The bewitched borghi of Riviera dei Fiori


I brought with me a little sachet of salt, a time-honored remedy to ward off evil spirits, when visiting two medieval borghi on La Riviera dei Fiori whose history includes a bizarre story of witchcraft, envy, superstition and power.

The first hamlet Triora, which means “Three Mouths”, is scattered across the scenic interior of the Alta Val Argentina at 900 meters in altitude. Close by is Dolceacqua, or “Sweet Water”, a well-preserved town with a peaceful atmosphere just 10 km from the French Riviera. Both are in the mountainous province of Imperia.

They are two distinct places, yet they have in common a somber past shrouded in mystery.

Beautiful but quasi-abandoned Triora counts just 400 souls. It is nestled in the mountains, seemingly still in the foreboding shadow of witch trials held in 1588 when it was an important fortress in the Republic of Genoa.
Dolceaqua Genoa Italy
A unique ghost tour is created at any time of the year by Andrea Scibilia, artistic director at Autunnonero in Dolceacqua. Its storytellers connect the audience to the world of the time through reenactments.

Site of one of the largest witch trials in Italian history, it was rumored to be a haven for the dark arts as widespread crop failures led to famine. Starving locals were convinced witchcraft was the cause.

“Dozens of women were interrogated and imprisoned,” says Professor Paolo Portone, curator of a new witchcraft museum (Museo della Stregoneria) that opened last December at Palazzo Stella, a restored building that housed the trial in 1588. A work in progress, the museum has a collection of paraphernalia such as black crucifixes and caldrons.

“A section of the museum focuses on documents from the trials,” he says.

The Inquisitor of Genoa verified local suspicions and 20 women were rounded up after parishioners at a mass pointed fingers at them. The number of alleged witches increased as the women were forced under torture to name accomplices. At least four were burned at the stake.

“Most of the women were not executed at the end of the trials, which today provide a case study of how the Catholic Church changed its attitude toward the crime known as ‘diabolical witchcraft’ because in the late 16th century a new priority emerged — stopping the spread of Lutheran ideas,” he says.

Historians note that thousands of so-called witches killed in Europe between 1500 and 1700 were healers. “The witches of Triora were healers as well,” says Portone. “They were dominae herbarum, gifted herbalists that were competitors to medical doctors and priests as well. They attracted jealousy, producing hysteria.”
Triora Italy
The hamlet of Triora in the scenic interior of the Alta Val Argentina is just 10 km from the French Riviera (Valerie Wilson).

Triora boasts the impressive San Bernardino church that displays a 15th century fresco depicting witches.

If you visit Triora, take the time to check out picturesque Dolceacqua in the Nervia Valley, where the persecution of diabolical witchcraft was also active.

“The valley was lashed by a fevered wave of witch hunts,” says Andrea Scibilia, founder and artistic director at Autunnonero, a cultural association that promotes folklore as a way to discover Liguria’s heritage.

“Secret Inquisition emissaries held a tribunal here,” he says. “They started hearings and tortured women accused of heresy and witchcraft. We know only the names of most of them. But we do know the entire stories of Girolima Sappia and Maria Aicardi.

“Girolima learned herbal cures from her mother,” Andrea explains. “They interrogated her for days. On July 25, 1636, she was shackled in the piazza. People she had cured insulted her and mocked her.”

What about Maria? “Called to reveal other witches and the place where they met for the Sabbath, she was accused of killing a child on Christmas Day to offer him to the devil,” says Andrea. “On May 2, 1639, Maria was tied to a rope. She was lifted high off the ground, crying out her innocence. They inflicted maximum pain, then she was imprisoned. Nobody heard from her after,” Andrea continues.
Dolceaqua Genoa Italy
Picturesque Dolceacqua in the Nervia Valley.

Those stories and many others are told during a unique ghost tour that Autunnonero creates at any time of the year in Dolceacqua. Its storytellers connect the audience to the Dolceacqua world of the time through reenactments.

You can delight in the beauty of the medieval town and its Roman bridge that gives such a sense of lightness that it inspired the painter Monet.

Afterward, a perfect place to relax is the L’Agriturismo La Vecchia, a country hotel with six comfortable stylish rooms. Each is colorfully refurbished with hand-painted wardrobes, tables and drawers. La Vecchia is in the heart of the city, offering a tranquil, relaxed base just 5 km from the sea. The restaurant brings you through a magic gastronomical journey of Ligurian dishes. Enjoy delicious food, olive oil and the Rossese wine.

Everything is produced nearby, and owner Gianni’s enthusiasm for his dogs’ friendly rustic haven is intoxicating.
Dolceaqua Genoa Italy
L’Agriturismo La Vecchia, a country hotel with full amenities, is in the heart of Dolceaqua just 5 km from the sea.

Dolceacqua is dominated by the ruins of Doria castle, where the cruel 14th century lord of the manor Imperiale Doria is said to have used the custom ius primae noctis, the right to the virginity of his peasants’ brides on the first night.

“He locked a woman named Lucrezia inside his castle,” Scibilia explains “When she rejected him, he exploded with fury. She was beaten and died of thirst. They say that her ghost still roams the haunted castle, where her lamentations can still be heard.”