I grew up in the western part of Liguria, less known than the opposite eastern part, but, in my opinion, equally beautiful and special. My family comes from a small village behind Imperia, Dolcedo, 7 kilometers far from the sea. A small village nestled between the two sides of the valley, sited above the river “Prino”, which names the valley.
A still intact place, where nature provides man with the means he needs to live and work. Land of agriculture, oil, pastures, tourism. A natural corridor that leads from the sea to the mountain jumping between one terrace and another, making space between the branches of olive trees, running on the grassy ridges populated by wild horses, along the traces of the ancient Via “Marenca”, among the “stones that speak “, stone boxes witnesses of stories and past lives.
As for big part of Liguria, a variegated strip of land that stands in a handkerchief, it seems a rough, closed place, in the eyes of many even inhospitable. But inside, it hides unique views, to be found and discovered, in order to finally admire its extraordinary beauty.
When I left at the age of 19, all this seemed so different to me, it had taken on the outlines of a cage from which I could not wait to escape. It was the result of the impetus of those years, of the desire (never domo) to get out of my nest to see what was outside. I had enjoyed the privileges that this land had given me and that I needed until teenage years, but I needed more. Certainly not the hustle and bustle of a big city (Milan, Genoa, Turin), which I would never really get used to, but still something bigger, more central, different. Emilia Romagna (Parma, Reggio Emilia, where I was born, Modena) was the right compromise. Here I became an adult, limiting my return home to vacation days or summer periods that interrupted university classes.
Gradually, returning every time, I became increasingly aware of how many things in my land I had never really known and tasted. Perhaps the need to enjoy moments of meeting with friends and family, perhaps the passing of time which, tyrant, decided the duration of our meetings, or perhaps the desire to make people and friends met along my new path discover my places, have meant that, spontaneously, I had been able to appreciate and live much more than what, until then, I had seen of my land.
A small, peripheral, hidden place. This is why it is full of great charm.
And so now, every time I come home, I don’t miss an opportunity to live every moment almost like a tourist, interspersing new discoveries with fixed stages, appointments that have become inevitable rituals.
One of these is certainly represented by the breakfast at the “Moka Bar”, in Piazza Dante in Oneglia (Imperia is in fact divided into two distinct towns, Porto Maurizio and Oneglia. Traditionally the border is dictated by the river “Impero”, although conventionally the beginning of the the inhabited area of Oneglia is placed before the territorial demarcation). This is not a real breakfast, if anything, a mid-morning snack, made of focaccia and cappuccino (to those who think it is a risky combination, I don’t answer, I only invite you to try it for yourself) or “spuma”, depending on hunger and time. I love their focaccia, personally I think it is the best in the city. On holidays, trays are baked continuously due to the high demand. Arriving a minute later can mean having to wait for the next turn (in the meantime you can always fall back on stuffed focaccias or pieces of pizza, they have nothing to envy).
From there, on beautiful sunny and breeze days (but not only), I move to the port, a magical place, one of my favorites in the city, which retains much of the ancient fishing village. A walk on the pier, to see the city from the perspective of the sea, relaxes and allows you to savor the unique scents of the place. I recently discovered that, along the quay of the port, the fishing boat “Pingone”, already used for catering, sells the fried fish paper cones. I have never tried their cuisine, but the cone is good and it is an excellent option both as a lunch and as an aperitif, obviously to be done sitting on the benches next to it, admiring the sea.
Very often, however, before returning home, I stop by “U Papa”, in the street parallel to that of the port, in front of the covered market. If you have never tried the “farinata” (a kind of very fine savory pie, made with chickpea flour, water, oil and salt) stop, sit inside this typically Ligurian restaurant or take a take-away piece to bring to home, it’s an amazing thing!!
Imperia for me is not only Oneglia, but also Porto Maurizio, the other part of the city, the one closest to my parents’ house. A bath in “Garbella”, where the water that sneaks between the rocks is a transparent and cold table, true enjoyment in hot summer afternoons; a walk to the “Marina”, the seaside village, made of narrow streets and steps, where I grew up as a child; a coffee to the “Sognatori”, not far away, in another small and beautiful village, that of “Borgo Foce”; a tour going up to the “Parasio”, the old part of the city.
