The "Rock Villages" of Western Liguria Part Four

Dec 16, 07:49 AM by David Downie

Baiardo: Heart-rending, Spectacular Rock Village


Enzo and his hound enjoy the view from Baiardo

To get to the other most-spectacular “Rock Village”—Baiardo—you have to climb again from Apricale, driving back up to nearly 3,000 feet above sea level.

What you notice most as you chase your tail up the hairpins are the bizarrely receding views – an infinite regress of ridges and valleys seemingly foreshortened by an architect for theatrical effect.

The other astounding landscape feature is the drywall terrace. From valley floor to mountaintop as far as the eye can see terraces tier the steep slopes like staircases. In valley bottoms spread kitchen gardens, vegetables and citrus fruit orchards. Above, the olive groves and terraced vineyards begin. There are fruit tree orchards, yellow mimosa plantations and caterpillar-like hot houses, each snaking along for hundreds of yards and bursting with flowering plants.

Total up the terraces of the Italian Riviera and you get an estimated 25,000 miles of dry walls contouring the region. Each terrace averages ten to fifteen feet wide and is held up by walls six to ten feet high, built by umpteen generations of anonymous subsistence farmers in the days before modern plenty. Leave the seaside resorts and this kind of vertical farming, with some tourism thrown in, is a way of life. That’s why if you talk to most inland Ligurians they seem uninterested in the natural beauty of the region. They want you to understand how they’ve turned “useless” cliffs into a roughshod agricultural paradise.

A paradise it may be, but it has experienced hellish times. The 1887 earthquake hit Perinaldo hard enough (see part two of this series), but it devastated Baiardo. Paradoxically, the unrepaired damage makes this the most soulful and atmospheric of the perched villages hereabouts.

A Romanesque porch fronts the ruined church at Baiardo’s highest point, built in the Middle Ages atop a pagan temple. Stepping through it I could see how most of the structure had collapsed in the local Big One. That earthquake killed a quarter of the population at a stroke. Daisies and grass pave the nave. A Baroque chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, beautifully maintained, turns its altar to the sky.

Watch a short video of Baiardo made by an obliging Australian couple:

From the north and northwest sides of the belvedere behind the church you see the border with France and can trace the distant roads scoring the mountains, many of them ancient salt routes linking the seaboard to Turin, former capital of the Kingdom of Savoy. Hiking trails link the village with the Alps, country churches and other aeries.

But like many visitors I was drawn back to Baiardo’s half-ruined houses. Up the damp, rotting staircases the furniture of those killed in the earthquake sits among cobwebs, left as a memorial to the victims. The eerie silence, broken by the sounds of chickens scratching and rabbits rustling in tumbledown courtyards, gave me gooseflesh. Outside the village I came upon a ruined olive oil mill, its massive millstone still in place.

For something completely different, but still in the area, head downhill to Dolceacqua—and come back soon to read about Dolceacqua and the Nervia Valley.

For a modest but comfortable hotel up in the Rock Villages, we recommend Apricale as a base:
Book a room in Apricale

For addresses and opening hours, and much more on the Riviera dei Fiori and the Rock Villages, plus sites throughout Liguria, its history, culture, food, wine, hiking trails, treks, guided tours, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia and more, keep reading WanderingLiguria and pick up our books, “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa” and “Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera”

Book at one of our favorite hotels on the Riviera dei Fiori

Book a hotel on the Italian Riviera

Take a private custom tour with us in Genoa, on the Riviera, in Rome, Paris or Burgundy

The "Rock Villages" of Western Liguria Part Four originally appeared on WanderingLiguria.com Dec 16, 2011, © David Downie

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The “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part Three

Apricale, one of the Rock Villages of the Western Riviera

Dec 12, 05:17 AM by David Downie

The Perched “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part Three

From Perinaldo the paved road loops halfway down the Nervia Valley to Apricale, an octopus of stone clinging to a sunny ridge. Even more burrow-like than Perinaldo, the alleys here reveal a hidden square facing a stern 12th-century Romanesque church with a startling Baroque facade grafted onto it, all curls and motion.

