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How Hikers Should Do Europe

Advice from 35,000 Miles on the Trail

For the past six months we’ve been hiking in Europe: primarily the French Alps, but also the Italian and Swiss Alps, and now the mountains along Spain’s Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. All our hikes on this sojourn have been dayhikes. We’ve camped every night in our campervan.

We’ve now travelled in Europe (always with a focus on hiking) by nearly every means possible. We’ve backpacked hut-to-hut. We’ve backpacked carrying a tent, stove, food, etc. and wild camped (free camped). Between backpack trips, we’ve travelled via trains and buses. We’ve hitchhiked extensively. Even on our current trip, hitchhiking has enabled us to complete long, one-way dayhikes. We’ve also rented cars in Europe and, between dayhikes, pitched our tent in village and city campgrounds, or stealth camped free of charge in all kinds of settings. Other times, we’ve rented apartments for several weeks, used rental cars to access mountain trailheads, and returned each night to our village base. Occasionally we’ve stayed in hotels, but largely avoiding hotels has helped us afford longer journeys.

So, which approach do we prefer and recommend?

It’s a question we’ve often pondered and discussed. Now that a couple readers have asked for our advice on the matter, it’s time we commit to an answer.

We’ve enjoyed it all. Each approach has distinct pros and cons, of course. Which one will best suit you depends on your budget and personal preferences. But during all our previous European hiking journeys, we envied the hikers and climbers we saw camping in vans at trailheads. Now that we’ve done it, we can say with certainty that—for us—traveling and living in a campervan is the optimal way to hike Europe.

First, a clarification. What we call a “campervan” in North America goes by different names in Europe. The British call what we’re now driving and living in a “motorhome.” The French call it a “camping car.” The Spanish call it an “auto caravana.” In North America, our vehicle would be considered either a small motorhome or a large campervan. In this blog post, we’ll continue calling it a “campervan,” because (1) it’s possible to travel and live here nearly as comfortably as we have in a slightly smaller vehicle that’s definitely a campervan, not a motorhome, and (2) because many motorhomes in Europe are notably larger than our vehicle and would certainly be considered motorhomes, not campervans, in North America.

We prefer the campervan for many reasons. We’ll elaborate on them presently. Topping our list, however, is a personal bias unrelated to campervans that makes a campervan viable for us: In Europe, we prefer dayhiking to backpacking (either hut-to-hut or self-supported).

That’s heresy, we know. The European mountain hut system is a venerable one. Long distance, hut-to-hut hiking is a life-list dream for many North American hikers. And many European hikers are hut-to-hut devotees. Slashing your burden by eliminating a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment, and carrying little food, enables truly ultralight hiking: relaxed and comfortable. Having delicious meals cooked for you and served to you is a luxurious indulgence. Still, we’d rather dayhike.

Staying at huts costs about 20 to 30 Euros per person. Eating at huts costs about 15 Euros per person just for dinner. At those prices, we couldn’t afford to hike in Europe for long.

Huts are crowded and noisy. Often you’ll have a stranger sleeping within nudging distance of you, perhaps two strangers: one on each side. Often you’ll sleep (or lie awake) with perhaps 20 to 60 other hikers in one room. Some will snore or cough. Some will retire late or rise early. Some will be noisy because they’re either clumsy, unable to sleep (tossing and turning), or just inconsiderate. Some will get up to pee in the middle of the night. Your sleep will almost always be compromised at a hut.

Huts can drain the energy you need for athletic hiking. Having to socialize with strangers at the dinner table every night, particularly people whose language you struggle to speak, can be stimulating and rewarding but also severely draining. Forgoing all but the barest stitch of privacy can prevent you from fully relaxing. And if you’re also not enjoying deep, uninterrupted sleep, your strength and endurance will wane, preventing you from fully enjoying each day on the trail.

Huts can also compromise your nutrition, further sapping your energy. Though eating meals at huts can be a marvelous luxury, it requires that you relinquish control over what and how much you eat. Some huts serve delicious, generous meals, others don’t. Europeans’ concept of breakfast is less hearty than that of most North Americans, so you’ll leave some huts in the morning with less than a full tank. No hut we’ve heard of includes a PowerBar, or any kind of sports-nutrition supplement, in the packed lunches they provide for hikers. If you have special dietary requirements, such as a need to avoid gluten, hut fare will not suit you.

