The Beautiful Villages of Liguria Travel Guide - Part 3

The Towns that Make Italians Proud
  • Colletta di Castelbianco
  • Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena
  • Zuccarello
  • Toirano 

This is Part 3 of a seven part series presenting 28 fascinating and beautiful Ligurian villages of every type - hill towns and castle towns, walled towns and fishing villages.  Each of these small towns has qualified for membership in one of two nifty Italian organizations: The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy  I Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia  -  and The Orange Flags Bandiere Arancioni. Read about these initiatives below in More Info.

You can see all 28 towns on this Google map: Beautiful Villages of Liguria Map and they are listed below as well. They are described from the French border toward La Spezia so you can easily integrate these beautiful towns with visits to San Remo, Portofino, Genoa, or the Cinque Terre.

Each town has a story to tell and some friendly people ready to tell it.  While you can't tour them all, just visiting a few will add an authentic Italian flavor to your trip to Liguria.  If you want to get off the beaten path in Italy, these villages will do it.

New Story     Link: Great Italian Hill Towns near Cinque Terre
For information about visiting Liguria in spring, see our story Spring Weather in Liguria.

Colletta di Castelbianco 
Before: A corner of Colletta di Castelbianco.
What happens when one of the most beautiful villages along the Ligurian coast falls to ruins?  When a medieval hilltop town, with the evocative remains of an important castle, arched stone bridges, and fields of cherry trees and olive groves, is gradually abandoned?  If it happens to be the village of Colletta di Castelbianco, all bets are off.

The village dates back to the 1200’s, and has - this being Italy - a long and distinguished history (Colletta History).  But its more recent history is just as interesting.  In the 1980’s a group of architects, foremost among them Giancarlo di Carlo, began to restore the abandoned buildings using original materials whenever possible.  They preserved the distinctive characteristics of the village, the white plaster surrounds to the windows and doors, the traditional layout, the maze of narrow streets and alleys, just as they always had been. As work progressed, other groups joined in, and instead of simply modernizing the existing services, they decided to make Castelbianco an internet village.  The arching staircases and vaulted ceilings discreetly hide a sophisticated technological infrastructure.  Their goal: a peaceful village life with access to work elsewhere. There are about 70 renovated apartments, 25 of which are for rent.

After: A corner of Colletta di Castelbianco.
The good news is, it seems to be working, and not just the buildings have been preserved. In 2005, they harvested the first crop of olives in ages. Their cherries are an exceptional variety that has been recognized as a Ligurian specialty, and they are cultivated biodynamically, whatever that is.  For bonus points, there’s a renowned black truffle from the area.  With such a lot of involvement in the community, of course there are numerous art shows, concerts, and events celebrating the best of Italian slow food and wine.  There’s a village swimming pool, there are user-friendly trails (Pro Loco Sentieri), hiking, cycling, and even the nearby Garlenda golf course. The Locanda delle Antiche Pietre is the place to go for snacks, drinks, or dining with a view.

There's complete information about the town, including activities and rentals, at the Colletta Website.  For more erudite detail read this Teleura Article “Project: Rediscovering Sense of Place in the Era of the Global Village”.

Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena 
This striking medieval village could have no other name - the town and the valley are dominated by the old castle and the mountain called Rocca Barbena.  It's not so obvious today, but in ancient times the castle and town controlled the important Vallis Cohedani, the road from the Ligurian coast to the plains of Piedmont once needed by merchants and pilgrims and armies.  The present castle was erected in the 11th century by the Clavasana family, who had succeeded the modestly named Bonifacio del Vasto. Fatefully for the town, the Clavasana were followed by the Del Carretto family. Fatefully since the importance of Castelvecchio stopped short in the 1300's when the Marchese Carlo I Del Carretto declared Zuccarello (described below) to be the center of the realm and moved himself to a castle there.

Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena / Avery
The unhurried traveller will enjoy this town, the prettiest in the Neva valley. Standing in the Piazza della Torre, you can readily imagine yourself back a few centuries, as you look at the castle above and the humble beauty of the Oratorio dei Disciplinanti. The Church of the Assunta has a Baroque facade now, but the spire of the campanile is original.   Some of the town's features are subtle, for example the tile roofs - common in coastal Liguria, but unusual for more inland villages. The door surrounds are made from volcanic tufa, and the windows surrounds are white - more a Provence/Alpine feature. The arches between buildings are for stabilization in the event of earthquake. Is that an oven built into the wall of a house? For somewhat more info consult Life In Italy in English and in Italian Castelvecchio Tesori which has a nice Fotogallery.

There's a grand overview of Castelvecchio and its valley that can be reached via the cemetery road uphill to the 17th century Sanctuary of Madonna della Grazie.  Reflecting on the scene from there, it would be natural to regret the deep and deleterious effects of depopulation on towns like this. Castelvecchio had just 166 residents in 2013, down from a population of 772 in 1871. The reasons are many, from the draw of the nearby coastal cities to Italian emigration at the end of the 19th century to the continuing worldwide movement from rural places toward cities. While the physical decay of isolated small towns has been mitigated by many well-kept second homes, the lack of residents can give a sad and empty aura, even if Italy's ever resilient history gives reason to hope.

The layout of Zuccarello is gorgeous.  There’s one long, gently curving main street lined on both sides by 600 year old arcades. The porticos are uniform, but unpredictably embellished with a pillar here, a stone facing there, or a tromp l'oiel above. The town has towers by the entrance gates, and typical tiny Ligurian alleys - called caruggi - branching off to the sides. There's an arched bridge so handsome it made the cover of Time magazine in the 1960's - says the tourist office.

