The beauty of Cinque Terre will feature as the stunning backdrop to ‘Luca’, a new animated movie by Disney and Pixar due for release in June. The animation is by Italian artist Enrico Casarosa, from Genoa who dedicates his first feature film as director to his childhood holidays in Liguria. And locals at Vernazza were all abuzz with the news!
“Luca shares summer adventures with his newfound best friend Alberto but all the fun is threatened by a deeply-held secret: he is a sea monster from another world just below the water’s surface”.
In the meantime maintenance work continues, the boat slip is finished and dredging has begun in the bay in Vernazza. While another landslide at the beginning of the trail to Monterosso needs to be attended to unfortunately.
On other trail areas – Vernazza to Corniglia, Park maintenance has progressed and another fallen wall has been repaired and new steps over the marshy area are almost complete.
Closer to home the National Park has bolted a safety rope into the rockface on the narrow part of the trail leading into San Bernardino to help hikers who are less surefooted.
Spring flowers are abundant and some locals have cleared new areas for vegetable gardens and new vineyards. All it needs is a little sunshine and Nature’s colours warm the heart and brighten our spirits.
Due to Covid 19 the Cinque Terre remains quiet, bereft of tourists, an opportune time for repairs and maintenance to this fragile territory while looking forward to better times to come.
Dreaming of some time out from the current reality, Mother Nature put on a special show for me (and others) at the Cinque Terre, at least for those of us who live above the main villages. Probably due to the unseasonal warm weather we are having despite it still being Winter, a reaction between the sea and land temperature….whatever it was, it was truly magic!Three days of clouds rolling in and up and slowly dissipating during the day, to rollback in again the next day and the one after. Locals call it “il caligo” – meaning fog, but it is rare to see it at this time of year and to continue as such for days. For us above it all, it was a fairytale blanket of clouds, inviting and enticing us to take a plunge into its soft fluffy texture.
As it slowly dispersed the village of Corniglia would reappear in a dreamlike state
Time to explore what it was like down inside the fog, and see how the villages were coping with Covid restrictions and hear the news. Hiking down I found a couple of dry stone walls collapsed but no major landslide fortunately and Vernazza looking beautiful as usual.
Rumour has it Via dell Amore will reopen this year, but that has been promised before so we will just have to wait and see.
Vernazza’s main street was very quiet, just a few shoppers waiting their turn outside the mini supermarket, and the table soccer game waiting for the kids to return from school.
But they were busy on the beach rebuilding the boat slipway before the weather warms up.
The water in the bay looking crystal clear…..and the view across to Monterosso a peaceful one.Corniglia was the same, hardly a soul about apart from a group of friends enjoying the sunshine with a picnic at the panoramic point.
Unfortunately another wall down on the way in to Corniglia while a new drystone wall has gone up in my little village. A stonemason’s artistic masterpiece showing the skill and talent required.
As the fog rolls in I hike back up to enjoy the view and wait for another fairytale beginning on the Cinque Terre.
On a rare day without rain and in solidarity for the humanitarian Onlus Emergency my hike group explored the hills, vineyards and villas once belonging to ‘The Prince – Machiavelli’. It was by no means a tough hike, not our usual style, but for a worthy cause, and we were in for some real treats!
Starting from San Casciano Val di Pesa, which is only a hop skip and jump from Florence (18kms) towards Siena, in the Chianti Classico wine area we were headed for Sant’ Andrea in Percussina, home to Machiavelli’s villas. A carpet of cloud covered the valley between the towns and the rolling hills blessed with vines now looking rather straggly as there autumn colours slowly fade. Still it was a relief to be out under sunshine and in good company.
A guided tour of Machiavelli’s villa was promised, and we were to delve into his tormented story. He had been considered the rising star of the new Florentine Republic, a brilliant civil servant and head of the Second Chancery, a post that placed him in charge of the Republic’s foreign affairs after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. But when the Republic fell and the Medici returned to power he was arrested, tortured and expelled from the city. He retreated to his farmhouse ‘Albergaccio‘ ( meaning bad hotel) as it linked to the tavern across the road often filled with dubious characters.
