The Most Beautiful Villages in Liguria - Part 6

The Towns that Make Italians Proud
  • Santo Stefano d'Aveto
  • Moneglia   
  • Varese Ligure  
  • Brugnato 
Borghi Piu Belli d'ItaliaThis is Part 6 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 in 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.

Santo Stefano d'Aveto 

Santo Stefano Aveto is a different kind of village – rather than building walls and forts, the defenses it needed against invaders in the Middle Ages were built right in: it’s 1012 meters above sea level, in the highest mountains in Liguria. It sits in an alpine basin at the foot of two gigantic mountains, Maggiorasca (1804 m) and Ox (1775 m).

Santo Stefano d'Aveto overview
Santo Stefano d'Aveto and the Malaspina Castle.      V.Danzi
This village has been populated since prehistoric times, with the first reference from the 2nd century BC, referring to a big battle between the Romans and the Ligurians. You know who won. There are several historic buildings, notable among them the Malaspina Castle (13th Century), which is largely in ruins, and the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but the real draw here is the setting. The town of just 1200 residents is best known as a center for trekking, hiking, horse riding, and skiing.

This is an area of high mountain landscapes, with grazing lands and large beech forests. There are chestnut and hazelnut trees, vegetable gardens, and olive groves. There’s a lot of pride in the natural beauty of the area, and each year they host a transumanza celebration, marking the annual fall descent of the herds from the mountains. For a charming precis, see An Expatriate In Rapallo.

Skiing isn’t a common draw in Liguria, but these mountains warrant an exception. Since the 1950’s there were lifts operating on Mount Ox, but the snowfall - this being, after all, the Riviera - is problematic, and in 1993 all but one of the lifts – a short run with night skiing and artificial snow – were closed. But of course, the potential was still there, and in 2008 new lifts were installed, as well as a snow park. This went well enough that in 2010 the chairlifts were extended, and snow making equipment widely installed.

With all those cows and all those mountain pastures, naturally they have a fascinating local specialty cheese, San Stè.  The cheese is produced by a small number of families, and has been made the same way for centuries. Cows’ milk, unpasteurized, is coagulated with veal rennet, and aged in round forms weighing up to 20 pounds each. No artificial ingredients, needless to say. The cheese is aged for a few months, and then it’s ready. The crust is supple and smooth, the interior pale yellow, with a pleasant mild taste and just a little bitterness. It’s traditional to heat it on a piece of slate to bring out the flavor.

Santo Stefano is near the wonderful Aveto Natural Regional Park, so you can walk off all that cheese with no problem at all. The Park has info in English Parco Aveto.  Several Italian sites provide trail descriptions Una Montagna di Accoglienza and Maurizio Web. The Comune Website is useful in Italian: Santo Stefano d'Aveto

If you decide to go, there are a number of interesting restaurants and accommodation. For some ideas, see the Comune Website and Val d'

Travel Tip_____________________________________________________________________
Renting A Car in Italy. If you drive in urban areas at home, you can drive in Italy. Car rental prices are important, but don't rent based solely on low price and stick to well known companies. We have two articles to help you:  Link: Independent Car Rental Reviews for Italy and Link:Car Rental Tips for Italy - Pick It Up Right 
In them, we recommend the car hire broker Auto Europe where you can compare companies, reserve with a low price guarantee, purchase no deductible insurance, cancel easily, and have 24/7 customer service before and after the car hire. If you will rent a car and want to do us a favor, please use this link: Auto Europe.


If you are looking for a base from which to visit Cinque Terre and Portofino, this is the article for you. You have shown an attraction to small towns accessible by rail with beaches and hiking and mountains diving into the sea. You are fascinated by pretty towns that are isolated, but with lots of tourist services. Little communities with an ancient history and a sense of place. As a bonus - Moneglia is not crowded with English-speaking tourists.

Moneglia Beach Liguria
Moneglia beach with the Steeple of Santa Croce.
The niftiest way to arrive in Moneglia is by car. From Deiva Marina or the Sestri Levante frazione of Riva Trigoso, you'll arrive via a one-way tunnel. There's a traffic light that changes every 20 minutes controlling the direction of traffic flow. The reason? The main road into town is through the original 1874 railroad tunnel that finally joined Moneglia (and eventually the Cinque Terre) to the rest of the modern world. You'll go through brick-lined passages carved under mountains 140 years ago, and the engineer in you or with you will be very impressed.*

Dominating the town with a proud nobility is the steeple of the Church of Santa Croce. Baroque since 1725, the church dates from 1130. Outside are several links of a chain once used to block Pisa's harbor – a cherished trophy from the Battle of Meloria in 1284 when Moneglia helped Genoa defeat Pisa. You'll want to go inside to see the painting St. George Killing the Dragon which is attributed to Peter Paul Rubens. There's also a nice cloister and a painting of the Last Supper by a famous local, Luca Cambiaso. Other notable churches are the Oratory of the Disciplinati from the 10th Century, and the Church of San Giorgio from 1396 with the Cambiaso masterpiece, The Adoration of the Magi.