We’re becoming increasingly aware that what we eat before, during, and after a hike profoundly affects our physical capability, our attitudes, and ultimately our level of fulfillment. We know precisely what we need to eat and how much. For example, we consume huge servings—literally platefuls—of fresh vegetables before and after hiking. Huts cannot be expected to serve the quantity of fresh veggies we think is a healthy-hiker requirement. While on the trail, we favour dried fruit (apricots, figs, goji berries, Turkish mulberries) and nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), but we also rely on sports nutrition (especially PowerBars, PowerBar Energy Blasts, Honey Singer Protein Bars, Isostar Cereal Bars, and Isostar Sport Drink). Huts cannot be expected to cater to hikers who fuel themselves as if they were competitive athletes.

Yet another disadvantage of hut-to-hut hiking is that huts require reservations, typically well in advance. That means you relinquish flexibility and spontaneity. When you finally begin hiking to the first hut you booked, you could be heading into a week of rain. We much prefer to choose each day’s hiking destination according to the latest weather forecast.

Occasionally, while hiking trail A, we’ll see an intriguing peak or col that requires us to hike trail D, which we hadn’t planned on doing. Or, while hiking trail J, we’ll overlook the area probed by trail M, which was on our agenda, but now we can see it’s much less compelling than we’d imagined. Dayhikers can always, easily adjust their plans. Hut-to-hutsters are locked in.

Hut-to-hut hiking is almost never the continuous, blissful, peaky-horizon-always-in-view, alpine cruise that most hikers imagine it will be. Most days on most hut-to-hut routes entail long, grinding ascents, and long, pounding descents. Usually there’s a col, and sometimes a couple cols, between huts. Often there are long stretches between huts where the trail remains in forest. This is where dayhiking offers a significant advantage, because mountain trailheads in Europe are located at much higher elevations than are mountain trailheads in North America. Many are well above treeline, yet accessible via paved roads. So dayhikers who study their topo maps and choose their trails carefully are likely to spend more of each day striding above treeline than are hut-to-hut backpackers. Which is to say, dayhiking can be both easier and more scenic.

Hut-to-hut hiking is a revered tradition and immensely popular. It tends to keep you immersed in a crowd. Not only when you’re at the huts, but also while you’re on the trail. This past summer, we dayhiked several stages of established, hut-to-hut routes. Those were always the days we encountered the most hikers. On the stages we hiked of the Tour de Mont Blanc, for example, other hikers were constantly in view. On most of our dayhikes, we did not follow established hut-to-hut routes, and we were often alone.

Most stages of the popular hut-to-hut routes sacrifice interest for efficiency. So in addition to denying you optimal scenery, the trails themselves are sometimes boring. Following the easiest, most direct routes, long stretches of many hut-to-hut trails are broad, eroded pathways. They don’t engage you. You simply plod them. But many European trails are more compelling than North American trails because they forge more daring lines. Dayhikers who opt for these surprising, challenging routes will find them thrilling. With the exception of some of the high-level variants on some hut-to-hut routes, hut-to-hutsters often find themselves in a mundane, heavily-trod rut.

Dayhiking in the Alps, by the way, isn’t necessarily the round-trip, out-and-back, same-scenery-twice experience it tends to be in North America. There are far more trails in the Alps than you’ll find in any North American mountain range. Imagine a spiderweb dropped over the mountains. Each thread linked to the others. That’s the Alps: a web of trails, ensuring loop hikes are often possible. Constantly forging into new terrain makes dayhiking much more appealing.

Finally, hiking hut-to-hut—depending on your beliefs regarding safe mountain travel—might not be the carefree, ultralight saunter you’ve imagined. Should you really set off on a multi-day hike through mountains you’ve no experience in, without carrying a shelter, sleeping gear, extra clothing, and food that might enable you to survive an emergency bivouac? What if the weather suddenly turns violent and visibility plummets while you’re between huts? What if you make a navigational error that, come nightfall, leaves you well shy of the hut you’d intended to reach? What if an incapacitating injury befalls you or a companion? What if all of the above happen? That’s why, when hiking hut-to-hut, our packs have been far from weightless. We were always prepared to survive a night out if our plans unspooled into drama.

In summary, we’ve enjoyed hut-to-hut hiking, but for all the reasons explained above, we much prefer dayhiking. Dayhiking makes a campervan viable for hiking-focused European travel. And a campervan is… ooh la la… the way to travel, for the following reasons:

Renting a campervan is, admittedly, not the cheapest way to go. But if you add up the cost of staying in huts, eating in huts, plus the cost of accommodation (probably hotels) and transportation (even public transportation) when travelling between trails, you’ll realize that travelling via campervan is surprisingly cost-competitive.

