In The Shadow Of Cinque Terre, Discovering The Treasures Of La Spezia

Will the loved-to-death, storm-martyred Cinque Terre ever see the light at the end of the tunnel?

Which tunnel? There are many, many tunnels between the wave-lashed coves and perched, pastel-painted villages of the over-subscribed, over-reported, and now brutally hobbled Cinque Terre.

Above all there’s a long, dark tunnel not of love but of disdain or disregard in the mind of the global public lying between the little-loved, unsung port city of La Spezia and the tourist mecca of the Cinque Terre 5 miles north.

The latest blow to the Riviera’s breathtakingly picturesque suspended villages came last September, with yet another flash flood and killer landslide.

While the world’s attention was focused on Sandy, smaller but similarly devastating storms hit the eastern Italian Riviera. Four people were seriously injured. Hillsides and hiking trails slid into the hungry Mediterranean’s waves. Since September, the authorities have closed not only the roller-coaster hiking trail #2 linking all five Cinque Terre villages, but also the celebrated Via dell’Amore seaside stroll between Riomaggiore and Manarola.Does this mean blissful silence and solitude as in the good old days? Sure, but there’s a price to pay.

The cafes, restaurants and hotels of Monterosso, Vernazza and the other three villages are empty for now. So too are the cash tills of the Cinque Terre National Park, where normally rangers sell tickets to mobs happy to pay to stride among the millions through the land of dreamy dreams.

Meanwhile, south in homely La Spezia, life doesn’t just go on – it’s positively hopping. After a morning of condolences in Monterosso and Vernazza, my wife and I de-trained famished at La Spezia Centrale and hoofed it down a long, wide, pedestrianized street of handsome buildings leading to the palm-lined port. Our nostrils twitched in the air. We were not being snobs: we were following the irresistible scent of fresh-baked farinata chickpea tart.

The scent wafted from La Pia, a cult, century-old, pizzeria-style place in the heart of old La Spezia’s tangled alleyways. Chickpea tart is a local culinary obsession. It’s blistered, yellow, soft and, in La Spezia, also creamy in texture.

Farinata is a favorite of the merchant marine and Italian navy crews that fill La Spezia year round. There aren’t many tourists at La Pia or anywhere else, unless they’re catching trains or ferry boats to the Cinque Terre, or maybe heading to Portovenere and Lerici to see where Shelley drowned.

Much about La Spezia is rough-and-ready. Seated in the centuries-old, raucous maw of La Pia, we wolfed our succulent farinata, devouring it off plastic plates. It was nutty tasting, redolent of olive oil, and it was divine.

Outside towering cranes swung over docklands. Ferries came and went. Fishermen unloaded everything from La Spezia’s famed mussels to flipping-fresh bass and slippery squid. One of the region’s biggest markets is here. It was teeming with humanity.

We’ve been to La Spezia many times; some of its restaurants and specialty food shops are among the favorites listed in my book “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa.”

But in all the times we’ve visited, we’d never climbed the hilly knob in the center of town. From below it seems to merge Genoa, San Francisco and Montmartre, pleated with staircases. A sign pointed to a castle and museum. We’d never heard of them.

Atop a lung-bursting rise we spotted stegosaur-crenellations and scary battlements of the kind seen on better castles. They led to a ramp and gaping gateway. Inside the castle was spot-lit, dust-free, high-tech and artfully filled with display cases. The cases were in turn filled with exquisite antiquities. The only thing that wasn’t filled was the castle itself. We had it to ourselves.

The lonely ticket-seller gave us brochures and told us how to navigate this vast pile built in part in the 1300s but added to again and again, then transformed in the early 2000s into the municipal museum. Our footsteps echoed on stone floors. Beckoning us were local archeological finds from nearby ancient Luni plus other Bronze Age or Iron Age sites.