Zuccarello has been prominent for centuries, since it succeeded Castelvecchio as Carlo I Del Carretto's headquarters.   There was an entire war waged, the War of Zuccarello, of course, to determine who actually owned it – as its ownership caused a struggle among superstars, between Piemonte and Genova, between the Savoy and Austria. Spoiler alert: Genoa won in 1625.

Since the town was on a trade route, and it was the market town of the area, it was prosperous and well populated.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were two water mills, two olive oil mills, three bakeries, a pasta factory, inns and hotels in town.  Today you can still see the “beudi”, long channels that were used to bring water to power the mills and
supply the village.  The aforementioned arched bridge from the middle ages still leads to the Neva Gate Bridge, and the Puerta del Molino, the Mill Gate. The Marquis Palace, former residence of the del Carretto is an elegant structure, long the meeting place of kings and noblemen, with a remarkable cycle of frescos.  In the oratory, dedicated to Saint Mary Nascent, there’s a 15th century wooden statue of Christ, and the Romanesque bell tower of St. Bartolomeo is lovely. The Italian website of Comune Zuccarello is informative.

Ilaria Del Carretto by della Quercia.

Every July, Zuccarello celebrates one of the biggest events in its history - the wedding of Ilaria Del Carretto. Hilary's marriage to Lucca's Lord Paolo Guinigi in 1403 was truly a big deal for a small town. Tragically she died at age 25 in 1405, giving birth to a daughter who was then also named Ilaria. She will forever be remembered since her tomb is a Renaissance masterpiece created by Jacopo della Quercia in Lucca's Cathedral of San Martino. Many views of Ilaria's marble sarcophagus, with her dog at her feet, can be seen on this Flickr Gallery. There's also a plaster cast in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

For a relaxing walk and a nice overview of the area, there’s an interesting hike from Zuccarello to Castelvecchio. It's 3 kilometers and is called the Path of Ilaria, and it goes past the Del Carretto castle ruins following an ancient road. It can become a ring hike by returning via the hamlet of Erli. The ring hike is described here in Italian at

OK, perhaps Toirano is not a Disney-level picture perfect Italian village. In fact, this friendly place has taken some hits in its battle with modernity. However the 2,000 inhabitants are deservedly proud of their history and the monuments that survive to preserve its memory. The town is worth a stop and the websites below make things easy. For a preview, a certain Mr. Grease52 made a pleasant 5 minute video - Toirano Video.

Toirano Caves.   One of the best in Italy.
The town's location on the river Varatella just 3 km. from the sea favored human development starting in the stone age. The Romans were here, of course, but it was the Byzantines who ramped things up with the fortress called 'Castrum Baractelia'. In the medieval era under the auspices of the Bishop of Albenga, an important monastery - the Abbey of San Pietro on the Mount  - was established which became Benedictine in 1315. Later the same Benedictines established a certosa (charterhouse) in Toirano proper.   In 1385 the territory passed to the Republic of Genoa which ruled until Napoleon came round, followed by the Savoy's Kingdom of Sardinia, and finally the Republic of Italy.

Here's what to do: 

1.) Visit Il Borgo Medievale using this 5-part Itinerari Turistici which also includes the Abbey and two outlying hamlets. Click on the little numbers for each attraction's info in Italian.

2.) Visit the Ethnographic Museum, a/k/a Il Museo Etnografico which is in a palazzo in town and was established via a community initiative just to educate you on the history and life of Toirano.

3.) Visit the Toirano Caves  which are explained in Italian at this nice website Le Grotte di Toirano and are among Italy's most famous. These colorful caves have been used by cave bears and primitive man and medieval Christians and skinny kids with freckles. They are seen via a guided 1.3 km. itinerary with explanations in English. Read what the happy visitors say and don't wear flip-flops: Trip Advisor Reviews.

More Info.

Itinerary Map
 - Create your Ligurian itinerary: Beautiful Villages in Liguria Map

New Story     Link: Great Italian Hill Towns near Cinque Terre

I Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia - The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy - is an independent association of 206 Italian towns that meet criteria of architectural integrity, quality of life, as well as artistic and historical heritage. The borghi have joint promotions, joint festivals, and a guide book.  The website Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia has nice English descriptions of each of the localities making it a useful tool for planning travel to other parts of Italy. Eighteen of the villages wait for you in Liguria.

Bandiere Arancioni  - The Orange Flags - is an initiative of Touring Club Italiano to identify localities of excellence in Italy. These Italian towns must pass numerous tourist-oriented criteria related to welcome, attractions, services, structure, and environment.   The website Best Small Towns Italy provides information about each town and the process in English, and in Italian Bandiere Arancioni tells all. Thirteen towns in Liguria have been awarded the Bandiera Arancione.

Index to The Most Beautiful Villages in Liguria - Click the Part Number. Towns in the seven parts.

Part 1: Ventimiglia / San Remo area:
                          Airole   Dolceacqua   Apricale   Pigna   Seborga

Part 2:  Imperia / Alassio area:
                           Triora    Lingueglietta    Cervo    Laigueglia

Part 3:  Albenga area:
              Colletta di Castelbianco    Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena   Zuccarello    Toirano

Part 4:  Finale Ligure area:
                           Borgio Verezzi    Finalborgo    Noli

Part 5:  Savona / Genoa area:
                           Millesimo    Sassello    Campo Ligure

Part 6:  Rapallo / Levanto area:
                           Santo Stefano d'Aveto     Moneglia    Varese Ligure     Brugnato

Part 7:  Cinque Terre / La Spezia area:
                           Pignone    Vernazza    Tellaro    Montemarcello    Castelnuovo Magra

Written by Martha