Sea, light and perfumes, hidden between the walls and the uphill streets of these small alleys.
I have always been “a mountain man”, but I love the particularity of the seaside villages, the apparent quiet between the “caruggi” on summer days or the real, almost melancholic, one of the winter months. I grew up there, it’s something I am inextricably attached to.
Then there is Val Prino, the one where my parents’ house stands. As said, it is a valley still quite unspoiled, intact. It develops along a few kilometers, passing from the shores of the beach to the ridges of the mountains that surround it, at just over 1000 mt above sea level. From the sea, to the olive trees, to the holm oaks to the summit meadows, privileged terraces from which you can admire all this. In the middle, perched along the slopes, there are small, characteristic villages in the valley.
Dolcedo is the administrative centre, located at the bottom of the valley, just a few kilometers inland. Around him, three other small villages, part of the municipality, are arranged neatly: Ripalta, Castellazzo, Bellissimi. Silent and enchanted places, which show themselves slowly, protected by the many olive trees that characterize this land. Here oil is a precious commodity, a source of work and sustenance. We are in the lands of the “taggiasca” olive, the mills follow one another, as well as the countryside where people work every day. During the harvest period, the valley changes and the traditional colors leave room for those of the nets lying on the ground to collect the olives fallen after the “bacchiatura” (“bacchiare” is the typical operation which, by striking the branches of the olive tree, makes so that the olives fall from the tree on the nets, to be collected). In the village, during the pressing, it often happens to smell the scent of the must that comes from the mills around.
Even my parents, albeit with few trees and limited skills, each year collect the olives of our field to bring them to squeeze. Production is small, but more than enough for us. The taste, especially if tasted with a piece of hot bread, is sensational!
The valley gradually rises, higher up the olive trees leave room for holm oaks. Continuing we meet other typical villages, perfect expression of this place.
The first one we meet is Molini di Prelà, located right on the river as Dolcedo. Here the road meets a crossroads: on one side you can go up until you reach Villatalla, the last village in the valley, located at about 600 mt above sea level. A small hamlet in the municipality of Prelà overlooking the valley. A place inhabited by a few dozen inhabitants, where time seems to stand still.
Shortly before, on the road, the villages of Valloria and Tavole follow one another rapidly. The first, a small village built on the promontory between “caruggi”, stairways and old cellars with painted doors, is the destination, every summer in July and August, of the most important festival in the valley (“a Valloria fai baldoria”): two weekends with the people of the place, to eat and party pampered by the cool of the hill, surrounded by olive trees.
The second, located in an internal position, is the starting point for the itineraries that, in a short time, lead to the ridge. I keep a special memory of this place that recalls my childhood when, every year on Christmas Eve, my parents and I came to town to attend midnight mass and then enjoy the party in the churchyard, with panettone, cream and hot chocolate.
On the other ridge compared to this, there are other small towns and villages: Praelo, Canneto, Pantasina. From here, in a short time, it takes altitude reaching higher mountain views, looking down on Piedmont. Beyond Pantasina instead, going down, we meet Pianavia and Vasia, the third and last municipality of Val Prino. From here the road descends again to return to the sea. Above us, to delimit the border, the ridges of the mountains on which there are still evident traces of the “Via Marenca”, the road that the shepherds traveled (it is said in just 24 hours) to accompany the flocks from Imperia to the pastures of Monte Saccarello and of Colle di Tenda.
I had never walked too long on these trails, I did it some time ago. The landscape is breathtaking: the sea in the background, the mountains on the other side and in the middle many clusters of houses, like in a crib. Shrines, chapels, stone boxes, wild animals.
The beauty of a unique place that, in a few minutes, knows how to lull you with
the gentle movement of the waves of the sea and, shortly after, caresses you with
the fresh air that shapes the shape of mountain meadows.