Road trippin’ through the Nervia Valley
Updated: May 7
A short drive from the French and Italian Rivieras is the stunning Nervia Valley which is located in the Liguria region of Italy. Following the SP-64 from Ventimiglia by car (or bicycle if riders are up for a challenge along this road which just goes up higher and higher into the mountains), this beautiful drive goes right into the heart of the Italian Hinterlands. The road passes through some beautiful villages and amazing scenery which can not be missed. I would totally recommend hiring a car for this trip as the public transport is not really ideal and takes forever to complete the journey).
My drive was from Ventimiglia to Castel Vittorio, a 26.2km (16 mile) drive. Starting in the coastal town, I found Ventimiglia to be a main shopping centre with a beach. In fact, the beach was the highlight for me, nice, long and sandy with a good view along the coastline to the south. When looking to the west from the beach, this is the perfect spot to go sunset watching on a perfect warm summer’s evening.
Following the road northwards (and underneath the main autostrada bridge), the landscape changes from a groggy industrialised landscape to mountains overlooking the road and villages. After a few kilometers passing through the village of Camporosso, the first stop, which is MUST, is the beautiful village of Dolceacqua. The setting is simply stunning for the largest village in the valley. Walking along the western side of the river Nervia, (which is mostly dried up in the summer months), the impressive sight of the ruins of the Doria castle dominates the landscape as it is perched on a small hill. The Ponte Romano, a beautiful stone built bridge, completed in the 15th century is also another landmark and is worth a walk across to the ‘older’ part of the village. An interesting fact about Dolceacqua is that the painter Monet used the view of the bridge and castle in one of his paintings during the 19th century.
My experience of Dolceacqua was a hit and miss. The hits were of course the views and taking in the lovely views. The locals are very welcoming as this village gets very crowded and not just in the summer months. This is the miss, as there is a limited number of restaurants with the view looking out towards the castle and bridge, reservations are a must. I didn’t make a reservation as I was passing through the area and one of the most popular restaurants in the main square told me (being a sunday evening), to wait at least two hours. Of course I didn’t want to wait until midnight and unfortunately as I was staying nearby, I still couldn’t get a reservation for the reminder of my stay. My top tip: reserve well in advance! Another problem I noticed (well, not a problem really), the car parking is horrible. Its street parking to the north of the village and a long walk down the hill back to the market square but there are several car parks to the south but it is a distance to walk. However, if you like riverside walks then this isn’t a problem and if you’re lucky enough to get a meal in town, then the walk back to the car would be good to burn off a few calories.
Leaving the village and heading north, there is the beautiful village of Isolabona which is also built along the riverbank. Not as beautiful as Dolceacqua but the scenery is still beautiful. There are also a few places to eat in the centre if visitors can’t get a meal in Dolceacqua (hint!).
The drive north is stunning. I couldn’t stop saying this word as I drove up and down the valley several times on the drive. The summits of mountains are getting higher and higher and there is a lot of vegetation everywhere. The landscape isn’t bone dry and rocky but quite green with lots of trees and huge leaves overhanging the road.
I managed to book a stay in the beautiful village of Pigna which is located on the side of a hill and this was one of the best stays I have been on my travels so far. Staying in an apartment overlooking the river, I had excellent views of the surrounding area and the other part of Pigna located on top of the hill. I was quite fortunate to be staying near the main road where there was a restaurant and a bar, a little bit busy but luckily I didn’t need to reserve and the wait wasn’t too long.
One day, I managed to explore the rest of Pigna by doing a run through the side streets and alleyways, all going up and up, running on cobbled streets. By the time I got to the top I was dripping sweat and it wasn’t a long hill to run up. However the view from up here was stunning and the church was beautiful. When the bells rang out (whilst there was no other soul in sight) was just a beautiful feeling. The only other sound I heard first thing in the morning was the birds chirping away nearby. I was thinking if any visitors were staying in a few of the guesthouses in the hilltop side of Pigna, well, it’s going to be a bit of a struggle to lug the luggage. Plenty of rest stops on the way is recommended.
The last place I stopped off was about 2km away in the village of Castelvittorio which is even higher up than Pigna. This place is a lot less touristy than the other villages but still has a nice square, some pretty streets and some restaurants. The church bells which ring out here can also be heard in the valley down below. This village marks the end of the Nervia Valley and then the Italian Alps begin. If doing a road trip to all these villages in one day, then turning around here and doing a non stop drive back to Ventimiglia will take about thirty five minutes.
Another side road trip I did in the Nervia Valley is the road (known as the SP-68 and then turns into the SP-70 and then SP-92) which turns off from the main road just north of Dolceacqua and heads towards Rocchetta Nervina (clearly signposted) and then winds down the valley through some beautiful villages and comes out at another main road (known as the SS20 and is the main road which runs from Ventimiglia in the south to Tende in France before coming out of the mountains near the city of Cuneo in Italy). This road would be an excellent way to head back to Ventimiglia and the beaches but I would recommend doing this in the daylight as there are a few tight twists and turns on the road.
The Liguria region of Italy has a lot of surprises and this is one of them. It’s not all about hitting the beaches (which of course is worth a visit if you love the sun, sand and sea) but exploring this region is totally recommended. Whilst staying in Pigna I hired a car and spent a week here. The area is cheaper to rent accommodation than the French Riviera but if you still want to visit that area, Pigna to Monaco is about fifty minute drive whilst Nice is over an hour. I did this a couple of times and it wasn’t a problem with traffic. Also another place to check out in Liguria which is an hour’s drive from Pigna is the caves in Toriano.
I fell in love with this area and I hope to come back again, this time with a bike to do some cycling or some hiking. The area is just truly amazing and a hidden gem.
Have you been to the Nervia Valley? I would love to hear your views and if so, where would you also recommend?
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