The Albergaccio restaurant today and tour of the farmhouse:
Machiavelli wrote “Here, in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, where I tend to my vines and family matters, I, Niccolo’ Machiavelli, have found refuge from events in Florence, fatal for me. Next door there’s the Hosteria, a continual source of refreshment for me, for the labours borne in my long office, tasting that which the land has made into marvellous fruit.”
And we enjoyed tasting a refreshing prosecco from his land before the tour!
Inside we passed through the rather simple rooms of the farmhouse including his study where he wrote his famous book ‘The Prince’ , his notorious political tract advising dynasties, like the Medici, how to combat the vicissitudes of fortune and stay in power. Considered a key intellectual figure of the Florentine Renaissance his isolation from Florence was under sufferance, especially since he had a clear view of Brunelleschi’s Dome from his garden daily. Most historians now emphasise the much greater importance of his later writings in Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence, where it becomes clear that his preferred political model was one based on freedom and democracy, a world without tyrannical kings and princes.
From the cellar we could see yet another of his villas – Villa Mangiacane thought to be designed by Michelangelo and where we had been promised our lunch break.
A brief stop at the Machiavelli store to peruse the gadgets and gift ideas and then back to hiking before we got too distracted by the alluring aromas coming from the restaurant kitchen, or tempted by another prosecco!
Down the valley, through the vineyards and with stomachs rumbling we trooped past the file of Tuscan cypress to the entrance of Villa Mangiacane to enjoy lunch on the garden steps. Fortunately for us the luxury resort was closed so no one to object. The villas remained in the Machiavelli family for centuries and only recently have been sold to an Italian Wine Cooperative.
For us it had been a fun day out, a good fundraising day for Emergency and a very easy hike in the lovely area of Chianti Classico.
The heat and high humidity of the past week encouraged us to take the high trail from San Bernardino across the valley and down to Vernazza. The Cinque Terre trails are innumerable and crisscross the whole area of the National Park offering breathtaking views, cool shaded woodlands, terraced vineyards and quiet streams that trickle down to the villages below. Besides, the high trails are free, so you can hike as much or as little in a day without paying a cent.
The heavy cloud almost eclipsed our distant view of the Sanctuary of the Our Lady of Reggiowhich sits above Vernazza, as we set off in the morning for what should be around a 1 1/2hr hike. It took us a little longer with photo stops, rest stops after the uphill stretches and continuous cherry picking or rather cherry stealing along the way!
The trail is a pretty one as it meanders in and out of woodlands, through terraced vineyards and across streams and gives distant views of San Bernardino almost disappearing in the clouds.
A local farmer was out working in his vineyards, and gave a welcome wave together with a shout to make sure we closed the gate against the wild boar! Rarely seen in the day, the boar do a lot of damage as they root around at the base of the dry stone walls and render them unstable. Wherever they can, farmers fence in the terraces against the beasts, but are not always successful in the venture. The boar will slide, even fall, from one terrace down to the next without flinching as they are very tough animals. So we wave back and relatch the gate and head into the cool of the woodlands.
It’s so pleasant to climb up and around and cross crystal clear streams without getting our feet wet. Someone even planted a ‘sculpture‘ along the way which keeps an eye on us.
Just a few more up and down dales and we see the striped tower of the Sanctuary peeking out from the trees. The church was first mentioned in 1248 with its Romanesque façade and built over an existing cemetery. Inside it houses an image of the Virgin which legend attributed to St Luke, but has been identified as belonging to the 14th Century Genovese school of artists.
The area is deliciously cool as century old Oak, Cedar and Horse chestnut trees shade the church. In the grounds is the oldest cypress tree of Liguria, 800 years, and fountains that tap into the Spring water. A great place to practice martial arts!
