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.