It’s possible to camp free-of-charge every night in a campervan. Free-camping in a campervan is especially easy in France, where campervans are—by and large—welcomed or at least accepted. And free camping in France is by no means a hardship. It’s an advantage. This past summer, we camped 140 nights free of charge in our campervan, and all but a few times our “campsites” were excellent. We tucked into forests. We pulled off atop alpine passes. We overlooked picturesque villages. Often we were next to or within earshot of a stream. Many times we had superb views of the surrounding mountains. Almost always we enjoyed more tranquillity and privacy than we would have had we paid to stay in a campground, where incessantly chatting campers, screaming kids, and barking dogs are a frequent annoyance. While free camping, we never trespassed, violated regulations, or—to the best of our knowledge—annoyed anyone. Finding a place to comfortably camp free in a campervan sometimes requires a little creativity, courage or determination. But it also makes the journey more interesting and fun. And free-camping is what makes renting a campervan affordable, because the rental fee covers both transportation and accommodation.

Throughout France, you’ll find “aire de services” specifically for campervans. At an aire de service you can, usually free-of-charge, responsibly empty your grey- and black-water tanks. You can also refill your fresh-water tank. Many aire de services allow campervans to stay overnight—free of charge. Aire de services are so common in France that, clearly, the nation has made a concerted effort to accommodate campervan travellers. As a result, campervan life is relatively easy in France, and campervan travellers feel welcome.

A European hiking journey via campervan allows for very efficient travel. At trailheads where you have several hiking options, you can simply stay, camping free each evening after you return from dayhiking. No need to repeatedly drive back and forth between down-valley accommodation and high-elevation trailheads. Camping free at trailheads saves time, gas money, and allows for more relaxation.

You can stock a campervan with enough groceries to last a week. That allows you to shop less frequently, at larger supermarkets offering lower prices and more choices. That means you save time and money, and eat what you want, as much as you want, whenever you want. That ensures that each day you set out on a dayhike, you can pack the precise trail foods you prefer. And it ensures that every morning before you hike, and every evening when you return from a hike, your breakfasts and dinners are ample, nutritious and delicious. There’s a particular brand and flavour of tea that you love? You can carry a dozen boxes of it in your campervan. You find a boulangerie that makes the best bread you’ve ever tasted? Buy a couple loaves—one for today, one for tomorrow. And, of course, campervans have refrigerators, so you can stock up on your favourite fresh foods and always enjoy an ice-cold, post-hike beer.

Speaking of refrigerators, campervan fridges have freezers, which provide a key benefit specific to dayhiking: therapeutic ice packs. Each time we returned to our campervan from a long, demanding dayhike, we would apply ice packs to our knees and ankles to help reduce inflammation. This, plus occasional massage, helped keep us on the trail six days a week. Hut guardians are, to say the least, unaccustomed to having trekkers show up and ask for ice packs.

A campervan can be a mobile gear closet. No need to severely limit your hiking gear. Campervans have enough storage space that you can bring a variety of clothing and gear, which you can choose from depending on the terrain and weather you anticipate encountering on each dayhike. That means you don’t always have to pack your heavier, Gore-Tex Pro Shell. If it’s a shatterproof, sunny day, you can keep your pack weight minimal by instead carrying your ultralight Gore-Tex PacLite shell. Most hikers travelling in Europe have just one pair of hiking boots. With a campervan, you can carry heavier boots for rougher terrain, a lighter pair of boots for easier trails, a pair of walking shoes for urban hiking, a pair of sandals for kicking back at the campsite, plus a pair of down booties for inside the campervan at night. Most hikers travelling in Europe have to wash their few items of clothes frequently. With a campervan, you can carry enough changes of hiking clothes that finding a laundromat becomes necessary only about once every couple weeks. This past summer, we always had precisely the gear we needed. This allowed us to keep our pack weight minimal and hike as comfortably as possible. It also ensured we never had to do laundry on a day when the weather was optimal for hiking. We could choose to do laundry only on those days when the weather was poor or we wanted or needed a rest.

A campervan is a reasonably comfortable home in foul weather. Unlike a tent, a campervan has a heater, plus enough room that you can stand up, move around, lounge, do yoga. Unlike in a tent, you can hang your damp hiking clothes in a campervan, so they’re dry by morning even if it rains all night. And because a campervan has abundant storage, it can be a mobile library, containing all the guidebooks and maps you need. When you elect not to hike on a rainy day, you can make optimal use of your time by spreading out your maps, perusing several books at a time, and planning your hikes.

