Saturday morning I opened my shutters and hobbled back to bed to gaze at the sky and talk myself into going on my planned 5-hour hike to the town of Porto Venere. I knew if it was a straight-up trail like yesterdays to the Manarola summit that I wouldn’t be able to do it. However, as it happens when on holiday, I knew that if I didn’t try it that the opportunity would not likely come again. I told myself that I could start it and that if the climb outside Riomaggiore was too difficult I could turn back.
So, fortified with my morning americano con latte and a homemade pasta breakfast and carrying another greasy salami focaccio sandwich with cookies, fruit and water for hiking sustenance, I set off to the top of town. As the weekend was in full swing now the main street was already busier with more tourists and locals and a few temporary market stalls set up, one offering fresh fish.
Looking as if from another century, in full black cassock with a capello romano on his head, the village priest appeared self-importantly on the high road, surveying the scene and awaiting greetings from his parish. The men were caught unaware and became guarded, giving him a peripheral nod as he passed; another man met him with a handshake and took him aside.
I continued up to the top of town and stopped in at the hiking centre which was open. Any time I had gone by before it was closed — as were the tourist offices by the train station — with about a one-and-a-half-hour lunchtime and late opening and early closing hours. It was late March and already the workers inside seemed tired-to-the-bone of tourists and their jobs, so finding no new (or relevant) information on the trails, I began the first leg of the walk to the Shrine of Our Lady of Montenero.
I was happy to see a wide, gradual path that easily wound itself up through the countryside, baring vistas of vineyards and pathside shrines built into the rock every hundred yards or so, with little offerings of pine cones and prayers. As the path ascended it entered a pine forest, comfortable and cooling. The shrine was under repair and didn’t appear to be open and may or may not be a hostel, but is a destination for picnics and wonderful views of Riomaggiore and the sea.
Thank God! no knee-high stepping!
Riomaggiore through the pines
Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero — the Shrine of Our Lady of Montenero
Looking southeast to my destination
The shrine marks the beginning of the second part of the trail to the summit at Telegrafo. This was breathtakingly beautiful, easy walking through fire-spent fields and old cottages. Only the last 15 minutes near the top became steep. There is a small restaurant stop at Telegrafo which has suberb views and a fine-looking menu. Many locals had driven their cars and were dining here and taking their dogs for walks through the forests atop the summit. I was keeping pace with the suggested times for the trail (Riomaggiore to Telegrafo: 1 hr. 40 min.) Ready for a break, I settled on a bench in the woods, tucking into the first half of my lunch.
It was an hour’s walk through pine forest to the next stop at Campiglia. You could tell at this point that you were on a ridge with occasional views to the left of inland valleys and towns, but no views to the right of the now-hidden sea. It was a getaway spot for locals wanting a bit of nature and cool air with an outside cafe marking the halfway spot. As the ridge narrowed and Campiglia became closer there were several hunting blinds in the woods. Italy doesn’t appear to have a lot of woodland so it was surprising to see these here. The signs said something about woodpigeon hunting, I believe, preserved as a traditional right for locals.
A pigeon-hunting blind
Campiglia with the Gulf of La Spezia and the Alps to the east
Campiglia marked more than the halfway point of the hike, with another two hours until I reached Porto Venere, and my calves ached, especially after the climbing from the previous day. I was past the point of return now, it making more sense to go on than to turn back, and this is, on the far side of Campiglia, where the trail becomes, shockingly, surprisingly, treacherous.
The climbing began again and then, facing stunning limestone cliffs on the Ridge of Muzzerone, I actually began to fear for my life. I have never been afraid of heights, but what passes for a trail here are naturally-cut shards of rock, at balance-defying angles with higher rock to your left, and on your right, between you and the Mediterranean far, far below, only thin shrubs brushing the skies. It didn’t take much imagination to know that a wrong step here would turn a person into no more than a stick in the wind, hurtling down to become a speck in the sea. I was afraid. I was afraid I could easily disappear here and no one in my family would have any idea of what happened to me — and this fear held.
For most of the remaining two hours I went as quickly as I could, just wanting to be finished, concentrating on every step. I didn’t dare take my camera out unless a solid opening appeared as the action could throw me off balance. At about the half way mark of this section an opening appeared with a road and picnic table and I sat down, gladly, and ate the remainder of my lunch, composing myself for the last stretch. I still cannot believe that this walk does not contain warnings or that people haven’t died on it.
Some people were doing this walk from the opposite direction, coming from Porto Venere. I would never recommend this, for even though my walk was treacherous, for the most part I was going horizontally or downhill, not continually climbing as you would have to do coming from the east.
The last stretch down to Porto Venere, while visually stunning, was still very rough and uneven and I just wanted it done, done, done. I made it into Porto Venere during the ‘golden hour’ and was lucky to get into the tourist bureau before it closed to buy a bus ticket to La Spezia where I could catch a ten-minute train ride back to Riomaggiore. It felt so good to sit on that bus, surrounded by Italians going home after work, chatting and laughing with each other.
La Spezia on the Bay of La Spezia
Doria Castle on the left, the Church of St. Pietro on the rocky peninsula and Island of Palmaria in the background
The ride itself was lovely, along the shore and winding into the hills. La Spezia is a proper city though and I hadn’t bothered beforehand to find out where the train station actually was, other than knowing it was on the east side. Online La Spezia looked like a village and I thought the train station would be obvious. Getting off the bus at a point in the city centre, I asked for directions to the ‘stazione’ at a newstand, and had to ask again as the train station wasn’t making its expected appearance. Finally, I was homeward bound back to Riomaggiore, grateful to be alive and safe, and wondering who marks trails in Italy.
The next day, Sunday, would be my last full day in the Cinque Terre and I felt I had earned a day of rest. I would visit the town of Vernazza where my brother and sister-in-law had stayed and basically just relax.
I don’t even remember what I had for dinner this night. I know I ate in and must have eaten leftover pasta, pizza, fruit and chocolate cookies. And then, I collapsed into bed.