Letter from Genoa: Savoring the atmospheric alleys of Italy’s great insider city

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1493 he sailed the deep blue sea. Half a millennium later Genoa’s ship has come in — again.

Columbus was a native of Genoa, or so it’s claimed. Though he sailed for Spain, he hailed from the capital of the Italian Riviera. The boomerang-shaped region’s official name is Liguria. Stretching from Tuscany to Provence, Liguria includes the well-known resort destinations Portofino, the Cinque Terre, and San Remo. Somehow Genoa is not on most Riviera Grand Tours any more. And maybe that’s for the best. It’s Italy’s great insider city, a real place that’s been spared mass tourism.

After decades of decline in the late 20th century this atmospheric Mediterranean port has rebounded from rust-belt wreck. Backed by steep, craggy mountains and moated by the Gulf of Genoa, it’s one of Italy’s most picturesque, appealing and vibrant places to live and visit. But it isn’t for everyone: visitors find none of the Italy-for-beginners qualities of Florence, for instance. Genoa still belongs to the Genoese.Contrasts and paradoxes abound. A walled fortress-city with crenellated towers and perched castles 900 years old, in today’s Genoa high-tech, culture and iconic Italian food vie for supremacy with the luxury cruise business and Mediterranean ferry boat trade. Gone are the steel mills and refineries, the shipbuilding yards and heavy industrial plants. Hundreds of colorful Cubist container ships dock at a state-of-the-art facility at Pegli, out of sight in the western suburbs.

The focaccia, ravioli and pesto – the holy trinity of Genoese cooking – are as irresistible as ever.

Surprisingly, the open-heart surgery has not killed Genoa’s character. On the contrary, it’s livelier, cleaner and safer than it has been for a long time. The focaccia, ravioli and pesto — the holy trinity of Genoese cooking — are as irresistible as ever.

Long Italy’s busiest port, Genoa was never as rough or corrupt as Naples. Its hillside and outlying seaside neighborhoods have always been chic, expensive and safe. Nowadays its ancient core feels more like a Riviera resort than the grim setting for the 1970s classic “The Day of the Jackal.” Back then this was where Edward Fox, playing the Jackal, had his assassin’s rifle welded inside the muffler of an Alfa Romeo. “Genoa” and “sinister” were synonymous.

It was during those days of economic deep-diving, depopulation and political upheaval that I got to know the city. In the mid-1970s I stepped off a train at Principe station and asked for directions to the harbor. I was 18 years old and on a quest: my parents had taken a freighter from here in 1950 to San Pedro, California. My mother, an Italian, remembered the city of Columbus as magical and mysterious, filled with palaces, tenements and crusader towers. My father, a Los Angelino, recalled the rocky shoreline and stony beaches, the perched fortresses and funiculars, and the strange foods-oily flatbread, salted anchovies, octopus salad, and a pungent green sauce of basil, pine nuts, garlic and pecorino cheese.

I still recall swallowing hard as I walked the 100 yards from the station’s once-grand 1850s halls into the medieval alleyways the Genoese call “caruggi” — what looked to me like muggers’ paradise. A ramp led into a narrow maze with slate roofs that almost touched on both sides. Contoured to steep pleats, the alleys teemed with sailors, prostitutes, and priests, with not a tourist in sight. Mystery met magic at every turn. I finally found the port. It was off limits behind walls topped with barbed wire. But I didn’t care: Genoa’s alleys had worked a spell on me. Thirty-five years later they still do.

Nowadays when I visit I thread my way down those same laundry-flagged alleys with my wife, photographer Alison Harris. She and her family have been tied to Genoa since the 1940s. We often joke that her father, an American consular official stationed here, may have issued my immigrant mother her visa to travel to the United States.

Familiar as Genoa is, each time we return we delight in discovering or uncovering something — the century-old chocolate factory Romeo Viganotti, for instance, hidden down a dog’s leg alley called Vico dei Castagna, near the 12th-century city gate, Porta Soprana. Or that no-name bookstall near Piazza dei Banchi full of unfindable illustrated books, or a trattoria like Sa Pestà, near the church of San Giorgio. Sa Pestà is so old our parents might have savored the exquisite farinata chickpea tart still baked there in a wood-burning oven.

This time around, flanking medieval San Matteo in the dark heart of the caruggi, we got into the church’s hidden cloister, never before open. Way up in the sunwashed hills near the posh, panoramic esplanade at Castelletto we found a perfect keyhole view down to the harbor.

We also tried a handful of neo-trattorias, places like Il Fabbro, with tables fronting gorgeous Santa Maria della Vigna, and Ombre Rosse, another trendy spot in a handsome, pocket-sized square. On the menus of these trendy hangouts are dishes the Genoese would never have contemplated eating a few years ago. The style of cooking features innovative mixtures, globalized ingredients and exotic spices. Some dishes like pesto made with marjoram (at Ombre Rosse) work, others don’t, but as long as the traditional food of the city isn’t replaced by experimental, hit-and-miss World Cooking, no one seems to mind the newcomers.

While the rest of the world’s mom-and-pop stores have been bankrupted by big box operators and malls, surprisingly many of Genoa’s hole-in-the-wall shops we have known and loved for years are still in business. They sell hardware, candied fruit, air-dried cod fish, shoelaces and buttons, or, like Serafina, on Via Canneto il Curto near the harbor, delicious pesto and vegetables preserved in olive oil. Some have changed hands and now offer ethnic foods, reflecting globalization. Genoa has always been open to the world. More than ever, its alleys are a souk with countless complexions and tongues.