Your bed in a campervan is your bed. A different bed in a different hotel every night (unless you’re staying at expensive hotels) leaves you vulnerable to a poor night’s rest: an uncomfortable mattress, a room that’s too hot, too cold, too stuffy, a room in a noisy location, etc. With a campervan, you’re almost always in control of the physical and audio atmosphere in which you sleep. That makes it the most consistently homey accommodation possible for a traveller.

There are, however, some drawbacks to European campervan travel you should be aware of:

Many roads in Europe are narrow. Much narrower than North American drivers are accustomed to. This makes it a challenge to pilot a campervan. You must be a skilled, confident driver. You must always be vigilantly alert behind the wheel. You must drive slower than you might prefer. And you need a co-pilot always on duty as shotgun (a second pair of eyes attentive for potential trouble), navigator (constantly glancing up at directional signage and down at a road map), and ground crew (exiting the van to direct the pilot, and perhaps coordinate traffic, whenever it’s necessary to back up the rig).

The only access to a few European trailheads is via one-lane roads. Even if you’re driving a small car, some of these roads pose difficulties should you encounter another car traveling in the opposite direction. In a campervan? Fuhgedaboutit. That’s when we’ve parked our campervan and hitchhiked. Compared to North Americans, Europeans are less fearful, more at ease about picking up hitchhikers. Europeans who are themselves hikers will reflexively stop for anyone geared-up to hike and obviously en route to a trailhead. Our hitchhiking attempts never failed, even when several rides were necessary. And hitching always enhanced our day. A lively, cultural exchange ensued every time we climbed into someone’s car.

With all your hiking gear and valuables (laptops, portable hard drives, passports, etc.) in your campervan, you have more at risk when you leave the van parked at a trailhead than you would if you’d left all your gear and valuables locked in a hotel room and parked a relatively empty car at the same trailhead. We don’t know anyone who’s parked more vehicles at more trailheads in both Europe and North America than we have, however, and we’ve never been broken into on either continent. Our sense is that trailhead theft is less common in Europe than it is in North America, perhaps because trailheads in Europe tend to be busier: too public for easy thievery. Still, we remain vigilant. We always go out of our way to leave our campervan parked where it will be in view of people coming and going. And we always take the extra time necessary to disguise and hide our valuables within the campervan. Campervans have excellent hidey holes that would be difficult for a thief to find.

In most of Switzerland, free-camping in a campervan is verboten. In Spain and Italy, it’s possible to camp free, but it’s less safe to leave an unattended campervan parked at trailheads. Outside France, we’re less enthusiastic about hiking-focused travel via campervan. Bear in mind, we have not travelled via campervan beyond France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. If hiking is the focus of your journey, however, you’ll find much of the world’s best hiking in the Alps. And the French Alps, as we can attest, are ideal for campervan travel and free camping.

So, how to come by a campervan in France? Don’t try to buy one. (We explain why not in our post titled “U-Turn,” July 12, 2012). Rent one from the same people we did: France Motorhome Hire (www.francemotorhomehire.com). They’re located in Montargis, just south of Paris. Their email address is <francemotorhomehire@gmail.com>. Their international phone number is +33 238 97 00 33. They are Hannah and Phill Spurge. Starting with their response to our initial email enquiry, continuing through what is now our sixth month on the road with one of their rentals, they have been unfailingly honest, fair, creative, flexible, helpful, responsive and enjoyable. We emphatically recommend them.

Our campervan journey through the French Alps has enriched us beyond measure. If you’re a hiker, you’ll likely feel the same. Start planning now.

Join us—in person, or in print:

7 Secrets of the Cinque Terre

The Opinionated Hikers on Patrol for You

The Cinque Terre (the Five Lands) are poignantly picturesque Italian villages on the Mediterranean Sea. Each of the five occupies a headland beneath the Monti Ligure (the Ligurian mountains) just north of the macho port city of La Spezia.

In ancient times, the villages no doubt seemed distinctly separate, almost like islands, because the coast is tortuous and steep here. The Monti Liguri begin as wave-washed cliffs and instantly soar to about 550 m (1804 ft). Though the villagers terraced the sharp slopes so they could grow food, and these terraces made foot travel possible, sailing was the preferred method of transport between the Cinque Terre.

During the past twenty years, however, foot travel between the Cinque Terre has surged in popularity—not with the villagers, but with visitors. The Cinque Terre is now such a famous hiking destination that it attracts non-hiking tourists from all over the world.

The Cinque Terre seemed like a secret 20 years ago when we first hiked here, but they’re certainly no secret now. Yet while hiking the area again last week, it was apparent to us that several important facts about the Cinque Terre are not widely known.

