Small Towns of Italy: Dolceaqua

Dolceaqua means ‘sweet water’ in Italian. What an evocative name for a town!  Situated in Liguria, northern Italy, the first time I visited this magical place, my jaw literally dropped when I saw the elegant hump-backed bridge and narrow winding alleyways, all overlooked by an enormous ruined castle.

With a population of just over 2,000, the village of Dolceaqua is situated on the River Nervia, in the province of Imperia in western Liguria, close to the Italian/French border.

Driving along the winding roads from Bordighera, where I was staying at the time, I was struck by the hundreds and hundreds of greenhouses which dot the landscape along the Nervia river valley. Due to its wonderfully mild climate, this part of Liguria is famous for its flowers. I have since returned three times, both in summer and winter, as its strange beauty continues to fascinate me.

On arrival, the first thing one can see is that the humped-back bridge that crosses the River Nervia divides the ancient part of the village from the newer part, with the older part leading uphill to the Doria Castle.

Walking the shaded, narrow streets that wind upwards towards the castle, one is immediately aware of being overshadowed by lofty, medieval stone houses, many as tall as six stories.

Tucked into the base of many of these houses are cave like shops, art galleries and small restaurants. It’s all very charming.

This old area of Dolceaqua is called Terra and is quite small, tucked underneath the hill where the 12th century castle sits guarding the inhabitants. Arriving at the Doria castle, it is possible to visit most days. The stunning view over the town and surrounding countryside make it well worth the short climb.

Take a minute or two to linger on top of the hump-back bridge and let your gaze wander downriver or up at the castle high overhead.

On the other side of the bridge, the newer part of the small town is called Il Borgo, where there is a nice piazza and plenty of shops and restaurants. I found it a relaxed place for a morning stroll.

Quite apart from the castle on the hill, Dolceaqua is famous for its photogenic bridge. Constructed in the 15th century, with its unusual shape, it has a span of 33 metres. The great artist Claude Monet himself painted it in 1884.

The name Dolceacqua, apparently originally derives from the name Dulcius, a local landowner from Roman times.  Over the years it became known as Dulcis-acquae and, over time the evocative name of Dolceaqua evolved and seems to suit this pretty town particularly well.

The first documented mention of Dolceaqua brings us back to 1151, when the Counts of Ventemiglia began to build the castle strategically positioned overlooking the Nervia valley.

In 1270 Oberto Doria, Captain of the Genoese, bought the castle during his rise to power. Oberto also acquired the towns of San Remo, Loano, Apricale, Perinaldo and Isolabona. On his death in 1295, his son Andriolo inherited Dolceaqua. The Doria family remained the most powerful family in Dolceaqua right up to the 17th century.

The Doria castle itself originally had a moat and drawbridge, while the interior was lavishly decorated. It was rebuilt and transformed many times over the next 850 years or so. However, after the devastating earthquake of 1887, it was taken over by the municipality and is now used for summer outdoor cultural performances.

Below the meandering streets of Terra you will find the 15th century church of San’Antonio Abate close to the river. Built in Baroque style, its interior is richly decorated and worth a visit.

The pretty town is also famous for its red wine called Rossese di Dolceaqua. This is a locally produced DOC wine from a vine peculiar to the area, with limited production. The area is also well known for its excellent olives.

Well worth a visit, the nearest airports are Nice, in the south of France, or Genoa, the principal city of Liguria.

Orna O’Reilly

Ostuni, Italy


23 thoughts on “Small Towns of Italy: Dolceaqua

    • If you had 2 weeks there you must know it well. I have visited there four times, but just for the day each time. I thought it was the perfect town to show first in this series of small towns.

    • Hi Victoria! It’s one of the most atmospheric towns I have ever visited. Those dark, narrow streets and the foreboding castle overhead create a magical feel. Worth a visit when you can.

  1. We enjoy coming across small towns which give the traveller a more authentic look into a culture! Good post!

      • Thank you Orna for taking the time to let us know about Dolceaqua. We will certainly keep it in mind for our next trip!

    • Dolceaqua is well worth a visit Janet. If you ever find yourself in Liguria……! It’s about 10kms inland from the Mediterranean coast. Glad you enjoyed your virtual sightseeing!

  2. I’ve been there! My Friend who lived in San Remo took me there. I have lots of photos!! She look me all over Liguria and The French Riviera.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Dear Orna, I am studying the Italian language and am frequently reading the magazine Adesso. Thanks to an article about Puglia in which you were named I am now planning 1 week end of May in this beautiful part of Italy.

    May I ask for your advice where to stay? Is it best in aostuni and then do some day trips to Alberobeo, Cisternino, the beaches ecc?
    Or would you recommend it differetly? Hopefully you could also name a few hotels (small, run by Italian family, not especially luxurious but nice, newly refurbished, clean…)…?

    I would really appreciate your recommendations!
    Kind regards and all the best

    • Hi Angelika. Thank you for your kind comments. We always stayed in the Ostuni area when we used to visit, prior to moving here, because we love it so much. There are many small family-run hotels in Ostuni itself, plus in summer there are limitless hotels and small resorts open along the many beautiful beaches, which are closed from October to April. July and August are very busy, but you should have plenty of options available in May. I really cannot give you any more advice, as there are far too many to choose from! Good luck and enjoy your trip. 🙂

  4. Dear Orna I have just returned from a fabulous few days in Venice! What a beautiful city. I wish I had found your blog before I went over. As an Irish person living in Italy for a number of years I am hoping you can advise me on how to solve the one issue that put a damper on our trip. I flew out of Marco Polo Airport on Saturday night and unfortunately left my phone charging at the departures gate. I did contact the Lost and Found office the minute I landed and amazingly they found it and will hold it up to a year. I can either collect myself, nominate someone to collect or use a courier. I have tried to organise a courier but this airport seems to be the only one that couriers will not deal with. I am wondering if you have ever come across this or know anyone this has happened to and if so how they resolved the issue. It is so frustrating to know it is there but very difficult to retrieve.
    Regards Treasa

    • Gosh Treasa! What a drama, but glad your phone is safe. I cannot understand why a courier cannot collect it for you. Sounds odd. Perhaps if you were to chat to DHL or UPS in Dublin, they could advise you. Knowing how things work here fairly well, the Lost and Found at Marco Polo probably wants a signed letter from you, authorising the courier to collect it. Have you chatted to anyone there? Personal contact usually works well here in Italy. Let me know how you get on. Unfortunately, I now live almost 1000kms away from Venice, so cannot do much from here. Good luck! Orna

  5. Hey! What a lovely description of the place and such beautiful photos. I have travelled to Italy twice but not visited this city. But I’m pretty sure that the next time I visit Italy, I’m going to Dolceacqua! Thanks for the post. Would appreciate if you could take a look at my blog too:
    I haven’t yet written much on Italy but I shall soon. This post has links to other posts as well 🙂 Would love to hear from you! Many thanks 🙂 ❤

  6. Dolceacqua is indeed a beautiful village. We spent a few days in the hinterlands a couple years ago. I recommend to anyone that’s visiting the area to drive up the road a few more miles to Apricale, also. As you drive up the road you see the village come into view…it will take your breath away. It’s a perched village and absolutely stunning.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.