Also dominating the town is the 'Castle di Monleone' in Liberty Style architecture (roughly Italian Art Nouveau) located in the ruined Monleone Fortress built by the Genoese in 1173, and now a hotel. On another slope is the Villafranca Tower from 1130 – one of many towers along the Ligurian coast. They were useful for watching for bad guys, signaling other defenders, and serving as a refuge, as in 'Quick! Get everyone inside and pull up the ladder!'.

When you're not studying the town's lengthy history, there's a lot of recreating to be done.
Tourists - Day trips – Cinque Terre, 16 min., Santa Margherita (Portofino) 28 min., Camogli, 35 min..
Beach goers – Moneglia is Bandiera Blu (the cleanest) with free and pay areas.
Divers – Moneglia is popular for scuba (Punta Rospo Diving Center).
Bikers – rent bikes, mountain or normale.
Hikers and walkers – every level of caloric output is indulged, see links below.
Boaters – rent sail, rent kayak, rent boat, rent captain (Cala Elte Noleggio).
Rock climbers - there are several well known walls for you.
Hang Gliders – see the Coop link.

For hotels in Moneglia, read our article Liguria Hotel Guide & City Selector - Part 2

Moneglia Website Info:  Comune Moneglia (EN)    Tourist Coop (EN)     Pro Loco (IT)

*This tunnel at Framura was the target of a tragic WWII commando raid. The story is told in our popular but sad article Liberation Day: The Ameglia Executions.

Varese Ligure

Don't ask why Varese Ligure is here, just be glad of it. The place is nice, the residents are flattered you want to visit, and you'll like it.  Varese's lengthy history is quintessentially Italian - no one really knows
exactly why the town is here. There were Romans and Byzantines of course, but the origins lie even earlier with Ligurian tribes. It obviously developed as a trading town and stronghold near the head of the Vara River - from here you can reach the Cento Croci Pass and then Albareto and the Taro River, which leads to Parma. This access – the easiest way from the Cinque Terre and Sestri Levante coastal areas  over the Apennines - means trading and military importance and off we go.

Varese Ligure Borgo Rotondo
Varese Ligure           Borgo Rotondo           A Defensive Ellipse of Houses
People come to Varese Ligure to see the Borgo Rotondo and the Ponte Romano, and they're well worth seeing. But as always, we hope you'll explore more. When we did, we discovered Signor Picetti and his croxetti pasta stamps, which you can read about here: Living Ligurian History.  This, in turn, led to a nice lunch at the best-rated restaurant around here: Albergo Ristorante Amici. The inn's history goes back two centuries, giving the crozetti and other dishes extra oomph. Then we visited a nice alimentari nearby where we bought dried croxetti and a good pastry recommended by a 6 year old expert. That's a good travel day.

Varese Ligure   Fieschi Castle
Varese Ligure   Fieschi Castle
Oh yeah - the Borgo Rotondo. The name means round village and this is indeed a well preserved ellipse of houses. They were built as a defensive wall in the 12th century in a modernization plan by the ruling Fieschi counts, and the arrangement is almost unknown outside this part of Liguria. The Borgo was set around the Fieschi Castle and there were only two gates in. Originally there was a marketplace in the center, today there are buildings from the 16th century. You can walk all around the pretty houses, and see that a town's defense was part of people's lives, not solely some overlord's concern. The Fieschi Castle is sturdy and castle-like, with a good tower a 10 year old might design. Perhaps it was, since the castle evolved from the original Fieschi house built on the site. Occasionally there are tours inside, but you'll have to get lucky as it's privately owned. There's the nice baroque Church of S.Filippo Neri and Teresa D'Avila across the street, part of a convent of Augustinian nuns. The nuns make a sweet -  sciuettewith a secret recipe. We await your review.

Varese Ligure Ponte Romano
Varese Ligure                 Ponte di Grecino              R.Avery
Beyond the center of town is the impressive and beautiful Ponte di Grecino on the Crovana River, also called the Ponte Romano. It is from 1515 and not built by Romans, but made in the form engineered by Romans, also known as schiena d'asino (donkey's back). If you ever studied vector analysis, this would be the time to show how smart you are. A marker, now missing, indicated the bridge was part of the Linen Trail, which is Italian shorthand for 'there's more history here than we can possibly fit on a sign.'  Along the river on the far side is Signor Picetti's workshop at 15 Via Pieve (0187/842195) where you can buy a croxetti stamp.

The town website is simple but good - Comune Varese Ligure  - there's info in English on hiking and food specialties and history including a fascinating local take - Small Curiosities.