Secret #1
You can drive to, and between, all the Cinque Terre villages.

The romantic myth persists. Many people still believe there are no roads along this rugged coast. They assume that to see the Cinque Terre they must either ride the train between the villages (mostly through tunnels), catch a tourist cruise boat out of Portovenere, or hike.

Actually there’s a fourth option: a rental car. If you’re here to hike, you’ll find having a car greatly increases your flexibility. It will also ensure you see much more of the region than do hikers who walk straight through.

The roads linking the Cinque Terre and accessing each village are sinuous and narrow, but the views they grant are striking. From a car, you often attain commanding views of the villages in context. Plus you traverse the fascinating terrain above them. Best of all, the roads access little-known, secondary Cinque Terre trails that afford superb hiking. (See Secret #3.)

If you’re experienced at driving Europe’s slender, snaking roads, you’ll motor from La Spezia to Riomaggiore (one of the Cinque Terre villages) without difficulty. Just outside La Spezia, you can go left to Portovenere, or right to Riomaggiore.

If you hesitate to drive roads so skinny that cars traveling in opposite directions can pass each other only with great care, then avoid the minor (though still paved) roads. Prime example: the road descending Fosso Canaleito to San Bernadino. Stay on the main road contouring around the top of Fosso Re de Mulino, then descend the larger drainage to Vernazza.

Secret #2
The Cinque Terre has an extensive network of hiking trails.

Hikers have been coming here for so long, ticking off the Cinque Terre villages one after the next without venturing from the main trail, that today almost nobody pauses to ask: Is that all there is? Just one trail?

Between Levanto in the northwest, and Portovenere in the southeast, there are dozens of Cinque Terre trails contouring on terraces at various elevations, plus numerous connecting trails running up and down the mountainsides.

Get the excellent, reliable, 1:25 000 map titled “Riviera Ligure: Le Cinque Terre da La Spezia a Levanto.” It’s published by Studio Cartografico Italiano. It will enable you to plan an exciting, original, Cinque Terre hiking tour. And remember, even if you’re driving a rental car to your starting point, you can also use the local train or mini-buses to link trails or villages and further increase your on-foot options.

Secret #3
The main Cinque Terre trail is not rousingly scenic every step of the way.

For example, the 20-minute section south from Corniglia along the train tracks. Or the long section (starting about 45 minutes out of Portovenere) where for 1.5 hours you’re confined to roads (paved and unpaved) in viewless forest.

Parts of the main trail are very scenic, of course, but tranquility is unlikely. We generally preferred the secondary trails, such as trail 4B to Fossola. You’ll find we’ve listed it below as one of our favourites because it gave us a strong sense for what the region was like before the first tsunami of tourists. These less-frequented-but-still-excellent trails are generally high above the sea, but they provide a magnificent, aerial perspective.

Secret #4
The region’s most spectacular hiking is not associated with the Cinque Terre.

As much as we love the secondary Cinque Terre trails, we prefer the challenging trail that rounds the wild, lonely, outer edge of the Portofino Peninsula.

Portofino is about a 45-minute drive north of the Cinque Terre. It’s a tiny port village near the larger port town of Santa Margherita. Both are pretty enough to make you swoon. Starting in Portofino, you can hike up, then down to the molecule-size harbor hamlet of San Fruttuosso, then up and down and up and down and up to the village of San Rocco, then finally down to the seaside village of Camogli. The section northwest of San Fruttuosso to San Rocco, however, is strictly for strong, experienced, confident hikers who think “steep,” “narrow,” “rough,” and “airy” are invitations rather than warnings.

Secret #5
The Cinque Terre is no secret, as mentioned above.

Crowd-free hiking is readily available throughout Europe—as long as you don’t follow the crowd. (See our previous post, “Hiking in Crowded Europe.”) But you’re definitely following the crowd when you come to the Cinque Terre.

The onslaught begins in late March and continues through October. We wouldn’t even consider hiking the Cinque Terre then. You’d be constantly passing other hikers, or being passed by them. You’d always have to wait or jostle for photo-ops. Find a quiet, pretty place to rest or eat lunch? Forget it. You’d have to post a sentry before stopping to pee.

November through mid-March is the only time your experience here won’t be sabotaged by crowds. Even then, it’s best to avoid hiking on weekends or holidays, because Italians also flock to the Cinque Terre.

Secret #6
Hiking the entire Cinque Terre end-to-end might be a mistake.

