Sometimes, you need to go for a walk. A long walk.
It had been deathly quiet in Milan since I arrived due to everyone being on vacation. Given that classes were still a couple of weeks away, and that none of my classmates had arrived, I thought it would be a good chance to get a short holiday in, the first real holiday since starting the MBA (at least that didn’t have some classwork or professional component to it). After all, there was no guarantee that after classes started that there would be time to get away.
I needed to go on a walkabout. Walkabout is an Australian concept originally referring to an Aboriginal rite of passage, but is colloquially taken to mean wanderlust, the desire to go wandering for an indefinite period. Australian culture has arguably fused the indigenous tradition with the wanderlust; the phenomenon of the young Australian backpacker wandering around Europe could be seen as the modern, secular form of that traditional rite of passage.
In any case, my mind and body needed a break, to go for a long wander, so I packed my trusty old rucksack and went hiking for five days through Liguria, Tuscany and Corsica. It was a chance to climb a few hills, enjoy the local food, and get in some downtime before study recommenced.
The first stop was the city of Genoa, about 90 minutes south of Milan. To get there I took a train that cut across the flat countryside of Lombardy and Piedmont before running straight into a mountain range. From there the train passed through a series of tunnels before eventually descending to the coast and the ancient port city. Even in the middle of a Thursday in August, the train was crammed full, with people standing in the aisles.
Once at Genoa, I headed straight out of the station and towards the ancient centre of the city. The old town is labyrinthine, with little to no vehicle access, just a maze of laneways filled with houses and shops. Tiny bakeries no bigger than a kitchen, cafes with one or two tables on the sidewalk, centuries-old churches housing priceless artworks and relics, sandwiched between apartments.
I wandered aimlessly through the city for a few hours, munching on slices of farinata and stopping for the occasional espresso. Eventually I found a stairway that led north out of the town and uphill. I followed it to see what was at the top. But the stairway would not end, it ascended for kilometer after kilometer. I would turn around to see the buildings of the old city receding into the distance. Finally, the path ended on a road that followed the ridge of a hill, dividing the city from the forest. I decided to follow the ridge upwards, passing an old observatory still manned by a group of elderly gentlemen, before coming to the base of one of the ancient hilltop forts that once guarded the city. From there I could look out over the Mediterranean, watching the ships entering and leaving the harbour. Behind me were even higher hills that were topped with even bigger forts.
The temptation to climb them had to be left for another day, as the sun was starting to set. I descended down a different path, cutting between old houses and palazzi, until eventually reaching a marketplace in the old town where I could get water and sit down. But I could not rest for long, I had a boat to catch and dinner to eat.
Down by the harbor I found a small restaurant that served a dish of pasta with fresh pesto and green beans, that was the perfect fuel after the long hike. From there it was across the road and onto the overnight ferry to the island of Corsica. I had booked a reclining seat for the trip across, but it quickly became clear that it would be too uncomfortable to sleep in, so I moved onto the floor and slept there, listening to the sound of the waves as we headed south.
We were woken up early by the sound of the breakfast bar opening, and I walked out onto the deck to watch the sun rise from the sea. On the other side of the boat you could look out to see the coast of the Cap Corse, the peninsula that marks the north end of the island. As we moved southward, I could see my goal for the day looming into view, and I simultaneously started to question my sanity.
I had come to Corsica for one reason, and that was to hike to the peak of Monte Stellu. I had seen the landscapes of the Cap Corse on television a few years back when the Tour de France passed through, and ever since then I had wanted to visit. A chance search on Google Maps turned up a path that went across the cape and stopped at the peak of a mountain. Further research showed it was an ancient path which led to the rugged peak of Monte Stellu, 1307m above sea level. From the deck of the ferry I could see the peak in the distance, tearing into the clouds. It would be an epic hike.