A finely sculpted horse’s head 2,400 years old might have inspired an Art Deco artist. Delicate painted ceramics of equal antiquity showed wild boars and lions. A mosaic sea goddess rode a monstrous mosaic sea monster, its mouth agape.

Jewelry, weapons, tombstones, plates, jars and architectural motifs; the displays led from one cavernous room to another, up ramps and staircases, higher and higher. At each turn a more gorgeous view appeared through one of the castle’s cannon-hole windows.

My wife spotted a bronze spearhead from 1700 B.C. A bronze hammer next to it was even older.

The beauty of these objects haunted me. The thought that men and women had fashioned them in and around La Spezia and Luni – about 10 miles away – all those millennia ago made my head spin. But it was the half-moon-shaped tombstones that mesmerized me most. And they were 5,000 years old or more.

By the time we clambered onto the uppermost outdoor terrace we needed fresh air. Several things struck me. First, how could such a splendid museum be so utterly unknown? Second, how could neglect by the global mob have been the fate of such a seductive small city? It was homely only if you didn’t take time to look at it, walk through it and eat its divine foods.

The answer was clear. I gazed at the seafront, the huge port facilities, the heavy industry far off in the suburbs, the navy ships, the ungainly high-rise apartment towers. This was real and I liked it. Over the steep, olive-stippled hillsides due west of La Spezia, through that long, dark tunnel, lay the answer: the dreamy, unreal Cinque Terre villages were just 5 miles away. La Spezia was safe. Like Genoa it was a city for the intrepid, individual traveler. I sighed with satisfaction. Alone atop our castle, we wondered if we should tell anybody about our find.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are,, and, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photos Credits: Alison Harris or David Downie]

Why The Cinque Terre In Italy Should Be Your Next Trip

cinque terreOnce a coastline of sleepy fishing villages, the Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands,” has become a popular destination for tourism over the recent years. What makes this Italian destination different from most tourist hot spots, however, is that it has somehow managed to retain its old-world charm and simple style.

Located in the Liguria region of Italy, the five towns that compose the Cinque Terre include Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The area hasn’t succumbed to the corporate world, as terraced hills of colorful buildings and small shops allow visitors to experience real life on the Italian Riviera. Moreover, the area is well known for its grapes, olives and pesto, which have unique flavors due to the mild, warm climate and shelter from winds by nearby mountains. Hiking from town to town is a popular activity, and a great way to experience each area while seeing as much as possible.

In October 2011, the towns of Vernazza and Monterosso experienced devastating floods, burying the cities under 10 feet of mud and leaving the people without water or electricity. Locals have been working feverishly to get the area back to its original state, and have done an excellent job of staying on schedule with the rebuilding. One great way to experience the beauty of the Italian Riviera is to stay in the towns of Vernazza and Monterosso. There, you can drink Ligurian wine, enjoy the cuisine and immerse yourself in the towns’ traditional cultures. It’s a unique time to go, as there is a feeling of renewed joy in the air. Moreover, you’ll be one of the first to experience the old town with its new vitality.

For a more visual idea of the Cinque Terre, check out the gallery below.


[Images via Big Stock]

8 best coastal walks from around the world

bondi to coogee walk There’s nothing better when traveling than exploring a beautiful city coastline. Not only do these treks give you access to unique landscape and picturesque beaches, they also help you stay in shape while on the road.

Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk, Australia

When I lived in Sydney, Australia, this was one of my favorite ways to spend a sunny day. Not only do you get to explore the beaches of Bondi and Coogee, but also Tamarama and Bronte. The walk is not all beach, as you will also pass through local communities, parks, and a cemetery littered with palm trees while also seeing unique rock formations and jagged cliff faces with contrasting colors and shapes. At the end of the 4-mile walk, which includes some challenging uphill sections, reward yourself with a dip in the ocean or a brew from the adjacent Coogee Bay Hotel‘s beer garden.Abel Tasman Coast Track, New Zealand