Completion freaks will argue with that. And if you value what you accomplish more than you value what you experience en route, they’re right, you should hike the Cinque Terre straight through. But we’ve done both. The first time, we hiked the way we’d been told to: zip, boom, arrivederci. The second time, we hiked in our idiosyncratic, looping, exploratory style, up and down the mountainsides. The second time was much richer: more surprising, more intriguing, more beautiful, more fun.

You have many alternatives. Consider basing yourself in one of the Cinque Terre villages. Vernazza has the most dramatic setting and is the most photogenic. It’s the Cinque Terre poster village. Manarola and Riomaggiore are also appealing, though Rio is busier. Wherever you make your temporary home, you can use the frequent, local train or buses to start and/or end each day.

On our last trip, we based ourselves in Bocca di Magra, past the Bay of Poets, on the east shore of the Montemarcello Peninsula. The advantage of Magra is that it’s midway between the Cinque Terre and the Alpi Apuane Mountains, should you want to hike in both. Magra is also reasonably close to cities such as Pisa and Lucca, which we recommend you visit. The disadvantage of Magra is the two-hour round trip (through La Spezia) each day you go to the Cinque Terre. Driving the road that hugs the port, however, we found it a smooth, easy commute.

Secret #7
Hiking the Cinque Terre is now like driving the Italian autostrade: an expensive, pay-as-you-go privilege.

The Cinque Terre are considered a national park. That wasn’t the case when we first hiked here, so we were curious to see the affects of park status. Our conclusion: no change, except for goddamn fees.

At each end of the most popular sections of the main trail, you’ll find wooden booths where national park toll-trolls lie in wait, demanding you purchase a “Cinque Terre card” for five Euro. It entitles one person to hike anywhere on the Cinque Terre for one day.

We’re so resentful of fees that are obviously cash grabs that, out of principle, we often find creative ways to circumvent them. Not only does this save us money, it usually results in a much more interesting experience. Here, it motivated us to discover all the other Cinque Terre trails where there are no toll booths and the hiking fees are unenforced.

We also discovered that if you start hiking early or late (before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. in March) you can hike the main Cinque Terre trail fee-free because the toll booths are unmanned. Once you’re past the booth, no worries. The toll-trolls only accost hikers entering a particular section. If you’re exiting past them, they ignore you, because they assume you presented or purchased your Cinque Terre card at the other end.

Bear in mind that, in typical Italian style, the Cinque Terre toll-trolls are casual about their hours. So assess the opportunities; it’s possible you can hike fee-free starting later in the morning or earlier in the evening than we’ve suggested. We also assume the toll-trolls’ hours lengthen along with the daylight in summer and shorten come winter.

Here are our favourite Cinque Terre trails, plus more details about the Portofino Peninsula trail.

Campiglia – Fossola
12 km (7.5 mi) / gain & loss 272 m (892 ft) / 4 to 5 hours

Drive northwest of Portovenere to Campiglia. Park here, at 400 m (1312 ft). Hike trail 4B northwest, passing two junctions where you ignore paths descending to Schiara. You can detour to Schiara later, as described below.

For now, continue right, through forest, on trail 4. You’ll see parcours exercise equipment near Palestra nel Verde. Immediately after passing Santuario Antonio and a picnic area at 508 m (1666 ft), go left, descending an ancient, cobbled path— trail 4C—to Fossola. Intersect a small road at 300 m (984 ft). Continue descending through the village, past garden terraces. A good place to rest is on the bench at the chapel below the locals’ parking lot.

Just below the chapel, go left on trail 4B (pronounced “Quattro Bee” in Italian). Follow it southeast, contouring on very narrow, terrace walls. At the 270-m (886-ft) junction with Monesteroli, you have the option of descending another 100 m (328 ft).

Continue ascending trail 4B to the fountain of Nozano. Go right toward Campiglia. Or, very soon, opt for a detour: descending 170 m / 558 ft on trail 4 to Schiara. It’s on a dramatic promontory. But before lengthening the trip in that direction, consider that you must already ascend 164 m (538 ft) from Fossola back to Campiglia.

Volastra / Corniglia / Manarola
13 km (8 mi) / gain 360 m (1181 ft) / 4 to 5 hours

From Riomaggiore, drive the main road northwest. Pass the turnoff to Manarola. Park alongside the road near Volastra. (The parking lot is for residents only. We parked in the first pullout on the left, a couple hundred meters beyond the village.)

From the church in Volastra, at 335 m (1100 ft), follow trail 6 D northwest. It contours a steep, terraced mountainside and grants views southwest to Manarola.