According to loquacious local history buffs, Apricale has been around since the Bronze Age. Its Latin name (Apricus) means “sun-washed,” and, as you find out in warm weather, is all too apt. Some of the buildings are 9th century, probably, but documents only go back to 1016. So, to be fair, villagers humbly look forward to celebrating a 1,000th anniversary soon.

If you ask inhabitants whether there’s “anything particular to see” here there’s a fair chance they will shrug and smile simultaneously. “Everything and nothing,” said one man in answer to the question. He spoke in that difficult to decipher Calabrian-Ligurian drawl for which the area is known.

What’s left of the 900-year-old Castello della Lucertola – a tower and reconverted dungeon – is now used primarily as a municipal art exhibition space, local history museum and concert hall (it’s open to the public afternoons only). On display are local oddments, including Savoy-Sardinian King Carlo Alberto’s sword. It wasn’t exactly Excaliber. However I was glad to have seen the castle’s frescoed rooms and views.

Like Perinaldo and other nearby villages in the process of rebirth, Apricale has welcomed many arty zealots in recent years. It is the site of summertime theater performances and the occasional costumed medieval or Renaissance happening. Artists have applied contemporary murals to many a wall. As one bemused villager told me, “We hope they look better when they age.”

Eat at one of Apricale’s restaurants or trattorias hidden in its moody alleyways and you’re likely to find a fine bottle of local red wine made from grapes grown in the vineyards that surround this crow’s nest village. You might also savor a typical procession of Ligurian delicacies such as slivered local artichokes drizzled with local extra virgin olive oil, grilled eggplant slices, light artichoke fritters fried in excellent local olive oil, streaky pancetta and oozing stracchino cheese fritters, a savory tart of minced field greens, zucchini stuffed with a meatless egg, cheese and bread filling, fettuccine with wild mushrooms and tomato sauce and hearty polenta with sausages.

Come back soon and read part 4 of this 4-part article.

For addresses and opening hours, and much more on Liguria, its history, culture, food, wine, hiking trails, treks, guided tours, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia and more, keep reading WanderingLiguria and pick up our books, “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa” and “Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera”

Book at one of our favorite hotels on the Riviera dei Fiori

Book a hotel on the Italian Riviera

Take a private custom tour with us in Genoa, on the Riviera, in Rome, Paris or Burgundy

Photo All Rights Reserved, courtesy Igor Vassallo

The “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part Three originally appeared on WanderingLiguria.com Dec 12, 2011, © David Downie

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The “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part Two

Dec 8, 06:10 AM by David Downie

The Perched “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part Two

Perinaldo
Photo courtesy Agata Janus, All Right Reserved

By the time you curl down from Monte Bignone to the castle-crowned village of Perinaldo, perched at a 1,800 feet above the Nervia Valley, you might well feel dizzy.

On the upside, you will almost certainly understand why, in the blood-soaked Middle Ages, the Ligurians retreated to places like Perinaldo: the isolation is total, the views of approaching enemies are unobstructed, and there is free building material to boot. Everything is stone.

British travelers of the mid-1700s doing the Grand Tour in Italy “discovered” Italian Riviera redoubts such as Perinaldo, dubbing them “Rock Villages,” largely because they are hewn out of the mountainsides and blend into them.

It also becomes clear very quickly why Perinaldo’s most famous native son, Gian Domenico Cassini, born in the village castle in 1625, became the world’s greatest astronomer. He grew up in a crow’s nest. If you glance skyward once you’ve parked your car you might even spot the Cassini Equinox NASA spacecraft, still photographing and heading toward Saturn and Titan.

You’d need super-powerful lenses—or the eyes and imagination of Cassini himself.

Like most Ligurian perched villages Perinaldo spreads its red-tile roofed, pastel-painted houses across a ridge. That means lots of sun year round and sightlines down V-shaped valleys to the sea (where pirates once lurked) and up to the Alps (Hannibal or Napoleon).