While this coastal hike will take a few days to complete (it’s about 34 miles), it is worth it as you will get a lot of diverse experiences in different areas of the South Island of New Zealand. There are campsites along the way as well as the option to do only certain sections of the hike, which are outlined here. You begin the Abel Tasman Coast Track in Marahau at the Information Kiosk, making your way past Tinline Bay, Apple Tree Bay, and Torrent Bay as well as through forests of beech and kanuka trees until you reach Anchorage Bay. Here, you can choose to spend the night at a campsite or continue on to Bark Bay via coastal forests and a 154-foot suspension bridge. Next it’s on to Awaroa, passing an old rock quarry along the way. Moving on from Awaroa Estuary, which can only be crossed during low tide, you will head towards Totaranui and will be given access to prime lookout points. Next it’s on to Whariwharangi Bay via lush forests and Anapai Bay. On the final day of the hike, you will traverse gorse-covered ridges that are remnants of 1978 fire before ending the journey at Wainui Inlet.

cinque terre Cinque Terre “5 Towns” Hike, Italy

While flash flooding has recently damaged the towns of Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, the spirit of the community is speeding the recovery process, which is expected to be almost back to normal around Easter. You can still visit now, and the Cinque Terre towns of Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore were generally not affected. According to the Cinque Terre Riviera blog, while some of the hiking trails were damaged by the flooding there are still many safe paths open to hikers. Hiking through the five towns of Cinque Terre was the best experience I had in Italy and is a great way to experience the Italian Riviera, diverse beaches, grape vines, countryside, and colorful towns embedded right into the hillside. The bright yellows, pale pinks, and olive greens of the buildings face all different directions in a confusing yet artistic pattern as fishing boats hug the coastline. It is definitely a unique way to experience the natural side of Italy as well as some old-world charm as you can take breaks during the walk and stop in the different towns. The hike is about 7 and a half miles and contains sections of uphill and uneven terrain, but is worth it for the views.

California Coastal Trail, California, USA

The California Coastal Trail, while not completely finished, will extend from Mexico to Oregon and was actually a mandatory creation by Proposition 20 in 1972, which stated that “a hiking, bicycle, and equestrian trails system shall be established along or near the coast”. The trail system will be 1,200 miles long and, while it is not fully complete, still has a lot to offer visitors. All trails are within “sight, sound, or at least the scent of the sea”, with various tracks running parallel to each other to accommodate the needs to different physical capabilities. For a map with access points, click here. For a list of fun day hikes on the California Coastal Trail, click here.

vancouver, canada Stanley Park Seawall and False Creek Seawall, Vancouver, BC, Canada

When I was in Vancouver, Canada, experiencing these hikes was one of my favorite parts of the trip, as I got to see great views of the skyline as well as beaches, marinas, and monuments. The hike is very easy, as it goes along a paved road. While you can experience the Stanley Park Seawall and the False Creek Seawall as two separate hikes (about 5 and a half miles each) it’s also possible to connect them and do one longer hike. During the Stanley Park Seawall, you will travel from Coal Harbor to English Bay while getting to see smooth beaches, the North Shore mountains, and Coal Harbor Marina. If you want to walk further and experience the second section of the hike, you can get to the False Creek Seawall via Sunset Beach. As you make your way towards Kitsilano Beach where you will end, you can take in views of Granville Island, Yorktown, and Science World, a unique looking dome that is a work of public art as well as an art gallery and museum.

Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, Wales, United Kingdom

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail in the United Kingdom allows hikers to explore 186 miles of British coastline. The path is more than just your average walk on the beach, as you will pass rugged cliffs, winding estuaries, shaded coves, coastal flowers, and bird life. For those who like a bit of history with their adventure, you will also get the chance to see evidence of human activity from Neolithic times through prehistoric megalithic structures. The trail begins in St. Dogmaels in the north and runs to Amroth in the south. Be aware that it is physically challenging, with a 35,000-foot ascent and descent that is said to be “equivalent to climbing Mount Everest“. If you’re not in tip-top shape don’t be dismayed, as you can still enjoy the hike in smaller sections.

hawaii Hana-Waianapanapa Coastal Trail, Maui, Hawaii, USA

While not the longest hiking trail in the world (about 4-5 miles), the Hana-Waianapanapa Coastal Trail in Maui, Hawaii, has extremely unique scenery, including tidepools, blowholes, sea arches, black rock beaches, steep cliffs, jagged lava coastline, ancient temples, and spots where dark black lava dramatically meets with the bright blue sea. Beginning at Pailoa Bay in Waianapanapa State Park and makng your way to Kainalimu Bay, the hike follows a portion of the “King’s Highway”, a craggy lava road built in the mid-1800’s

Wild Coast Hiking Trail, South Africa

The Wild Coast Hiking Trail in South Africa is about 174 miles long and takes a little less than a month to complete, as the trail is divided into five 3-6 day sections. During the hike, which is thankfully well marked and begins in Port Edward, you will experience unique sea rock formations, dramatic coastlines, sandy and rocky beaches, lagoons, coves, cliffs, swamps, and wildlife. You can choose to go fishing or bird watching in between or visit the Xhosa villages that litter the hillsides. An array of accommodation styles are available along the way, such as lodges, tents, log cabins, and huts. Even if you don’t want to make the full trek it is still possible to explore certain sections. For this trail, it is important to note that permits are required, and bookings can be made up to 11 months in advance. For more information on getting a permit and the trails themselves, click here.

scotland Isle of Skye, Scotland

While there are many beautiful and interesting hikes to choose from on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, one great coastal option is to trek from the small fishing village of Elgol to Camasunary Bay. The trail itself is about 9 miles long and requires a decent fitness level, however, the views you will get of the island of Soay and the Cuillins, a range of rocky mountains that also contain the highest point on the Isle of Skye, are worth the effort. You enter the hike a little ways up the road from the Elgol car park and behind some houses there will be a trail labeled Garsbheinn where you will turn left. Once you see the sign for Coruisk take that path. As you go you will have to negotiate steep hills and overhanging rocks until you reach the trail beyond Beinn Leacach to Camasunary Bay. These are literally some of the best views in Britain, if not the best, as the hillsides and mountains seem soft and vibrant as they hug pools of turquoise sea and azure lakes.

[First 3 photos are via the author, Jessica Festa; the rest are from Flickr via Rick McCharles and Gutsibikes]

Photo of the day (11.19.10)

Photo of the day

The most compelling travel images are so often those that provide a glimpse into a half-hidden world previously unknown to the viewer. This image of a Cinque Terre cafe, taken by Flickr user snowjumpr, certainly feels like just this sort of world-revealing stolen glance, in large part due to the framing of the photograph by an external window. The proprietor is looking directly into the camera, aware that he is being watched, and the dance of light across the cafe beckons gently.

But what is most appealing about this cafe is what we don’t know about it. (Would the man at the counter offer a smile or a frown to guests? It’s difficult to tell from his impassive gaze. And what sorts of edible things are sold here? The blackboard is impossible to make out.)

Got an image of a half-hidden world among your archived travel images? Upload it to Gadling’s image pool on Flickr and we just might feature it as a future Photo of the Day.

Letter from Italy: hiking Cinque Terre away from the crowds

A seagull and hawk dueled in the clear, blue sky directly in front of our noses. Waves crashed but we could not hear them, because they were far too far below.

Was this the land of dreamy dreams? No. Try the Cinque Terre.

The grapegrowers and woodsmen of the old, impoverished Cinque Terre used to be the exclusive owners of the view from on high, from what’s now known as ridge trail #1. That view features not only seagulls and hawks but also stunted pine trees, scalloped scrabble cliffs, and tiered terraces planted with low grapevines and gnarled olive trees. All seem to be tumbling into the Mediterranean.