Arriving in the port town of Bastia, I caught the local bus with a few seconds to spare and we trundled north through tiny beach towns until we reached the village of Lavasina. It would be from here that my hike would begin. At a small café on the beach I had a shot of espresso and asked the locals in broken French whether it was possible to hike the mountain. They seemed surprised, and warned me against the weather, which could change in an instant.
Nonetheless, I headed out and along a little lane beside the church. The path immediately kicked up, becoming less and less paved until it was a goat track between farm walls hand built from stones. Even in the early morning the humidity was high and oppressive. The first few kilometers from Lavasina to the trail head at Pozzo cut between farms and houses, past people having breakfast on outdoor tables who would say “bonjour” as if they had seen you every day.
Once out of Pozzo, the terrain became even rougher, before reaching a small sign simply marked “Monte Stellu”. The sign had originally read “Monte Stello”, but the top of the “o” had been etched away by a local so that the name was now in the local Corsu language and not French. Many of the street signs were like this, with French names erased by etching or spraypaint. Corsican pride is alive and well.
Already I had ascended over 300 meters from sea level, and was barely on the main trail. The trail itself was rough and poorly worn, cutting through dense scrubland. Lizards basked on rocks in the sun, while flies buzzed around. Cairns had been placed along the path to guide the way, and between them and my GPS I navigated further up the long ridge.
Maybe it was the solitude or the sun, but hiking the path felt like an eternity. Again I questioned my sanity. It was nearly two hours before I saw other human beings on the trail, two lycra-clad runners descending at speed towards the coast. It was a reassuring sign. Despite the heat, every step upward made the air a little cooler, and a seabreeze would occasionally whip up the valley.
The trail rarely relented from its steepness, and every time I felt close to being over a ridge or at a waypoint I would look at my map and realise I had barely moved. However, after one particularly steep section, I spotted a ruined shelter up ahead, and reaching it I found myself at the Bocca di Santa Maria, the pass between the east and west sides of the mountain range. The whole coast opened up before me; to the west, clouds filled the valley from where I had hiked, but to the east it was clear and blue.
From there I struck north for the final ascent to the summit. More hikers appeared on the trail, having taken the alternate path from the west coast town of Olmeta. The trail kicked up again as the scrubland gave way to open, rocky fields. A herd of cows grazed below, their bells filling the valley with sound.
With a final crawl through the rocks I finally reached the summit, marked both by markers of the old (cairnstone) and the new (communications tower). A few hikers who had arrived earlier had laid a picnic out, and were taking photos of the incredible vista. It’s rare to be in a place where you can see both sides of an island, at least so high up.
I pulled my meagre lunch from my rucksack, a slab of Genoese Panettone, a dense and dry cake studded with dried fruits and nuts. It must have been the inspiration for Tolkien’s Lembas Bread, it was so filling and energizing after the long hike. I took a few photos and began the long descent. A few minutes later I passed a man who must have been at least 80, making his way to the summit. It looked like he had climbed the mountain all his life and knew every stone by name. He asked me why I didn’t stay at the top longer, but all I could reply was that I knew it would be a long descent and so could not stay. In some perverse internal logic, I had come to climb the mountain, not to stay at the top. Having achieved that goal, it was time to turn and go home.
If ascending felt like an eternity, descending felt like two eternities, if such a thing were possible. Without the incentive of the summit to will me on, each step became leaden. Even the downhill incline did not help. The precariousness of the stone track meant calculating each footfall, staying technical, staying focused, lest you slip and fall. Moreover, with each step the temperature and humidity edged higher. The only respite was the clouds that had formed in the valley, obscuring some of the sun. It would take nearly three hours to reach the sea again.
When I entered the café at Lavasina from where I had set off that morning, I was welcomed like a prodigal son. The owner could not believe that I had hiked from the sea to the summit. The coffee was sweet and life-giving. The staff of the café urged me to go enjoy a swim in the sea, to cool off after the hike. I plunged into the Mediterranean, letting the cool waves wash over me.