The 11th-century stone houses are built like fortresses with flying buttresses, the alleys between them moats. Unfortunately it seems several penny-pinchers are among those gentrifying Perinaldo: cracked cobbles and worn stone walls have been replaced here and there with cheap tile and brick.
A mega-magnitude earthquake in 1887, followed by the abandonment of the countryside during the industrial revolution, led to the village’s decline. There are still a few abandoned buildings. Those that have been spruced up sport foreign names on the doors, nearly all German or French, including many IT professionals or artists.

The fulltime Italian inhabitants of Perinaldo are in part descended from Calabrians. The hybrid Ligurian-Calabrian dialect spoken by some villagers can seem impenetrable.

“The Calabrians were the only ones desperate enough to move up here and re-colonize the place when times were bad,” explained an elderly gentleman at a local café. “We moved in here and half a dozen other disaster sites….”

Beyond Apricale and Baiardo, other nearby western Ligurian ghost aeries include Triora, famed for its medieval witch-hunts, and Bussana Vecchia, now a self-styled “artists’ colony.” But they’re less “authentic,” i.e. lived in primarily by Italians, than Perinaldo.

Cassini is one of the old clans based here. It turns out there are still many families with the name, and they total about 900 of the residents.

The view and atmosphere aren’t the village’s only attractions: the food here is outstanding. The local version of Ligurian “pansoti” take the form of deliciously delicate purses of pasta stuffed with wild field greens. A favorite main course is rabbit sautéed with pine nuts and herbs.

The village castle, in private hands, isn’t open to the public, but the church of San Nicolò is. A Renaissance structure with Baroque overlay, its treasures include a 15th-century “school-of” canvas (depicting souls in various attitudes of salvation or damnation) that would be unremarkable had it not been left to villagers by the great Cassini himself.

Like most ambitious locals, Cassini made good elsewhere, becoming official astronomer to Louis XIV’s court in Versailles and creator of the Paris Observatoire. It was there he discovered satellites of Saturn and Jupiter, and calculated the rotation period of Mars. The French lay claim to Cassini of course, since he fathered another famous French astronomer (Jacques Cassini) who did likewise (César François Cassini) and so on, until a fourth astronomer-topographer (Count Jacques Dominique de Cassini) put an end to the line. Perinaldo’s humble observatory, in a reconverted convent that now houses the town hall and a rest home, is open to stargazers by appointment.

Footpaths and mule tracks embroider the terraced hills around Perinaldo. Until the early 1900s they were the only link to the outside world. For a breathtaking hike you can wander down a stony track to Dolceacqua, a village in the valley below. The trail offers about 4 miles of scenic switchbacks among olive groves, featuring views of castles and sanctuaries-in-the-air.

Come back soon and read part 3 of this 4-part article.

For addresses and opening hours, and much more on Liguria, its history, culture, food, wine, hiking trails, treks, guided tours, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia and more, keep reading WanderingLiguria and pick up our books, “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa” and “Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera”

Book at one of our favorite hotels on the Riviera dei Fiori

Book a hotel on the Italian Riviera

Take a private custom tour with us in Genoa, on the Riviera, in Rome, Paris or Burgundy

The “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part Two originally appeared on WanderingLiguria.com Dec 08, 2011, © David Downie

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The “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part One

Monte Bignone, San Romolo, San Remo, Italian Riviera

Dec 6, 06:41 AM by David Downie

The Perched “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part One

The corkscrew two-lane road from the seaside in San Remo via Coldirodi to Perinaldo winds among the Riviera dei Fiori’s tiered greenhouses.

Fiori means flowers in Italian. That’s why this long and scenic stretch of the western Ligurian coast famous for its flower-growing industry goes by the name of Riviera dei Fiori.

Known primarily for its fishing and resort villages such as the Cinque Terre and Portofino, the “Riviera” leaves out of its name the pleated, mountainous interior of the Liguria region. It covers nine-tenths of Liguria’s territory. There are no casinos or luxury yacht marinas here: this is a vertical landscape abounding in unsung secret spots: leafy valleys, Apennine nature reserves of astonishing beauty and dozens of perched villages.

