VALLE IMPERO, where oil flows in rivers.

A little-known corner of Liguria, inextricably linked to an essential product of Ligurian cuisine: extra-virgin olive oil. Plus what to see, eat, where and where to sleep.

Today I take you to a little-known corner of Liguria, which however is inextricably linked to an essential product of Ligurian cuisine: extra virgin olive oil. This place is called Impero Valley.

For Ligurians olive oil is not only a fundamental ingredient of their culinary tradition, let alone a seasoning.

For Ligurians oil is “history”. The cultivation of olive trees in Liguria has shaped the territory, influenced trades, opened communication routes, expired seasons and the rhythms of entire generations.

Impero Valley was the scene of this history and is still witness.

Here and the surrounding areas, today as then, produces in fact most of the extra virgin olive oil of Liguria.

It was the Benedictine monks, around 1000 a.c. to introduce in this area the cultivation of the olive “taggiasca” ( a fruit resistant and of great yield).

It will be an increasingly intensive cultivation that will result in the majestic dry terracing of the territory and that will forever change the landscape of the Ligurian Riviere, especially the western one,  as you discover going around the Impero Valley.

Here the production of olive oil grew exponentially, feeding since the fifteenth century a flourishing European traffic. In the nineteenth century, large local companies were born capable of producing many tons of olive oil and exporting overseas.

Now back to our Impero Valley, what’s it like?

It is a green valley, with gentle mountains, that winds along the Impero river and that from the city of Imperia-Oneglia, West Liguria, leads to Piedmont.  It was an Ancient Via del Sale (“salt rout”) and an important commercial transit area to and from northern Italy, subject of wars of conquest throughout the Middle Ages.

Each mountain in the valley guards and protects, on its summit, a small stone village, an outpost.

The roads to reach these small towns are just curves that rhythmically wind through high dry stone walls, red soil and silver olive groves.

The Impero Valley can be visited by car, motorbike or by bike.

You head north and follow our instincts.  Along the main road, at the bottom of the valley, there are few villages, while the deviations to the right and left to go up to those “at altitude” are many.

Every crossroads is worth it: it pays off with ancient stone houses, numerous baroque churches, flowered fields, breathtaking views, small grocery stores or village shops that have remained untouched by globalization.

The traces of the flourishing commercial past, then, can be found in the ancient oil mills (called “gumbi“), in the wheat mills, in the mule tracks, in the fountains, in the water troughs and in the washhouses scattered here and there through the valley.

Villages to visit and good things to look for.

Impero Valley map. Credits Mialiguria

Pontedassio

It is the first village in the valley you meet on the main road. It is locally well known for two foodie reasons.

The first is that here was born the famous Italian pasta factory Agnesi. Until a few years ago, in the residence of the historic founder, there was the Pasta Museum, then moved from the Vincenzo Agnesi Foundation to Rome, near the Trevi Fountain. Rumors say that the Museum should be reopened in its original place, Let’s hope!

The second reason are the cookies of Pontedassio, a “biscotto della salute” a sweet bread-like cookie,  well known and appreciated throughout the Western Liguria. The historic bakery still exists and prepares them with the traditional recipe since the early ‘900.

Lucinasco

100 souls, 100,000 olive trees. Definitely my favorite village in the area.

The landscape is dominated by suggestive dry stone walls, perfectly preserved, and centuries-old olive trees.  The road winds up to the ancient medieval village, built right along the ridge of the mountain. The extra virgin olive oil produced here is famous all over the world for its finesse and quality and the producers to visit here are not lacking (see below).

Just a walk in the village makes you happy …or lucky: or last summer I came across a string concert inside the village church!

If you want you can also visit the Museum of peasant civilization, where is reproduced an ancient mill driven by animals, and just outside the village, on the shores of a pond surrounded by weeping willows, stands the charming Church of Santo Stefano.

Borgomaro

Continuing north, along the main road, you meet Borgomaro. It is the most important center of the upper Impero Valley, located right along the course of the Impero river, among the olive groves.

The village is quite large, well preserved, lively. There are restaurants and facilities to stay in (see below).

Two are the gastronomic products for which it is famous (always in addition to EVO oil): the San Rocco Bread and the “baxin” round biscuits with a taste of wild fennel. Both can be found (if you are lucky) in the only bakery, in the heart of the country, held by Mrs Bruna.

Among the alleys of the country you might also come across someone playing “balleta” o “palla pungno” (punch ball), an ancient sport, a kind of tennis 3 vs 3 without net or rackets that you play bouncing the ball with your fists.

Aurigo

From Borgomaro a ring connects several villages. One of these is Aurigo which is located in the highest and most exposed to the sun part of the Valley. The historic center tells the medieval past, with towers and bell tower that served as a defensive system of the old castle (there are just ruins of it nowadays).

Aurigo is historically known for figs (hence the other name of the charioteers: “figaléi”) and in particular for the “pan de fighe“, a dessert prepared with fresh figs left to dry in their leaf. Now it’s very rare to find someone who prepares it, but here on youtube I found a beautiful documentary, take a look! I confirm that the figs I pulled from the roadside last time were very sweet!

Conio

Continuing the ring, after a few kilometers, you get to Conio, famous for its beans, the rundin beans, Slow Food presidia together with those of Pigna and Badalucco (I wrote an article on the blog about it, you can find it here).

Just yesterday I received a gift from a friend of mine: the recipe of Zemin, the traditional dish of this village, passed down by her 98 years old great-grandmother living in Conio. I couldn’t try it out in time to share it here today, but I will do it soon (it’s a small treasure)!

Caravonica

The village in the past was located on the ancient road that connected the Valle Impero and the Valle Arroscia and was an important resting place for caravans. Here is famous the buridda, a fish soup based on stockfish (very similar to the traditional Ligurian stockfish stew). They always prepare it for the Sant’Antonio festival in June.

Chiusavecchia

Once an important hub and “shopping center”, today it has few inhabited houses. But it is worth stopping at the ancient Tabaccheria, a historic shop where time has stopped. Inside you will find Orietta, my friend guide of the valley and author of the site MiaLiguria (and the beautiful map you find here). She will certainly give you great advices on what to visit in the area and will do so with great love (a priceless quality).

If you want to know my favorite places to eat, sleep and do experiences, you can read the full article by subscribing to my English newsletter.

Ciao! I’m Enrica

a home cook, food researcher and experience curator born and bred in Liguria.
I study, tell, cook, share and teach Ligurian cuisine and the culture surrounding it.
Here we celebrate Liguria’s gastronomic diversity and richness through its recipes, producers, traditions and shops.

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