Once I had dried off, I caught the bus back to Bastia. My feet were too sore to walk, so I sat at a café, people watching in the afternoon sun. For dinner, I rewarded myself with a plate of local meats, a big serving of Moules Frites, and a half bottle of local wine. It was a fair reward after all.
I came, I saw, I conquered Monte Stellu.
After dinner, I had anticipated checking in early to the ferry back to the mainland, getting on board and getting some much needed sleep. The fatigue of the hike was setting in. However, I got to the terminal to find that the ferry was running late, and would not arrive until midnight. With the shops closed for the evening, I settled in to the waiting room, watching French news television interspersed with the sound of the information desk attendant flirting with the customs guy between regular cigarette breaks.
Someone had suggested to me that the idea of sleeping on the open deck of a ferry crossing the Mediterranean would be romantic, laying back under the stars and drifting off to the sound of waves splashing against the hull. Sadly this was about far from reality as you could get. The upper deck had been swarmed by noisy smokers, who congregated to puff away and chat, even at 1 a.m., paying no heed to the few of us who were rugged up in sleeping bags.
When the noise finally did die down, I wandered in and out of sleep, until being jolted back to consciousness by the first few drops of a rainstorm. En masse the inhabitants of the upper deck filed inside the ferry to try and find a bare patch of carpet where they could lay down.
Not long after finding a spot and getting back to sleep, the crew decided to open the restaurant, which meant cranking up the lights and the stereo, and joyfully announcing over the P.A. that it was 5 a.m. and time to buy premade pastries at inflated prices.
I wandered back out onto the deck to sit and watch the ship pull into the port of Livorno. As some strange proclamation that we were in Italy, the crew put the overture from Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” on the P.A., the anthemic march strangled by the tinny speakers.
Those of us who had travelled without car disembarked last, spat out into the grey morning light of an industrial wasteland. We could see the town across the way, but were cut off by the railway line. I followed a group of German Scouts north until we found a bridge across, then turned back south to walk along the old canals into the city.
Livorno does not have much to recommend it. It looks and feels worn out, in need of a paint job and a fresh outlook. The market is about the only major highlight, an enclosed hall filled with stalls selling all sorts of wonderful delicacies. Even the museum to their most famous son, the painter Amedeo Modigliani (who incidentally could be Colin Firth’s twin), was uninspiring, not least because there was not a single original Modigliani in the collection, only prints and photos of his works.
The hostel was perhaps the most interesting part of the experience, a place set up partly in conjunction with the local government and one of the political parties. It cohabited with a furniture recycling center, and operated on a highly communal structure. It was very simple, but for the absurdly low cost, good value. Plus, it had a bed and a bathroom, and after two nights of sleeping on ferry floors, this was a godsend.
As it happened, one of the other hostel guests and I got to chatting, and ended up going out for dinner. He was from Germany, travelling around Europe and working in bars while he tried to find permanent work in environmental science. We ended up at a small restaurant, dining on locally caught seafood along with a few other Germans (the town seems to be a popular stopping point for tourists on the way to other destinations). In fact, I spoke more German than Italian that day.
The next morning I was up early to get the train to Pisa. It was only fifteen minutes away by train, but with a very different feel. Even on a Sunday morning the town felt livelier. Old ladies walked along the streets to attend mass in churches that dated back centuries. Groups of well dressed youths congregated for morning coffee and pastries in the bars.
An advantage of being in Pisa early was that the Piazza dei Miracoli would be at its least crowded, and the chances of getting a ticket to climb the Leaning Tower would be higher. The tickets weren’t cheap (18 Euro, or about 26 Australian Dollars), but there was only one Leaning Tower of Pisa, after all. I squeezed myself into a tour, and sat inside the tower as the bells rang for the Sunday service at the cathedral next door.
To give you an idea of the lean, a large plumb line extends from the centre of the tower at its top, down the interior chamber. By the time it reaches the bottom, it is nearly hitting the wall, such is the angle of the building. The lean also makes for a disorienting climb, with the enclosed spiral staircase looking even, but feeling harder, then easier to climb as you precess around the off-vertical axis. At the top, you view the whole of the town, looking across to the sea and to the mountains of Tuscany.