Three of the most alluring villages on the western Riviera are Perinaldo, Apricale and Baiardo.

This trio of medieval aeries clings to mountain peaks a few miles inland as the seagull flies from San Remo, Bordighera and Ventimiglia. But each is ten times that distance by coiling road. Getting to them is part of the fun.

The hillside hamlet of Coldirodi looks like a Cubist jumble of stone and glass houses. There are plant nurseries at each turn.

Beyond the panes of the hothouses at most times of year you will typically see roses, peonies, lemon trees, lilies, orchids and other flowering or green plants. The form manmade jungles, each plant ready to be exported to cold climates in Northern Europe.

Lush yellow, orange and red poppies often paint panoramic terraces. If you’re wondering how florists can get floppy poppy blooms to market before the poppy petals fell off, here is the answer. “We harvest the pods still closed,” an obliging horticulturalist told me after providing driving directions. “The secret? You scald the poppy stems in boiling water and score the pods so they open right when they arrive at the florist’s shop.”

The local floral industry – the economic mainstay in many a western Ligurian village – is impressive indeed. But Mother Nature does an even better job delighting the eyes and tickling the nostrils of visitors.

Slalom along to a hamlet called San Romolo, windows down. You might feel you’ve been sewn into a potpourri bag. Sprouting thick and growing fast on cliffs and crags is a heady blend of pine, white heather, rockrose, broom, wild thyme and rosemary.

San Romolo is little more than a colorful cluster of houses poised at nearly 3,000 feet directly above sea level. Once an impoverished place, it is now a weekend get-away for wealthy coast and city dwellers. Drive up another 1,500 vertical feet to the belvedere a few miles above San Romolo, atop Monte Bignone, for an even more impressive perspective on the region—and an isolated chapel possessing homespun beauty.

“Breathtaking” is understatement. In clear weather you might very well spot Corsica floating like a ship on the southern horizon. Provence lies to the west. The mauve Maritime Alps, snowcapped much of the year, rise due east.

Come back soon and read part 2 of this 4 part article!

For addresses and opening hours, and much more on Liguria, its history, culture, food, wine, hiking trails, treks, guided tours, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia and more, keep reading WanderingLiguria and pick up our books, “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa” and “Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera”

Book at one of our favorite hotels on the Riviera dei Fiori

Book a hotel on the Italian Riviera

Take a private custom tour with us in Genoa, on the Riviera, in Rome, Paris or Burgundy

The “Rock Villages” of Western Liguria Part One originally appeared on WanderingLiguria.com Dec 06, 2011, © David Downie

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The Latest on the Cinque Terre after Flash-Flooding

Nov 20, 07:15 AM by David Downie

Cinque Terre After the Flood

The flooding caused by violent storms on October 25, 2011 has left certain parts of the Cinque Terre inaccessible.

The good news is, the seaside trail #2 known as the Via dell’Amore has been reopened between Riomaggiore and Manarola.

Repair work and widespread cleaning is continuing throughout the Cinque Terre, and the situation should be returning to almost normal soon.

If you’ve delayed your trip to the Cinque Terre you might consider hiking elsewhere in Liguria. There are scores of challenging and beautiful trekking trails behind Genoa, in the extreme west of Liguria near the French border, and in the inland areas of Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure.

Please consult the articles archive on Wandering Liguria for more on the Cinque Terre, and check our Weather page for the latest.

Here is the Cinque Terre National Park’s enticing video, shot from the air, showing the beautiful coast and terraced hills of this extraordinary part of Italy. Within weeks or months you should be able to gain access to all the hiking trails you’ll see from above in this footage.

Book a hotel in the Cinque Terre

Book a hotel on the Italian Riviera

The Latest on the Cinque Terre after Flash-Flooding originally appeared on WanderingLiguria.com Nov 20, 2011, © David Downie

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