Nowadays the famous fivesome of Riviera villages are part of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, an Italian National Park. Their inhabitants are anything but impoverished. There are no woodsmen. The grapegrowers and winemakers drive late-model cars that I could not afford. They ride high-tech monorails up and down the terraces to harvest their grapes, which are turned into an easy-to-quaff, over-priced wine. The seaside villagers are even more prosperous than their mountain brethern, made rich by tourism.

The price locals pay for prosperity is heavy: the area has been thoroughly denatured, luckily without destroying its physical beauty. The Cinque Terre are simply stupendously gorgeous. But this brave new eat-and-run world comes complete with body-to-body outsiders on beaches, and iffy trattorias with menus in English, German and Chinese. Tourism has revolutionized what was the Riviera’s most sublimely isolated stretch.

A toll is charged by affable park officials, whose writ is to collect enough money to repair the trails the tourists wreck. The Cinque Terre are being loved to death, like Yosemite.

The classic example is the village-to-village trail #2, now a hiker’s highway year round. A toll is charged by affable park officials, whose writ is to collect enough money to repair the trails the tourists wreck. Backpack-to-backpack with garrulous enthusiasts, many on package tours, hikers account for the bulk of the 2 million-plus visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cinque Terre are being loved to death, like Yosemite.

The good news is, the long, lonely path atop the crest behind the feeding frenzy-a place of seagulls, hawks and mavericks-gives you a taste of the Cinque Terre of yesteryear, meaning 30 or 40 years ago. Even better, convenient improvements unheard of 40 years ago have been added in the last decade. Trattorias, cafés, hotels and public transportation are lavished on those intrepid enough to head for the hills. The park’s plan is to lure hikers off the seaside route to save it from ruin, and also provide an economic stimulus to those operating hospitality centers above.A gentle warning is in order: the hike up is not exactly a breeze for the moderately fit. But people of middle age like me and my wife Alison seem able to do it without undo trouble. And if you can’t scramble up the 2,400-foot grade to the highest point on the ridge, you can take a bus or a taxi and start at Colle del Telegrafo, site of a dangerously pleasant trattoria operated by the park.

For those who have done the village-to-village trail and have left craving something else, this is that something else.

Alison and I have walked the ridge trail three times now in recent years. If it were possible I would walk it daily. I would build a tree house and live somewhere near the pass and the trattoria at Colle del Telegrafo. The pesto is organic and among the most flavorful in the area, the fish is local and fresh, and most of the produce is grown responsibly in or near the Cinque Terre.

On our latest visit we were in high season, but Alison and I were the only animate creatures at the pass, other than the friendly waiter, the chef and six other clients we saw ranged around tables on the trattoria’s shaded terrace. Only one table was occupied in the panoramic dining room. Word has not yet spread, a good thing for us, but bad for business.

Much of the time we hiked along the ridge we could see the colorful inchworm of over-equipped backpackers making their way in the heat and dust far below. Part of me felt sorry for them: they were missing an authentically wonderful experience up top, in a cooler, leafier place with see-forever views.

The other part of me was thankful that the youthful packers didn’t know about the upper trail, or, if they did, had chosen not to take it.

Many people probably prefer the sweaty free-for-all on the shore. In fact, if sunbathing, swimming and socializing is what you’re after, stay below.

If you do take the ridge trail, nothing stops you from dipping down into the villages, or taking ferries or trains among them. You can get up to the ridge at many points, and walk it for an hour or for its entire 40-mile length.

The official starting point of what is usually a 3-day, 2-night hike is Portovenere. This resort has every bit as much atmosphere and is as touristy and crowded as any of the Cinque Terre themselves. As far as I’m concerned, it outdoes them with its craggy Genoese castle and Romanesque church perched over the sea.

