Hot as Hell, Devil’s country

When it’s as hot as Hell there is no better place than the natural Canyon of Orrido di Botri, in the mountains 40kms above Lucca.

The area, known as Garfagnana, part of the Province of Lucca, encompasses some of the most beautiful natural woods and mountains of Tuscany. Orrido di Botri is one such place, and only accessible during the Summer months as the hike entails wading in and out of the River Pelago, hugging the rock face till the end of the trail at the natural “swimming pool”

Home to the Devil and Devilish legends add to the already mystical air as we set off early to wind our way up the mountain to Ponte a Gaio (740mt) the meeting point and entrance to the National Park area.

Ponte della Maddalena or Devil's BridgeOn the way we have our first encounter with the Devil at the ancient Ponte della Maddalena commonly known as the ‘Devil’s Bridge’Legend has it that a master builder was commissioned to build the bridge but could not get it finished on time and asked the Devil to help him. The Devil made a pact with him that he would finish the bridge in one night and as recompense would take the soul of the first person who crossed the bridge. The builder agreed to the pact but later, filled with remorse confessed to a priest who advised him to send a pig over the bridge first. The Devil, infuriated at being made a fool of, and not knowing what to do with the pig, disappeared into the river Serchio leaving behind a cloud of sulphur.

On arrival at the Forest rangers office we need to be equipped with helmets and our hike shoes as we’ll be wading in areas up to our thighs, through the canyon with rock walls of up to 200m high. The hairnets under the helmets get a giggle and gives us a rather incongruous look as Cristina explains the logistics of the 4hr hike.- River temperature around 10 degrees, and the canyon only a few degrees warmer, with a warning that it’s easier to wade than risk slipping on the rocks. To avoid any rocks falling on our heads we should place our hands on the rock at the entrance in homage to ‘Botri’. Legend of Botri

Botri being the ugly crippled shepherd who found shelter in the canyon with his flock after being driven out by his compatriots for his terrible appearance. Famine struck and the same citizens pleaded with Botri to allow their flocks to feed in the Canyon but Botri offended and angered threw rocks at them to drive them away. Unfortunately during the fight he slipped and fell, breaking his neck in the Canyon, where his ghost still reigns! So we are only too happy to place both hands on the entrance rock so Botri won’t be offended.

Rain was forecast, surprisingly the only day in the entire Summer, as we set off into this majestic wild beauty of ferns and moss alongside crystal clear water. The Devil is considered a regular visitor to the Canyon and parents often frightened their children from venturing into the Canyon alone, describing an enormous winged monster that would swoop down and take them away in his claw – a large shiny orange mark imprinted high on the rocks is said to be the burn mark from his tail!? And there is a Devil’s garden and the Devil’s claw mark.

While amused by the various horrific tales we stick close to our two qualified guides, heeding their warnings along the way. As the thunder rolled in and it began to pour,  small stones bounced off two helmets and the atmosphere took on a more sinister feel. Cristina was quick to reassure that wild goats tend to wander along the edge of the cliffs above and the shrapnel is probably from them……not Botri?! Royal Eagles and falcons also nest in the area but are rarely sighted and the more timid animals like capriole ( bambi deer) are unlikely to venture out while we are around.

The thunder passed and the air cleared so we managed to complete the hike to the end, becoming quite used to wading in the river or clinging to ropes that line some of the rock face. In the swimming pool

The photos do not do it justice and are marred by my waterproof holder, but I hope to have enticed some of you into this treasure chest of uncontaminated Nature near Lucca.

 

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Prevo – the halfway point, Cinque Terre

Prevo Cinque TerreMy little village of San Bernardino sits directly above Prevo in the Cinque Terre. A sparse group of houses at the halfway point on the coastal trail between Corniglia and Vernazza. I can’t quite see it from my terrace but I am sure the builders can who are currently redoing my roof. I did promise them a job with a sea view and they are indulging in it….perhaps just a little too long for my liking. But then builders are builders the same the world over, nothing ever seems to run to schedule!San Bernardino

 

Prevo is where I sneak into the coastal trail, on my way down to either village and surprise most hikers by looking fresh and energetic still, when they have just panted there way up the hill on countless steps. It is the highest point on the trail (208m above sea level) but most tourists don’t know that and look relieved to hear that it is all downhill thereafter.

Prevo cafeFrom Corniglia the hike up is a little less as Corniglia is already 100m above sea level, nevertheless it is with some relief that tourists find the bar Il Gabbiano at Prevo where they can catch their breath and enjoy a great fresh fruit juice and fantastic view. Tourists from Vernazza appreciate it even more!

