Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Campiglia to Portovernere, Beyond the Cinque Terre

Liguria, home to the Italian Riviera, is one of Italy's smallest regions. It sits in the wide, sweeping arch of northwestern Italy facing the Ligurian Sea with the Apennine Mountains forming a majestic backdrop. In between is a land of steep valleys that drop precipitously to a crystalline blue/green sea. Picturesque fishing villages cling to its coast, including the Cinque Terre, five seaside towns that are so special that in 1997 they were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a well-kept secret, the five towns are now part of the Cinque Terre National Park and have become one of Italy's best-known and most visited tourist spots. On weekends, especially in summer, the beautiful trail along the sea that connects the five towns is crowded with walkers. 

What many people don't know is that just south of the Cinque Terre is another town, Portovenere, that is every bit as beautiful as the other five. Portovenere is part of the same Park that encompasses the Cinque Terre, but it is not as closely linked as the other five towns. It's a three to four hour hike from Riomaggiore, the most southern of the Cinque Terre, to Portovenere. 

Portovenere can be reached by car, but we took the train from Pisa to La Spezia and then a bus to Le Grazie, where we began our hike. All this was easily accomplished with the aide of our friend Francesca, who knows every twist and turn of all the hiking trails in the area. After getting off the bus, it was just a short walk to the trailhead. 

Not a hike for the faint of heart, the trail begins on an ancient mulattiera. These mule trails, found all over Italy, were once the public roads that connected villages, particularly in mountainous areas. Our mulattiera, composed of thousands of steps made of local stones, zigzagged through the forest climbing quickly and steeply toward the medieval village of Campiglia, our first stop. 

Campiglia is well worth the climb. From the piazza in front of the church, there is a view of the busy harbor of the Gulf of La Spezia, the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains. On this day, clouds covered the lower slopes of the mountains so that the majestic peaks appeared suspended in a dreamscape of sea and sky.   

In the gastronomic world, Campiglia is known for its high-quality saffron, made from the stems of the crocus plant. (It takes about 150,000 flowers to make one kilo of saffron.) In times past, the saffron was made only from the wild crocuses that grow in profusion on the surrounding hills. About 10 years ago, however, the town began cultivating crocus and now has a thriving industry.  

Fortunately for us, the cafe on the main street in Campiglia was closed and in our search for another, we discovered Piccoloblu, a charming cafe/restaurant, where everything is homemade using local products. Sitting in the sun with an incredible view of the sea, we sampled several offerings, including the best onion focaccia I have ever tasted. Fortified, we struck out for Portovenere. 

Just outside of Campiglia were two signs indicating trails to Portovenere - one marked difficoltoso.  "Not so difficult," said Francesca, "and much more beautiful than the other." The difficulty is the steepness of the descent and the loose rocks underfoot. The beauty is everything: the distant mountains, the sun-baked cliffs of Monte Castellana aglow with flowering plants and, of course, the sea on both sides of the promontory that runs swiftly downhill to Portovenere. 

Midway along the path is a rocky plateau, where the sun on the rocks turned spring into summer. It was a perfect place for a snack (hiking makes you hungry) and a leisurely look at the almost surreal panorama of Portovenere and the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. If I ever get around to writing my book, "Great Picnic Spots of the World," this place will surely be in it. The warmth of the sun also coaxed forth some early wild asparagus that we gathered in anticipation of a evening frittata.  

As we got closer to Portovenere, the larger panorama gave way to beautiful details: the black and white facade of the 11th-century Chiesa di San Pietro on its rocky perch high above the sea, the imposing Genovese military fortress, and the Golfo dei Poeti, an inlet that was admired by poets from Petrarch to Byron. Beyond we could see fishing boats in the harbor and the quayside lined with brightly-colored medieval buildings.  

It started to rain just after we reached Portovenere, but it was a light drizzle that only added to the romance of the town and the sea. We visited the church and walked the old, medieval main street, where every store sold local products, including rich, creamy pesto from nearby Genova.  

Then it was back to Pisa for a wonderful meal prepared by Francesca's husband, Fabrizio, that included a frittata with the wild, freshly-gathered asparagus.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto, 

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Looks like a magnificent area. Love the pix!

  2. You make me feel as if I'm walking beside you--with the added benefit of no aching muscles or gasping lungs. Thanks for opening yet another window on a part of Italy about which I knew nothing.

  3. Sounds like a fabulous day --- I’m envious! The photos are spectacular and the description is vivid and so interesting.


Thanks for your comments.