From the docks of Portovenere the trail rides a roller-coaster north then switchbacks down to sea level as it enters Levanto, a small town still partly wrapped in medieval walls. Between Portovenere and Levanto the five Cinque Terre nest innocuously below on rocky spurs. They look like toy villages or operetta sets, enhancing the view of sea, mountain and pine forest.

Getting to the ridge is a challenge, but not an insuperable one. No matter where you arrive from, to reach the southern trailhead in Portovenere you need to transit through La Spezia. This lively and authentic rail hub and military port facility is near the Tuscan border. Unsung, it’s worth half a day of your time for the food alone: some of the best Ligurian specialties are here. But it is not handsome, and most visitors understandably rush through it. Like them we tripped across the echoing stone streets of La Spezia’s old town and crossed the so-called “Gulf of Poets” in half an hour on a ferry to Portovenere.

In their early 1800s poetry, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe-Shelley described this gulf’s drop-dead beauty. Fittingly Shelley drowned while swimming across it. Since then Portovenere has morphed from a rough-shod military stronghold hedged by sea and cliffs into a gentrified vacation spot. Its pastel pink, lemon and ochre houses are about 1,000 years old.

Café tables and lazy cats fill the pocket-sized waterfront piazza. By 9:45 am we were having cappuccinos and pastries there. Portovenere’s San Pietro church turned out to be a surprising Romanesque layer-cake of black-and-white stone. It reportedly tops what was a pagan temple at the promontory’s western tip. From its wave-washed loggia we could see our path climbing north toward Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the Cinque Terre.

“Daunting” was the first word that came to mind. The second was “amazing.”

A staircase marked with a red-and-white flag tilts up from the base of the 13th-century castle, runs along its serrated walls, and delivers thrills practically at every step. That makes the climbing even more of a challenge. You’re likely to stumble, because you’ll be dazzled by the views.

Portovenere’s black Portoro construction stone used to be as famous as the marble of Carrara-at least in Italy. We scrambled through broom and tree heather and came across abandoned Portoro blocks and mining equipment. About 20 minutes above Portovenere, the cliff-edge detour marked “1/a” led us to rock climbers dangling like giant spiders on a former quarry face. Normally I don’t fear heights. This was different.

There is no paved coastal road for cars north from Portovenere, making this pine-stippled hogback as close to empty as you can get in Italy. Due west of us, peaky Palmaria Island and its smaller cousin Tino were calved by the mainland. Eastward we could see La Spezia’s port and the saw-toothed, snowy Apennines.

The faint-hearted should probably abstain from this hike. One section we rounded at “Il Pitone,” about an hour’s hike north of Portovenere, was a kind of daredevil’s balcony wrapped around cliffs. Just beyond it, a hardy resident told us he scales the 700 or so steps with no handrails every day to his house in the hamlet of Schiara sited a vertical 1,000 feet below.

Some of Italy’s longest-lived inhabitants are from the Riviera: apparently to survive you develop legs and hearts of steel.

It took us 2 hours from Portovenere to a hard-driven hamlet called Campiglia 1,300 feet above the crashing surf. Another hour of pine needle-padded paths through scented forests with infinity-views brought us to the woodsy Sant’Antonio Abate chapel. Candles burned, honoring Alpine troops who died in the World Wars. The snack bar built onto the back of the chapel seemed heaven sent. Our bottled water was gone and we greedily gulped a liter on the spot, then shot down thimbles of hot espresso. It was one of those only-in-Italy places, destined to lose money, devoted to dead soldier-heroes, and thoroughly charming.

Though it had been scorching at sea level, the weather up top was crisp, sunny and breezy. Reportedly it’s much the same all year, often 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler on the ridge than below.

Thirty minutes past the Alpine chapel and in time for a late lunch we trooped into the famous trattoria at Colle del Telegrafo. Admittedly I was at first miffed to see a regular municipal mini-bus from Riomaggiore. Buses serve the crossroads. It straddles a pass at about 1,700 feet. Several well-heeled tourists, clearly not hikers, alighted and ate joyfully, though not as joyfully as we did.