This isn’t the first time Genoa has bounced back. Founded by a Ligurian tribe before the ancient Romans showed up and conquered, it lived its heyday in the Middle Ages, when it dubbed itself “La Superba” — the proud or haughty. By the mid-1600s it had slumped, rising again three centuries later as part of the Industrial Triangle: Milan-Turin-Genoa. In the 1890s its moniker became “the phoenix city,” because it was beautified to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.

Similarly, preparations for the Columbus 500th anniversary celebrations of 1992 are what got the most recent multi-billion-dollar bottom-up restoration underway around 1990. The Genoa G8 summit of 2001, and the race to ready the city for its turn as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2004, kept the restorers’ balls rolling. It’s taken this long not just for the scaffolding to come down from dozens of historic monuments, including the hovel where Columbus was supposedly born, but also for the Genoese themselves to descend from their hillsides to reclaim, rediscover and reanimate Genoa’s harbor and tangle of helter-skelter caruggi. This is Europe’s biggest medieval neighborhood, a landlocked Venice whose stony arteries are too narrow for cars. By local standards the 20-year refit is nothing: the old Genoese dialect expression “cian-cianin” — meaning “slow-slowly” — is forever on native lips. It applies to much in life. Everything except the driving is slow and cautious here: restaurant service, courtship, construction and destruction. Cian-cianin.

The old Genoes expression “cian-cianin” (“slow-slowly”) is forever on native lips. Everything except the driving is slow and cautious here: restaurant service, courtship, construction and destruction.

Star architect Renzo Piano, like Columbus another native son, began the remake by transforming the old port à la Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, his model. The centerpiece of Porto Antico is a floating aquarium that mimics a freighter. Anchored nearby is the kitsch faux-galleon from Roman Polanski’s movie “Pirates.” Piano also redirected car traffic through an underpass topped by a piazza edged by palms. He created a subway system linking commuter train stations to the harbor. Luxury hotels, restaurants and could-be-anywhere souvenir boutiques followed.

A success? The aquarium is Europe’s most popular. The crowds rarely stray beyond the piazza into the caruggi 150 yards north. “Daunting” is a term often used to describe the alley-maze. That’s why when you step into zebra-striped San Lorenzo cathedral even at the height of tourist season you’ll probably have the breathtaking Romanesque-Gothic interior to yourself. Ditto the blindingly gilded Chiesa del Gesù a few hundred yards northeast, where parishioners quietly enjoy the overwrought canvases by Rubens and Reni painted and hung here in the early 1600s.

West of the aquarium, where grain elevators and warehouses long stood, the new Museum of the Sea (Galata, Museo del Mare) sheds light on Genoa’s surprising past: it was the richest, most powerful maritime city-state of the Middle Ages. La Superba had colonies and trading posts scattered across the Mediterranean. The crusaders embarked here on swift galleys for their multi-purpose missions: to battle miscreants, preach, loot and create fortified outposts. A life-size rebuilt galley is the museum’s centerpiece. Scant mention is made of the galley slaves-prisoners of war and the poor-who rowed the Genoese into battle, and often dropped dead of exhaustion.

In the Renaissance, making war morphed into making millions with finance and banking. Hated, admired and feared in equal measure, over a period of 500 years Genoa became Europe’s richest city and gave birth to the world’s great navigators, including Columbus. Other heroes include Admiral Andrea Doria, who kept Genoa afloat in the 1500s, and the patriotic pair of “Giuseppes” — Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, memorialized in a dusty but endearing house-museum. The two Giuseppes paved the way for the creation of modern Italy, setting off from Genoa to unite the country in the 1860s. By doing so they spelled the end of Genoa as an independent political entity.

Most of the city’s long-established museums, including Palazzo Spinola and Palazzo Rosso — hung with startling paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Antonella da Messina — were also restored in the decades-long remake, as were Romanesque and Baroque churches, and the sprawling Ducal Palace, one of the country’s biggest and most over-decorated. Its plasterwork and trompe-l’oeil-a Genoese specialty-make every inch of the hulking, block-long palace dizzyingly gaudy and grand. Marble staircases much wider than those of Venice, Florence or Rome mount 100 feet vertically from the ground floor to the piano nobile, where the doge met ambassadors. Faux columns fly into the vaulted vastness of salons that could swallow sports stadiums, and now host temporary art exhibitions. Gods battle each other amid clouds and aerial ruins. In case you swoon, the palace also hosts a café and restaurant (and two bookstores).

Better still, the city’s main Renaissance thoroughfares edging the caruggi have been pedestrianized. The luxurious palaces lining them have been scrubbed and many opened to the public for the first time ever. The streets — Via Garibaldi, Via Cairoli, Via Balbi and Via Lomellini — and palaces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As the setting for a cappuccino served “slow-slowly” on a shaded terrace, or an unexpectedly satisfying museum visit to the Van Dyck salon of Palazzo Rosso, for instance, these streets are mesmerizing, the perfect sunny yin to the dark, cool yang of the caruggi.

The Cinque Terre, Portofino and San Remo are swell. But beyond the recipe for perfect pesto, wily old La Superba, the phoenix city of gradual transformations, may yet have something essential to teach the rest of the world about slowing down and enjoying life.

[Photos: Flickr | Perrimoon; Tim Brown architect; Umberto Fistarol; apes_abroad; Serge Melki]

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, DavidDownie.com.

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