Speedboat centurions and Apollonian wind surfers carved the waves far below us. Several hundred thousand bronzed bodies carpeted the beaches, lolled on rocks or guzzled and partied under sun umbrellas: The Italian Riviera was in full, raucous summer swing.
From where we stood, atop the silent, windy world, on the Via Panoramica behind the eastern suburbs of Genoa, it was strange to look down on the glam and think of salt, sweat and poverty. The Riviera isn’t exactly inexpensive or unsung. Yet the ancient salt route we’d been walking on since dawn, linking the briny Ligurian coast to northern Italy’s mountainous interior, is what today’s Via Panoramica and the well-marked network of serpentine, stony trails above the Riviera are all about: countless misery-etched miles far from the madding masses.
Sea salt used to be the main preservative in Europe. Traders loaded mules with precious “white gold” and trekked inland, sometimes traveling for weeks or months, until their salt ran out.
The bad old days are over: the salt trails are for happy hikers and madmen like me who like playing at mountain goat.
You’re right to ask: why leave the luxuries, delicacies, fun, sun and Mediterranean to scramble into Liguria’s harsh interior? Especially when the heat is not just blistering, but breathtaking?
Easy: cool mountain breezes, quiet emptiness and views galore. Oh, and the mysterious enchantments of living history. If men, women and beasts of burden have been trudging on these trails since the Bronze Age, it stands to reason there might be something magical about the carefully placed, foot-scuffed stones. There is, and more: romantic ruins, gorgeous geological formations, wild flowers and herbs, teetering pines, feral oinkers, wild horses, hawks and a zillion migratory birds.
A longtime Riviera regular – every year my wife and I spend several months here – I’ve hoofed thousands of miles. This is one of my favorite suburban scrambles: no crowds, no Cinque Terre hype, just real-deal Italy minutes from downtown Genoa.
After a 25-minute train ride along the seductive shoreline, our local from Genoa to La Spezia stopped in Recco-capital of cheese-filled focaccia con formaggio. A bus from there whirly-gigged us up a river valley, past tumbledown perched hamlets, to the homely village of Uscio. There is no there in Uscio. The name sounds like uscita, meaning “exit” in Italian. Full of caffeine and loaded with water and picnic edibles we exited pronto uphill and west. The paved road kinks to reveal the double-diamond trail markers we needed.
It’s tempting to head north on the salt route from Uscio across the Apennines into Lombardy, a multiple-day excursion. But in summer it’s even more tempting to coil up the paved road to the seaside ridge about 2,100 feet directly above the waves, then head toward Monte Fasce and Genoa.
We reached the panoramic section of Via Panoramica via the woodsy salt route past a secluded, centuries-old chapel poised by a spring. The drinking water was pure and cool.
At Case Cornua above the coast village of Sori stands a rustic trattoria with house-made everything. Too early for lunch, we had cold water and hot espresso instead. Nearby are the skeletal remains of an unlikely luxury suburb. The builders had no permits, the development was nixed, but the little-used Via Panoramica, built for commuters who never came, and the amazing views, remain. Par-blind as I am, I could still see southeast to the Portofino Peninsula and Tuscany, and southwest practically to France.
Those views – plus the roughshod Apennines lying north – followed us on the rocky, roller-coaster route. It peaks and dips: The salt route, and other mule trails, branch and wind to infinity. Having galloped to safety from a herd of over-eager wild horses, and discouraged an outsized feral pig that wanted my pack, we found a pine grove and fell upon our picnic like the wolves that are making a comeback in the area. Now all we had to do was get back down to the coast. We slid and stumbled and clambered, polishing those ancient stones with our modern soles.
Sure, we’d cheated and ridden up part way. Did I feel guilty? Nope. Descending is even harder on the joints. No regrets. We sniffed the perfumed air and gawked at the creeper-tangled ruins of abandoned houses, the dark chestnut forests in clefts and folds, the hidden farmsteads and, as we neared the sea, the olive groves. What better reward at the end of a three-hour downhill obstacle course than a shady table, bubbly water and an ice cream cone in the swank seaside resort of Nervi? If only I’d brought my swimsuit.
Author, journalist and private tour guide David Downie‘s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app was published in April.