Over lunch a friendly park ranger shared our table. After the pesto and seafood, he poured out lethal doses of the Cinque Terre’s lemon-based Limoncino liqueur. The area was northern Italy’s main citrus producer once upon a time. Park authorities have replanted lemon trees, and the liqueur business has started up again.

We’d noticed umpteen crumbling terraces on our walk. About 1,250 miles of dry stone walls keep the 250 tiers of Cinque Terre terraces from sliding into the Mediterranean-or used to. “That’s longer than the Great Wall of China,” the ranger remarked. “They’re built of dry stone because there’s no cement,” he explained. “It’s environmentally sound and traditional. It took centuries of backbreaking work to build them, and they’ll take decades to restore.”

The park has reconverted a dozen abandoned hillside houses and churches into restaurants and hostels. One of them, the Sanctuary of Montenero, was our next stop.

An hour’s walk downhill toward Riomaggiore on twisting trail #3 brought us to the sanctuary. We’d reserved dinner and a room but were too early to check in. Lower than Colle del Telegrafo at about 1,400 feet, this 14th-century former convent with a pink and lemon-hued belfry still seemed airborne. There is no paved road here either. A cogwheel monorail that looks like a funfair ride shuttles steeply from the sanctuary to a highway and bus stop a quarter mile below. The monorail is used primarily for luggage, since most guests are hikers. But the managers admitted that some people ask for a ride up.

We left our backpacks at the sanctuary, walked down to the bus and rode part way to Riomaggiore. At a crossroads we got off and walked up half a mile to another hillside hamlet called Groppo, headquarters of the modern, spotless Cinque Terre Cooperative Winery. In the tasting room the co-op’s president lustily poured three single-vineyard white wines made from Vermentino, Bosco and Albarola grapes. They were dry and pleasant, evoking citrus and honeysuckle.

“A century ago 4,000 acres of grapevines grew here,” the president told us with a sweep of his callused hands. “Now we have 250 acres. The co-op’s 160 growers’ average age is 75,” he sighed. “The park hasn’t solved the basic problem of an aging population, and young Italians don’t think working the land or making wine is fashionable.”

Some of them do. On the way back up to the sanctuary by bus and on foot later that afternoon we met an enthusiastic young park employee, Francesco Franceschetti. “Since the national park was created in the year 2000 there’s no unemployment in the Cinque Terre,” he said. “We’ve reclaimed over 25 acres of terraces. Organic basil for Genoese pesto grows alongside the grapevines. There’s enough work to keep us busy for decades!”

Back up at Montenero that evening we savored more of the same delicious pesto made with the co-op’s basil, and more fresh seafood, this time in a vaulted dining room from centuries past. When it came time to head to bed, the sanctuary’s laconic managers handed us flashlights.

“We’ve put your backpacks in Teodora,” said one cryptically.

“Watch out for wild boars,” said the other. “Walk up, turn right then left. Good night.”

Somehow we thought we had booked a room inside the convent. No. We were to have our very own cottage.

We saw no boars in the beams of our flashlights but had a fun time finding our way in the dark on a steep, narrow, tangled path through terraced woodland. “Teodora” turned out to be a reconverted winegrower’s hut the size of a one-car garage. The back wall was carved from a gray rock face. We clambered onto a tiny loft and slept lulled by the waves breaking 1,400 feet below. It was so quiet that we could actually hear them-and the grunting of boars, which have invaded the Cinque Terre and the rest of the Ligurian coast.

Our next morning’s walk was on the meandering Via dei Santuari, an old mule path and pilgrimage route. It ran about 7 miles and took us maybe 3 hours. Riders on horses, a horse-drawn carriage and several mountain bikers passed us-making us feel crowded. A handful of grapegrowers returned greetings from their suspended terraces. The discourse had a surreal quality.