At 4.5 km (2.8 mi) reach the 370-m (1214-ft) highpoint and a junction with trail 7A. Descend 7A to Corniglia. Walk the unpleasant stretch of the main Cinque Terre trail past the train station and along the tracks. After 1 km (0.6 mi) it’s more pleasant. The wide trail is then beside the sea and only 10 meters above it.

Reach Manarola in 3 km (1.8 mi). From the parking area just above the village, follow signs on the right side of the road: trail 6 to Groppo and Volastra. The final ascent to Volastra is on a beautiful, ancient, stairstepping, cobbled path.

Above Vernazza / di Soviore / Monterossa
18 km (11.2 mi) / gain 542 m (1778 ft) / 5 to 7 hours

Drive the main Cinque Terre road northwest, passing the turnoffs for Riomaggiore and Manarola. From the dwellings at Foce di Drignana, drive the descending road signed for Vernazza. In about 2 km (1.2 mi), park in the grassy pullout at the tip of a tight hairpin turn, at 400 m (1312 ft). It affords a spectacular view of Vernazza below and the sea beyond.

While admiring the village, consider that this hike will require you to ascend from Vernazza to this hairpin-turn trailhead at the end of the day. Note the broad, switchbacking, stone path rising past the mausoleum. That’s the route. It’s not as taxing as it might appear.

Initially hike west on trail 8B toward Madonna di Soviore for 4.5 km (2.8 mi). This section is a narrow, dirt trail that generally contours and affords glorious views. Upon reaching the road at il Termine, elevation 542 m (1778 ft), you could return the way you came, but we urge you to continue.

Proceed left (northwest) on the road for 1.3 km (0.8 mi). Watch left for signed trail 9 descending left. It’s just before the Soviore nunnery—a huge, rectangular, pink building at 465 m (1525 ft). Walk across the nunnery terrace, then turn left again, still on trail 9. A long descent ensues to Monterosso al Mare.

From Monterosso, walk the main Cinque Terre trail to Vernazza. (fee required, as explained above in Secret 7, unless you arrive after 5 pm). You could also opt to train to Vernazza. The train runs about every 20 minutes and costs about Euro 1.30.

From Vernazza’s main piazza at the harbour, a stairway climbs through a tunnel generally north. Ascend it, then turn right. Find the stone path climbing past the mausoleum to San Bernardo. This ancient, well-constructed path climbs gently but steadily all the way to the paved road above. Strong hikers will complete the ascent in 45 minutes. Others might take 1.5 hours.

Turn left into a playground and picnic area beside a chapel. Then ascend a few more switchbacks on trail to intersect the paved road. Go left, round a corner, and in about 300 m (330 yd) arrive at the hairpin-turn trailhead.

Portofino Peninsula
14 km (8.7 mi) / gain 800 m (2625 ft) / 4.5 to 7 hours

Hiking around the outer edge of the Portofino Peninsula is not for the inexperienced or acrophobic. Despite starting in the lovely, eminently civilized village of Portofino, and ending in the equally cultured village of Camogli, this trail dwindles to a very rough, steep route traversing steep cliffs through wild, lonely terrain. It requires strength, stamina, and skill.

You’d prefer a moderate, two- to three-hour hike? Follow the directions below only as far as San Fruttuosso, then catch the shuttle boat back to Portofino.

Regardless of your hiking intentions, from Santa Margherita, drive the coast road toward Portofino. Park at (or beside the road near) Castello. From the Castello parking lot, walk out to the road, turn right, and within a few meters find the signed, cobbled path to Portofino. It rises above the road then contours the hillside for about 2 km (1.2 mi).

In Portofino’s harbourside piazza, turn your back to the water, and angle right to pick up the path (marked by two, red circles) ascending past the church. Go in the direction of San Sebastian. Don’t let the scooters and three-wheeled mini-trucks fool you. This does eventually become a genuine trail.

Follow frequent signs for San Fruttuosso, basically west-northwest. About 45 minutes from Portofino, after passing terraces and a house on a promontory at 235 m (771 ft), follow the dirt path contouring the high, steep slope to Base 0.

About 10 minutes farther, drop to cross a stream, ascend, then contour again. In another 35 minutes, from a 260-m (853-ft) ridgecrest, begin a steep, switchbacking descent (still on good trail) through forest to San Fruttuoso. It’s a tiny harbour where a few buildings cluster around a beautiful church.