All the locals know that it is easier to follow the trails from Corniglia to Vernazza and Monterosso than vice versa, so bear that in mind if you are over here.

For those who choose to stay here in Prevo, as many of the houses rent out on Airbnb, they are in for a quiet retreat, a full immersion in the Mediterranean flora, fabulous sea views…….and a long walk back from dining out! But forewarned they usually love being away from the crowds in the villages.

It’s still pre tourist season, a time to indulge in the late winter and early Spring flowers – like the Mimosa whose yellow blooms make a striking contrast against the turquoise sea. Purple pig face hang along walls which has me thinking what an Aussie mix of flora. Hardy rosemary is in bloom, and the red stalk flowers of the aloe vera are readily seen along the trail tucked in amongst the prickly pear. Officially the coastal trail is Trail closed Vernazza Cornigliaclosed, meaning those who use it hike are at their own risk. When it reopens late March the Cinque Terre Card will be required for entry at a fee of €7.50 or €13 per day including trains. The rest of the hiking trails, known as the high trails are all free…..and I might add just as good if not better!

Trail damage Vernazza

 

I see that another portion of the dry stone wall along the coastal trail has collapsed, a pretty common  occurrence and the National Park will probably try to fix it. Other areas have had major steel nets and cables extending the more volatile slopes and they appear to be holding up well and a great security for hikers and local landowners. It remains a fragile territory and any new landslide or collapsed wall is like a wound in our sides.  The  dry stone walls, that keep this territory together and gained it Unesco Heritage status, if put together are twice the length of The Great Wall of China! It’s a pity we don’t have a Chinese army of people to keep tending them and the terraces!

It is good to see some new trail railing has been put into place by the National park, and very welcomed at the favourite place for the panoramic shot of Corniglia where it was on such a wobble I thought the next tourist that leans was going to do a long gravel rash slide down to the beach below!

Prevo 5 TerreNothing that I ever write about the Cinque Terre is sensational as my aim is for those who visit to understand the complexities of this unique and beautiful area and respect its frailties. While man labours hard to remain in control, it is never enough for the work required and Mother Nature knows who is really ruling the roost!Corniglia to Monterosso

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A legendary place – Island of Montecristo

Montecristo IslandOff on a new adventure to the Island of Montecristo, one of the most wild and intriguing of  the Tuscan Archipelago. This tiny island off the Tuscan coast is only just over 10sq km and a Natural Reserve with restricted access of only 1000 visitors each year allowed to explore the 3 trails on the Island accompanied by Forest rangers and Environmental Guides. Only 50 people per visit and more than a 2 year waiting list.

It meant an early dawn start for most of us with a 2hr trip from Florence and a 2 1/2 hr boat ride across from Castiglione della Pescaia. The excitement mounted on seeing the island shrouded in clouds, exuding mystery and provoking a murmur about the treasure to still be found!

Guides Montecristo

Forest rangers to greet us, together with the custodians of the island and our Environmental guide to give us an introduction to the flora and fauna and regulations about hiking together – not wandering off the designated trail or even dipping a toe into the very inviting sea.

In 2012 Montecristo had become so infested with black rats threatening the birdlife of the sanctuary that 26 tonnes of rat pellet poison was air dropped on the Island much to the objection of many environmentalists. It has however proved to be a success, restoring the Islands’ ecosystem with the return of the Storm Petrels and Shearwater  Seabirds and various migratory birds. Wild goats, Tyrrhenian painted frogs and the Montecristo vipers are special to the island although I was hoping we would only come across the first two on our hike!

Vegetation is monitored to ensure the native Mediterranean flora, aside from the port area, Maestra Cove, which flaunts exotic imported plants, since it was the only

Montecristo Cala Maestra

inhabited area over the centuries. Years past it was a penal settlement until a wealthy English botanist – George Watson Taylor, bought the island in the mid 1800’s for a mere 50,000 lire (€ 25) and introduced different plant species and many eucalyptus. He succeeded in making a good profit when the Italian Government bought the Island back in 1869 for 100,000 lire (€ 50)!  Please note a correction to the Lira currency value in comments/replies.

