Tim’s officemate kind of makes fun of us for going to Italy.* “You guys really like Italy,” he’ll say. “Haven’t you seen it all?”
The answer is no, and we haven’t eaten it all, either. Sometime during the bleakness when last winter was devouring last spring, I saw a photo on a blog of this bridge:
And I thought: “Where is this? Because I am going there.” The bridge turned out to be in a town called Dolceacqua, and a view Monet had enjoyed as well. Dolceacqua turned out to be in a province of Italy called Imperia, in a region called Liguria—both of which we knew nothing about, and regarding which the internet and printed travel guides in English mainly yielded information about Liguria’s capital city, Genoa (not exactly around the corner at 2 hours away); and the beach town San Remo, which sounded a little touristy for us. But just a little ways inland from the beach towns of the Imperia Coast (and don’t worry, we found a beach town to our liking) we began reading about the hilltowns of the Nervia Valley.
The valley stretches from the sea up toward the Maritime Alps, harboring a string of ancient hilltop villages with an ample network of hiking trails between (some of them follow the old mule trails that predate the auto roads). I connected through AirBnB with an English-speaking expat who rented an apartment in Apricale, and who put us in touch with a friend of his who rented us his apartment, for the days when the first one wasn’t available. Our connection with an informed, English-speaking local, combined with the description of an ancient fortified city now home to artists, locals, holiday-makers, and quite a lot of stray cats (OK, that wasn’t in the description), led us to pick the village of Apricale as our home base for six nights in July, and I’m glad we did. (None of the neighboring towns—Dolceacqua, Isolabona, Rochetta Nervina—were far by car, and I think Apricale was a nice, interesting-but-quiet choice for sleeping.) We reached Apricale by rental car in just over an hour after flying into Nice, France (the flights quickly offsetting the affordable lodging we’d booked).
In a sense, all we needed to know to be happy for a week in Apricale we learned in the first couple hours. Following our host’s dire-sounding warnings to not under any circumstance drive the car into the village proper, we parked on the fringe road and began dragging our luggage up some very steep cobblestones. It was mid-afternoon, and it was the kind of hot that Holland doesn’t get. I had to stop for sweat breaks and air-gasping once or twice while we consulted directions relying not as much on street names as visual landmarks (“going under the stone archway, take the sharp, sharp left turn…”).
What I loved immediately were the levels. The town winds all over a slope, and streets suddenly split into a path going up and one bearing down. They may join again, or they may each split into three additional levels. I’m sure they “have” street names… but I can’t see how you’d ever really utilize them. I was utterly shocked the day I saw an Italian postal worker going door to door with mail.
The streets aren’t all postcard-tidy (which is fine with me). There are some truly neglected structures, and there are fly-clouds, and the smell of too many cats trying to mark their territory. Some of the buildings (like the one we first stayed in) look a little disheveled from the street, but have been completely modernized inside to appeal to tourists. We never met the host of either apartment we rented, but in both cases we were told to find the key in a location outside. (I often suspect I should be keeping track of all the “hidden key” locations I know around the world, just in case.) The key spots were not particularly imaginative, and that to me said something about the village, too: it’s a relatively safe place, where you can walk down mossy stone alleys after dark and encounter a figure coming the other way, and hold your breath—and someone will simply say “Buona sera” and pass.
We let ourselves into an apartment that was clean and new inside (though lacking air conditioning), with views like this one (neighboring town Perinaldo on top).
Depositing our bags, and handily resolving a problem with the running rental dishwasher if I do say so myself, we went back out to explore. Apricale has the charming atmosphere of an ancient town that has remained alive without losing its older feel. Its heart continues to be its main piazza, which we found after some trial and error of different paths from our rental. Day, night, morning, there were kids here kicking a football (a soccer ball). (A net installed along one edge did nothing for the view but was unquestionably to stop a little boy or girl from going head over heels after a ball.) A gelato cart would open midday and be busy thereafter. The main cafe/restaurant, A Ciassa, served respectable and very cheap coffee; and on our last night we finally gave it a try for dinner. We’d assumed that, being on the piazza where the tourists would congregate, it mustn’t serve very good food—and we were wrong. The food was lovely and complemented by the views and atmosphere. The piazza was also the spot to pick up public wifi, which we did once or so a day, sitting on a bench with our tablet and overhearing Germans, Italians, French, Dutch, and some Scandinavians (I’m not good enough to know which) doing the same.
The heat was clearing the high 80s-low 90s F, but we suited up for three hikes during the week, always intending to start early and once succeeding. Our second day in Apricale we returned from one loop in the early afternoon just as some ominous clouds—which had not at all appeared on the weather report—moved in. In the course of an hour the most formidable thunderstorm I think I’ve ever seen in person ripped through the valley. I don’t know if this is scientifically correct (but I’ve got lots of friends who will tell me!), but I could hear the lightning humming on the air; it was that close and that strong. The thunder rumbled but veered toward a screech, which I was certain at one point were the tiles coming off the roof. It was amazing.
And though the first one was the strongest, the unpredicted-afternoon-storm phenomenon repeated itself several times. This may have brought out the bugs, but it also kept the lack of AC tolerable at night.
Our second rental also had a view toward Perinaldo, at a slightly different angle. This angle involved cats.
A rowdy extended cat family, from kittens to what we decided was the angry old uncle, would play in the alley and lounge on a roof. Easily seduced by cuteness, I began feeding them and quickly discovered that these were not starving strays. These were happy Italian cats used to being fed by tourists, thoroughly prepared to turn up their noses if the scraps I shared were not to their preference.
A tiny grocery shop inside the village was enough for meat, olives, bread, wine– simple lunches; and we ate pizza in at least… three towns during this trip. Tim in particular is never tired of pizza. We ate two inexpensive meals at Apricale’s Antico Borgo pizzeria, a little place with decent pizza and views over the hillside; as well as a big, friendly guy cooking and bringing out the pizzas while the kitchen’s music selection was broadcast to the tables. The emotive playlist included “The Final Countdown” and “Lady in Red.”
I’m getting hungry looking at that picture, and my mind is telling me in a heavy-handed manner that I should not wait until two months after a trip to blog about it. Hopefully another post on this trip will follow, covering our time at the coast and in water. In the meantime, Apricale reminded me of a couple other small towns we’ve visited that are right on the cusp: they’re getting tourist-ified, but if you’re a budget traveler and not too fussy you can go now and get the less-varnished experience. Based on the amount of construction and refurbishment we intuited was taking place, it could be a different or more expensive scene in 5-10 years.
****It might be worth noting that this guy is on a whole other travel trajectory from ours. His last trips have been to places like Cambodia and Namibia.