Every year there is the procession from the Vernazza St Margherita church up the old paved path to the Sanctuary and locals bring a picnic on the national holiday 15th August. From here it’s all down hill for us and the beginning of sea views and Vernazza.
While my favourite high trail is still the one to Manarolaas I love the views, this trail is also a very pleasant one and Vernazza a welcome sight.
Time to wander the main street almost tripping over a basket weaver propped on the steps, a rare sight these days and a skill soon to be lost.
…and then we sit on the waters edge and people watch, eavesdropping on tourist tales with a thirst quenching drink in hand.
The Cinque Terre trails are forever enticing whether they be across the valleys, over the mountain or down to an alluring blue sea. I have my favourite trails and now is a good time to really enjoy the Spring flowers and the new vine shoots and take a hike along the high trail from San Bernardino to Manarola, via Fornacchi and La Cigoletta.
Fornacchi is the tiniest of villages, only 5 houses but with an important laundry service that provides bed linens to the numerous apartments and bed and breakfast places in the area. The view is stunning of San Bernardino below and the coastline to Monterosso as a sweet little Madonna indicates the path through to the woods. There are no other hikers just the sounds of Nature; rustling leaves from the light breeze and as tiny lizards run out of sight.
Crossroads indicate the trail across the mountain ridge round to Drignano or down towards Corniglia across to Manarola which I prefer as am more fond of coastal views. On the high trail between Corniglia and Manarola I meet lots of hikers since the coastal trail between Corniglia and Manarola is closed now more tourists are obliged to try the high trail.
It’s a great time of year as the vines have sprouted and the views over the famous terraced landscape are compelling. Besides a large part of the trail walks through the vineyards. A total immersion in an ancient farming method where vines are trellised over wire frames to protect them from the strong winds and allow more air circulation underneath to avoid mould from the humidity later in the season.
And of course the thousands of kilometers of drystone walls that make this area a UnescoWorldHeritage site and a twin site with the Great Wall of China! They say if you put all the drystone walls together they would be twice as long as the Great Wall…..but it’s a saying and I cannot guarantee that as fact.
Little would most tourists realize how hard it is to maintain these terraces, cultivate these vineyards or even grape pick…..as our volunteers experienced at harvest time.
The trail leaves the vineyards in time for a coffee stop in the village of Volastra, perched high above the sea. This sweet semi circular village, immersed in olive groves features a lovely Romanesque church sitting on a shaded piazza with plenty of seats for hikers to have a break.
From there it’s downhill all the way with breathtaking views along the coast till Manarola appears in view.
Blessed with sunshine on the descent enhances the beauty of Manarola as I meander through gorgeous irises and wildflowers and am beckoned on by the aquamarine sea.
And Manarola never disappoints, today the rough seas play on the rocks in the cove, the fishing boats are hauled up and tourists and locals enjoy the fabulous scenery.
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.
On 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.
Cristina our hiking Guide
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’.
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.
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.
My 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!
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.
Views of Prevo
From 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 closed, 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 trailsare all free…..and I might add just as good if not better!
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!
New railing and protective fencing
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!
Nothing 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!
Off 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!
Arrival Maestra Cove
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!
At Maestra Cove
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
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.
Monastery St Benedictine
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.
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.
Even 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 every 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.
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.
Hunters on the wait
The hunt is controlled but as the Ranger said ” they are sly and hardy beasts” that slide 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.
Corniglia main piazza
My favourite Enoteca
It’s always heartening to see the work being done on restoring properties and dry stone walls so critical to the maintenance of the terraces.
Park signs have been renewed and hopefully hikers will heed the advice.
Vernazza has the same tranquil atmosphere, with many of the touristy shops still closed and the main street deserted.
Quite a contrast to the Summer crowds!
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 main square
The sea laps idly over the rocks, as a fisherman tries his luck. And there is an air of peace; time to catch our breath and rest up in readiness for the season to come.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Silvia – hiking guide
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 revealed 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.
Sea view to Corniglia
And the sea is a glorious colour, a silver shimmer as the wind skips across it.
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.
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!