But we were off to find the hidden treasure protected by the ferocious dragon that had kept many pirates and fortune seekers at bay. As the legend goes the Bishop of Palermo – Mamiliano  miraculously saved from the Vandals in Africa and blood thirsty pirates was not to be deterred by a fiery dragon in finding a safe haven on the island of Montecristo. He managed to kill the monster, burn it and threw its remains into the sea and retired as a hermit in a cave – Grotto Mamiliano

In honour of Mamiliano, a Benedictine monastery was built  and here the legend of the fabulous treasure began, supposedly made up mostly of chalices, sacred and precious furnishings, gold and prized stones, which the friars were hiding.

While many sought the treasure, including Cosimo I de ‘Medici, the only one who has managed to find the fabulous treasure, as far as we know, is the legendary Edmond Dantes, in the “Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas.

Hikers Montecristo

 

But perhaps the real treasure is the pristine nature of the island itself, its stunning wildness, glorious views and we felt privileged to have hiked its steep ledges and crevices and were beguiled by its mystery.Isola Montecristo

Tuscan coast mapLeaving Montecristo

 

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Winter withdrawal and renewal in the Cinque Terre

View on CornigliaEven winter in the Cinque Terre is fabulous! How many times have I written that in previous blogs. Yet it is worth repeating and a wonderful way of settling back into life in Italy. All it needed was mild weather and some sunshine to have me out walking those same old trails that I have hiked so many times before.

 

I never tire of the views, knowing Towards Monterossoevery nook and cranny so well; my favourite photo spots (not only mine!), my much loved rest points to breathe it all in and let a smile out.

The wild boar had been busy snuffling up their precious roots, berries, mushrooms and whatever else they could find under the olives and vines.

wildboar devastation

So the Park rangers were out, rifles on the ready, walkie talkies in hand trying desperately to find the boar….that got away! Most visitors are not aware of how much damage the boar do to the vineyards and the Park territory, rooting around at the base of the dry stone walls, often destabilising the wall.

The hunt is controlled but as the Ranger said ” they are sly and hardy beasts”  that slideVernazza- Corniglia down effortlessly from one terrace to another and easily outsmart the hunters.  While I heard no shots, the Rangers were on the run along the trail and through the undergrowth much to the surprise of the odd tourist. They ducked as the armed rangers rushed past and were quite shocked and keen to be reassured that it was safe to continue!

In Corniglia, there was hardly a soul and while the gelati billboard was out the shop was closed, probably in waiting for the weekend trade. The village returns to being a local village, washing being hung out, and grandmas sitting in the sun chatting as they crochet.

Dry stone wallsIt’s always heartening to see the work being done on restoring properties and dry stone walls so critical to the maintenance of the terraces.restoration work

 

 

 

 

 

 

Park signs have been renewed and hopefully hikers will heed the advice. View of VernazzaCinque terre park sign

 

Vernazza has the same tranquil atmosphere, with many of the touristy shops still closed and the main street deserted.Vernazza main street

Quite a contrast to the Summer crowds!Crowds Cinque Terre

 

 

 

 

Children have reclaimed the main square as their playground, under the watchful eye of grandparents, and the medieval features of the  buildings are more noticeable.

Vernazza palazzo

Cat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sea laps idly over the rocks, as a fisherman tries his luck. Vernazza fishermanAnd there is an air of peace; time to catch our breath and rest up in readiness for the season to come.Cactus flower

 

 

 

Cinque Terre- Vernazza

 

 

 

If you are thinking of coming over and would like a ‘detour’  don’t hesitate to get in touch, I would be more than happy to show you round!

 


 

 

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Coming out of Hibernation

 

Eclipse

Foto credit – Fiorino Fiorini

Spring in Tuscany started with a 60% solar eclipse, which historically was viewed as an omen that brings about death and destruction! I can only say it feels like the exact opposite as we come out of our winter hibernation! The little hedgehog that had hibernated in my garden had also moved on, before I managed to get his photo.

Hedgehog nest

Hedgehog nest

 

Perhaps the doom associated with the eclipse was to be our total power failure since Italy depends on some solar energy, but plants were shut down early on Friday morning to avoid any disruption. 

I spent the day on a hike in the hills of Chianti Classico – around Castellina in Chianti, and while the countryside still needs to green up, it was certainly showing signs of Spring.Chianti hillsBlossom

 

 

 

 

A newly licenced Environmental guide was my mentor as I was hers in correcting her English. She is full of passion and enthusiasm for the area and I was impressed to hear that we were walking in very healthy woods, as could be seen by the various types of lichen covering the tree limbs. An indication that the air is free of pesticides.

