of the old town where it’s cool and breezy. Perhaps “sweet water” is not a reference to an ancient Roman landowner after all. Maybe, it’s a reference to the sweet reprieve from the frenzy of the modern world, near a body of water that flows under a bridge light as air.