It was only at the top that I realized that I was standing where Galileo once stood, conducting his famous experiments on gravity which consisted of hucking stuff off the side (such as cannonballs) and counting how long they took to hit the ground. I’m not sure that OH&S would allow such folly these days.
With the tour over, I made my way through the throng of tourists posing for photos with the tower (which taken out of context looked absurd, bodies contorted at odd angles), and wandered the old town some more, visiting churches to admire the frescoes and paintings, and lunching on a delicious pasta with a pesto made from anchovies, olives and capers. From there, I headed back to the train station to head to the next destination.
The train followed the coastline north until the cranes of the container port of La Spezia came into view. The hostel I was staying at was a 6km bus ride from the town, but being Sunday, the public transport schedule had been curtailed to the point where there were only two bus services, and I had already missed the first. The second would not come for four more hours.
Not wanting to sit around in a sleepy town for that long, I stocked up on water, had a quick espresso, and struck out along the valley road westward, straddling a small river. The road narrowed down to a single lane with no shoulder, and at each turn I had to stop and listen for cars approaching through what had now become dense mountain forest. The road then kicked up into a steep series of switchback turns as it climbed out of the valley.
On the third switchback I noticed the staircase that cut directly up the mountain. It had fell into relative disuse, but was still passable. A red marker on the side of the road signified that it was one of the Cinque Terre trails, the connecting path between the coastal towns and La Spezia. I followed it up as it diverged from the road and past old homesteads towards the village of Biassa, nestled in the mountains overlooking La Spezia.
At the edge of the village, an old lady in a garden greeted me with a hearty welcome, and pointed out the direction of the hostel, intuitively knowing that only a backpacker would be crazy enough to hike all the way up to the village. The one bar in town was closing for the evening, but they graciously made a pizza for me to take away for dinner. I sat and recovered while it cooked. Elderly gentlemen sat at the tables playing cards and watching football on the television.
At the hostel I wolfed down the pizza and got ready for bed. The next day would be an even bigger hiking challenge – all five towns of the Cinque Terre in a single day.
The Cinque Terre is a truly unique place. Five tiny villages perched on rocky cliff faces, separated by steep hills that have been transformed by generations of residents into complex terraces of gardens and vineyards. For hundreds of years, the only way in or out was by rugged mountain tracks, or by a perilous boat journey on rough seas to the small harbours of each village.
Of course, nowadays there’s a road, and a rail line that tunnels under the whole coastline to connect each of the towns. But the bus ride from Biassa to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, was still a precarious affair, the van twisting its way on a tight mountainside road with many blind corners, eventually descending to the edge of the village, where I began the hike.
My aim was to follow the hiking trails of the Cinque Terre from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, at the north end of the coast, where I could get a train from there back to Milan. Normally, an easy trail connects Riomaggiore and the next village of Manarola, the “Via dell’Amore”, named so because lovers from the two villages would meet along it. It became a spot for romantics, with people attaching locks to the handrails to signify their love for each other. Unlike the Ponte dell’Accademia in Venice, the practice seems to be encouraged, with branded locks being available for purchase at the village stores.
It’s a shame it was closed. A series of landslides had blocked both the Via dell’Amore and the following trail from Manarola to Corniglia, making detours necessary. Both detours required scaling the steep hills surrounding the towns along less used tracks. Leaving Riomaggiore in the early morning, with only a small trickle of tourists about, I followed a path that was barely a foot wide, winding through gardens and crossing irrigation hoses, upwards through vineyard plantings until reaching a peak about 200 metres above the towns.
From there you could look back on Riomaggiore, and look north to see the coast stretching off into the distance, each village a cluster of multicoloured buildings (made so such that fishermen could spot their house from the sea) clinging to the hillside. Tour boats made their way along the water, throngs of tourists on the decks with cameras.