Every vineyard, we noticed, is surrounded by handmade tree-heather fences. The climate is mild in the Cinque Terre, one man explained, but winds are often strong. “Without the windbreaks the grapes won’t ripen,” said a stooped, wizened woman busy cutting and weaving heather.

At noon we walked into the compact, perched village of Volastra. The park has funded blanket restoration and every house seemed to have been freshly painted in the requisite operetta-set pastel pink or lemon. Riomaggiore stretches about 1,000 feet below.

The ancient Romans called Volastra “Vicus Oleaster,” meaning a place where olive oil was made. It still is. Twisted olive trees sprout everywhere. Appropriately the village trattoria, also run by the park, is named Gli Ulivi-the olive trees. In the blissfully cool dining room painted with rainbow stripes on the walls, we feasted on half a dozen fresh fish antipasti, some of them drizzled with Volastra’s own light, fruity oil.

Feeling no worse for wear, we picked up trail #6/d in front of a weathered church that was roofed and faced in Riviera slate, with a belfry covered by scale-shaped slate tiles. An easy hour of level contours led through vineyards, olive groves and kitchen gardens hovering above Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza, the next 3 Cinque Terre villages far, far below.

The grade to the ridge on trail #7/c brought back memories of the crazy climb up from Portovenere. It took us an hour to reach 2,000 feet, gulping air all the way. Once up we spent the next 4 hours marching on the crest through tilting chestnut groves and cloudbanks. Keyhole views of the coast or Apennines alternated as the path shuttled from one side of the ridge to the other. Luckily, when evening started painting the pinnacles around us, we tramped into the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Soviore, above Monterosso.

Soviore is still a working convent. Bells rang. Nuns came and went. But after 8 hours and about 16 miles of up-and-down, we were pleasantly fatigued. The best we could manage was to gaze in a daze at the miraculous Madonna in the convent’s gold-encrusted church, the object of pilgrimages, then head for the refectory. After a surprisingly sumptuous meal in the vaulted dining room, in the company of jolly pilgrims and other hikers, we tumbled into bed.

Anyone unused to very large, very heavy bronze church bells should bring industrial earplugs to Soviore. The convent’s campanile rang on the quarter hour through the night.

After breakfast a solicitous nun assured us that switchback mule paths dip from Soviore down to Monterosso, the northernmost and biggest of the Cinque Terre, in about 90 minutes. “See the crowds on the beaches?” she pointed, beaming proudly.

But our lonely route pointed north to Levanto. We followed the rocky ridge trail up and over hulking Monte Focone to Punta Mesco, an impressive headland. A ruined hermitage and lighthouse there provided more of those see-forever views, enabling us to retrace our zigzags from Portovenere via Montenero to Soviore. As if on runner’s high, I felt strangely invigorated. The final 2 hours of cliffs, forests of live oaks, and terraced olive groves were a breeze. They eased us down to the walls of Levanto, and our afternoon train to Genoa.

Triumph takes many forms. Ours was a minor, but rewarding one. Not only had we done 40 magic-mountain miles in three days. We’d also helped the local economy, and seen and enjoyed the Cinque Terre without running into a single human traffic jam.

An American author and journalist based in Paris, for the last 25 years David Downie has been writing about European culture, food and travel for magazines and newspapers worldwide. His nonfiction books include Enchanted Liguria, Cooking the Roman Way, The Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam, andthree critically acclaimed volumes of travel, food and wine in the Terroir Guides series: Food Wine the Italian Riviera & Genoa, Food Wine Rome, and Food Wine Burgundy. Downie’s travel memoir Paris, Paris: Journeys into the Heart and Soul of the City of Light is being reiussed in 2011 by Broadway Books. His latest books are Paris City of Night, a classic thriller set in Paris, and Quiet Corners of Rome (spring 2011). Please visit David Downie’s website,

[Photos: Flickr | pizzodisevo; in da mood; travellingtamas; pizzodisevo; soa2002; SteveBrownd50; rayced; Goldmund100]