I also learnt that the ivy seen climbing many of the trees is not likely to kill the tree as is often misunderstood but they live a symbiotic relationship; the tree grows higher in search of the sunlight as the ivy climbs. The woods around us Hiking in Chiantirevealed a mix of flora which would mean a mix of fauna – wolves, foxes, wild boar, hedgehogs, porcupines, toads and a stray snake or two which we were lucky enough not to see or have disturbed!                                              There were even trout in the river!

 

Tuscany has a different kind of beauty to the Cinque Terre which has been flashing its Spring flowers along the trails and amongst the vineyards for the past few weeks.Cinque terre trail

Cinque terre vineyards

 

 

 

Sea view to Corniglia

Sea view to Corniglia

 

 

 

And the sea is a glorious colour, a silver shimmer as the wind skips across it.

Cinque Terre view

View from San Bernardino to Monterosso

Only two of the coastal trails between the villages will open this year – Vernazza and Monterosso is already open, and the trail between Corniglia and Vernazza is currently being repaired. Still the high trails are beautiful and well worth hiking.Trail damage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This weekend (28th-29th March) will be the Sciacchetrail  “a union of the words Sciacchetra’ and Trail: the sweet passito wine produced here, and running trail. Sciacchetrail is a path to recover the soul of this territory….”  And I suggest you will be recovering your own soul and definitely deserving a good Sciacchetra’ if you manage the 47kms, with a 3000m elevation gain to be completed within a time limit! I may be on the sidelines to take photos as competitors cruise past Corniglia. It should be a fun weekend though as there will lots of wine, food, music and even a pesto party before, during and after the run.

Saturday the ferries start running again and it’s also the weekend when we change onto Daylight Saving time so our hibernation has finished for another year!Cinque Terre

 

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Hiking the high trail San Bernardino – Vernazza

Hiking trailIt’s time to hike another trail in the Cinque Terre, this time from my little village of San Bernardino down to Vernazza via the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Reggio. It’s another high trail, only recently reopened, as it passes across the valley where most of the landslides occurred in the 2011 floods.

Leaving San Bernardino the trail leads almost immediately into a cluster of houses ( Seroa) and it’s easy to think you may be walking into someone’s private space. Women lounge out of their windows, catching up on the gossip, and welcome me through indicating where the trail continues.

Cinque Terre - San Bernardino

San Bernardino

Farmers cottage

 

 

 

 

That’s not without a question or two as to where I’m from …. “Ahhh you’re in Tin’s old house, well well, he was the boss around here in the old days! Long gone now though.”

 

I leave them chatting and continue, past a well tended vegie patch and old stone cottage and on into the woods. Most of the trail is in the shade, which makes a nice change, in parts it crosses some tiny streams and every so often the woods open up to vineyards and farm houses. A stray, out of season, poppy waves in the breeze alongside other wildflowers and exotic looking mushrooms, probably poisonous, have struggled up through the undergrowth.

 

Curiously wire gates block the trail leading through the vineyards, as defence against the wild boar who dig up roots and create a lot of damage to the vineyards and to the Nationa park in general. The gates appear to block the way, but are simply latched at the top, to let you through and need to be closed properly behind you so the wild boar are kept out.

gateGate latch

 

 

 

 

Vernazza sign

Vineyards

 

 

 

Vineyards
House and vineyards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the vineyards the trail follows the road, takes another turn or two and then leads down to the shade of the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Reggio. Built in the 11th Century, legend has it that the image of the Madonna was brought from the Orient at the time of the first crusade and it is likely the church is built over a more ancient one.Sanctuary Madonna del Reggio

Locals are very attached to the Sanctuary and particularly enjoy the festival in August when a procession leaves from Vernazza for the Holy Mass followed by a great village picnic. Another excuse for a party!

It is surrounded by secular olives, elms and oak trees and provides a welcome shady spot above Vernazza with panoramic views of the coastline.Madonna del Reggio

 

 

Path from Sanctuary

 

 

 

 

From here the path down to Vernazza is mostly paved, since it was used as a Via Dolorosa and at various stops along the way you can still see some of the Stations of the Cross. In fact it was one of the first paths repaired after the flood, because of its importance to the locals and its general popularity.

ChapelOn my hike, there was no one in sight until I reached the Sanctuary, which did not surprise me that much, as many still think the rest of the trail to San Bernardino is closed.

It is however a very pleasant trail, cool and shady, a few steep parts but not too taxing and some great photo opportunities. Vernazza

Besides I could admire my little village from another angle and appreciate its beauty even more!

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