I descended into Manarola on the path, careful to not make a misplaced step and fall, such was the steepness of the descent. Once there, it was time to head out along the second part of the detour, which headed back up the mountainside, this time to the hamlet of Volastra, 300m high above the sea. There I took espresso at the sole café (in Italy, a one café town is equivalent to a one horse town), and a brief visit to the Nostra Signora della Salute church that looked over the sea.
Then it was a flatter, but far longer descent into Corniglia, along farm terraces, then through forests where the terrain was too difficult to cultivate, before reaching the cliff top village. There I took a quick lunch of foccacia filled with anchovies (the local fish), butter and oregano. You might recoil at the idea, but after sweating up and down hills for the morning, the salt was a godsend. But there was no time to waste, with the longest parts of the hike to come, and the crowds starting to build in the streets.
I continued onwards to Vernazza, along the “main trail”, which only seemed to differ from the secondary trails in that there were more people on them. They were still narrow and tricky to navigate. As I passed other hikers, I would tip my hat and greet them with a “Buon Giorno”. It was interesting as an exercise in social interaction to note the responses. Many people responded in kind, though some chose to respond in their own language (for some reason this tended to mostly be the French), others not at all, perhaps bewildered or more likely tired out from a hike which they underestimated.
On the outskirts of Vernazza, I rounded a corner to find myself descending along the cliffside towards a fortress, that protected a small harbor on one side, ringed by improbable houses. On the other side was a rocky beach where people tested the waves or simply lay in the sun. I stopped to take a few photos, before heading across to climb to the top of the fortress.
The views of the Cinque Terre are so spectacular that they can make even the most amateur photographer look good. Virtually every step provided a new angle that was equally as interesting as the last, be it the olive trees hanging over old stone cottages, local farmers tending their grapevines in the noonday sun, or the steep precipices of the wild coastline.
Down in Vernazza proper, the crowds were unbearable. It was late lunchtime, and every table was packed. Queues filed out of the takeaway stores, and movement was slow. It seemed that the longer the day wore on, and the further north I travelled, the more crowded the place became. I quickly found the side street that led to the final path to Monterosso and climbed back up into the hills.
My water supplies were running low, but I knew I had enough to make it all the way. It had become a very hot day, with clear skies and an unrelenting sun. It was clear that many of the visitors were woefully underprepared for the difficulty of the hike. Whilst the paths themselves were short, the inclines were steep, and in many places there was only a narrow stone staircase that was one person wide.
I would have to stop and let groups of 20-30 people climb by before continuing. Some were clearly reaching the limits of their abilities. I had spotted a defibrillator in one of the towns; it became apparent that it probably got regular use. Most absurdly, I watched a tour group pass by up a massive flight of stairs, all struggling, but none more so than the two gentlemen at the back who had been forced into hauling a child’s stroller up with them. Where they thought they were going to use it I was not sure.
I had finally run out of water, but it didn’t matter as the path reached the southern beach of Monterosso. I had made it. My body ached, my feet were screaming, but I was finally there. And I was ready to hike it all again. This was easily the most beautiful hike I had ever taken in terms of scenery. Monte Stellu was grand in terms of its sustained challenge, and I had hiked some beautiful country in Australia, but the Cinque Terre defined picturesque.
If I ever get married, I want to honeymoon there.
After negotiating the massive crowd at the train station to get a ticket back to Milan (most tourists skip the hiking and use the regular trains between the villages), I walked to the north end of Monterosso and sat on the beach. The whole trip had been great, the first real break in a long time. I had pushed myself physically and mentally, and in doing so felt refreshed.
The waters of the Mediterranean cooled my burning feet, wave after wave crashing against my legs.
Eventually it was time to leave, and get the train back to Milan. There was a direct train from Monterosso which skirted the coastline back north to Genoa before heading inland and back home. I watched out the window at the evening sunlight skipping across the ocean, making plans for the next time I get the urge to go walkabout...
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