The surrounding area is quite rural and hilly so it's easy to find pretty walks and picnic places. A drive toward Borgo Val di Taro on SP523 to the Cento Croci Pass at 1055 meters will bring you to pretty views and alpine fields and forests. From the Cento Croci Pass, walkers can enjoy an easy 10 kilometer, 2.5 hour roundtrip hike to the Passo della Cappelletta at 1085 meters along a segment of the well-signed 440 km. long Alta Via Monti dei Liguri. The hike is Tappa 37 on this Italian site Cento Croci to Cappelletta Hike #37. The Alta Via goes along the highest ridges and mountain tops so you'll get big views and forests without much climbing, and you can form an opinion on the new wind turbines at Cappelletta.

Brugnato is just plain plucky. The people who live there now, and the people who lived there for centuries past, are down-to-earth can-do types with a lot of heart.

Brugnato street
Brugnato. Via Borgo San Bernardo.                          Photo:
The town grew up around an abbey that was founded in the 7th or 8th century and its history shows that it got bounced around like so many other towns in those tumultuous times. It belonged to various famous families, to Genoa, to Sardinia, and finally to the Kingdom of Italy. There are several interesting buildings to see: The Oratory of St. Bernard, which was probably built as a sanctuary for pilgrims; a lovely shrine just out of town; a Convent of the Passionist Fathers; and an ancient arched bridge. All of these are well described in Italian on the excellent comune web site at: Comune Brugnato.   The Cathedral dates back to the twelfth century, and it was a Bishopric for centuries.  And here’s the first plucky part. In a town of only about 1300 people, there’s a Diocesan Museum next to the cathedral, with one floor of local archeological finds, and another with the former Bishop’s quarters. The Bishop’s Palace, which houses the museum, is from the 1200’s, and was last renovated in the 1800’s.

If you go to Brugnato today, you’ll be struck by its prosperous and orderly appearance. Although the buildings lean together at odd angles, and arched alleys run crookedly between squares, the town seems fresh and lively. It’s no mistake, and that's the 2nd plucky part. In October of 2011, the same storm that so famously washed out the Cinque Terre down the road also devastated Brugnato. The town was drowned, ruined, filthy. Although they didn’t get the help that some of the famous tourist destinations got, the townspeople rallied, and in an incredible turnaround took back their town, which today is more beautiful than ever.

The town pride and determination extend to meticulous artistry during the Infiorata. Every year after the Feast of Corpus Domini* a/k/a Corpus Christi,  the plucky Brugnatesi get up very early, pray for no wind or rain, and start decorating their streets. Their medium is flower petals. Hundreds of thousands of multi-colored petals spread carefully on the street form an astonishing carpet of images: scenes from the bible; heraldic emblems; ornate designs. The images fill the street for the length of almost a kilometer, with just room to walk beside it and marvel. The enthusiasm of the participants, the research into the images, the tireless efforts of whole families and whole neighborhoods, makes this a festa like no other. The varicolored petals are used for shading, outlining, emphasizing in an emphatic celebration of color, and the effect is beautiful.

Brugnato Corpus Domini flowers
Flower carpeted sidewalks.      The Brugnato Infiorata on Corpus Domini.
People come by the bus load from miles around since this is the only Infiorata hereabouts. The town celebrates with concurrent art exhibits, a symphony concert, a photo contest, the Diocesan Museum opens, and there are food stands with the required prodotti tipici. The finale is a procession with the Bishop of La Spezia along the flowered path and into the Cathedral. You can read more and see a video of the Brugnato infiorata at Infiorata on

An excellent way to celebrate this spectacle is lunch at La Taverna dei Golosi, which is right on the flower strewn route. The food is great, but reservations are needed for the infiorata. The contact information: Via Borgo San Bernardo n. 16, Tel: 0187 895007,

*Corpus Domini is a Thursday. Brugnato and most towns do the celebration the following Sunday which is   June 7, 2015;  May 29, 2016;  June 18, 2017.

Travel Tip_____________________________________________________________________
Renting A Car in Italy. If you drive in urban areas at home, you can drive in Italy. Car rental prices are important, but don't rent based solely on low price and stick to well known companies. We have two articles to help you:            Link: Independent Car Rental Reviews for Italy 
                             Link:Car Rental Tips for Italy - Pick It Up Right 
We advise getting your car from one of the companies with the fewest problems reported (Avis, Europcar, Hertz, Autovia, Budget) either direct or via a reputable car rental broker such as AutoEurope (NOT autoeuropa, ending in 'a'). The advantages of using AutoEurope are the added services without paying more - low price guarantee; 24/7 help before, during, and after the rental; easy changes and cancellation; as well as available less expensive zero excess (deductible) insurance.** If you find our efforts helpful, you can thank us by making your reservation through these links -using the links do not raise your price.
AutoEurope(US)    Auto Europe(UK)     Avis(English)      Avis(IT)      Budget Rent A Car (English)

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 Arancione

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