To continue hiking to Camogli via the outer edge of the peninsula, bear left in San Fruttuoso, pass the church, and resume on the double-red-circle trail. Tight switchbacks ascend sharply from the sea. In about 40 minutes, crest a ridge at 275 m (900 ft). From here on, the quality of the trail diminishes and the excitement increases.

Descend to 60 m (197 ft) in Vallone Cala dell’Oro, then ascend southwest in woods to 190 m (623 ft). In this 1.5-km (0.9-mi) stretch the route crosses gnarly outcrops as it aims for La Baracca, on Punta del Buco. Chains bolted to rock offer assistance on the exposed sections. Accept the offer; hang on. A fall here could result in traumatic injury.

Descend again to 80 m (262 ft), then climb back up to 200 m (656 ft). The route traverses yet another cliff-bound gorge, where you must remain cool and balanced while descending and ascending very steep, rough ground. Beyond, negotiate still more exposed sections. All are strung with safety chains that you can and should cling to while traversing.

Moving quickly, it took us about 1.5 hours to hike from San Fruttuoso—through all the challenging terrain—to the first picnic table near the Batterie. Some people, however, might require 3 hours to safely cover that distance.

From the Batterie, an increasingly comfortable trail contours north-northeast to the village of San Rocco. This is where you re-enter civilization. It’s possible to catch a bus there or in Ruta (the next town northeast). Time and energy permitting, however, continue hiking. Follow the steps descending to Camogli. Catch a train or bus back to Santa Margherita. Then catch the bus to your vehicle near Portofino.

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Colletta, Italy: Strange, Idyllic Basecamp for Winter Hiking

Our winter in the mountains along the Mediterranean will soon end. We’ve been in Spain’s Costa Blanca, on the island of Mallorca, in the Alpes Maritime near Vence, France, and now in Liguria, Italy. We’ve hiked on good-weather days, worked on bad-weather days. The entire experience has been deeply gratifying. “Precious times,” we keep saying to each other.

Living in Europe for an extended period was at the top of our life list. But now that we’ve achieved it, we’re not crossing it off. Doing it again—in different locations, preferably in summer—will remain a compelling goal for us. No matter how many times we return to Europe, it will be impossible for us to exhaust the hiking opportunities here, or satisfy our appetite for pursuing them.

Our recent home base has been Colletta, Italy. It’s a 15-minute drive inland from the coastal town of Albenga, roughly midway between Nice and Genoa. Typical of Ligurian hilltop villages, Colletta is ancient. And, like many Italian hamlets, it was eventually abandoned. But what makes Colletta unusual, perhaps unique in the world, is that it was rescued from dereliction and transformed into a modern, high-tech retreat: the “borgo telematico.”

Colletta was founded during the 1200s. It briefly flourished, then waned. Weakened by agricultural decline, wracked by plagues, wars and earthquakes, Colletta’s population dwindled. By the mid 1900s, the village was deserted. It remained a ghostly shell until a group of investors began purchasing it in 1993. It took them two years to buy each individual home, because they first had to locate the owners, all of whom had departed the village, some of whom no longer lived in Italy.

Though the developers hired a famous architect from Genoa, Giancarolo de Carlo, it took five years to procure the necessary construction permits for Colletta’s resurrection. But it seems that was valuable incubation time for de Carlo, who began thinking of the village as a crustacean that grew slowly, adapting itself to its own existing cells, merging in all directions. The challenge, as he saw it, was to reconstruct dwellings of various sizes without altering the genetic code that governed the growth of the original organism.

The “cyber village” or “e-village” concept was a visionary one for 1996, because people were not yet using the internet the way we do today. But Colleta’s technological sinew is just one of several appealing qualities. The village itself is gorgeous. From a distance it looks much as it might have in ancient times—if it had been constructed all at once and were freshly completed just prior to your arrival. And Colleta’s setting is wonderful. It perches on a jutting promontory, flanked by a river and a stream (both audible), surrounded by terraced, lushly treed slopes (olives, oaks, chestnuts), beneath towering, 1200-m (3936-ft) ridges whose vertical crags attract rock climbers.

“Strange and idyllic” is how Kathy describes Colletta. We’ve been here three weeks, and we’re still marveling at it. Of all the places we’ve stayed during our winter sojourn in Europe, this is certainly the strangest and most idyllic.

Colletta comprises about 70 apartments, an osteria (tavern), a swimming pool long enough to please lap swimmers, a sauna, manicured grounds, and an office for the village concierge. What Colletta doesn’t have is vehicle traffic. No road pierces the car-free village—everyone enters and exits on foot—but there is an adjacent parking arcade. Visit www.colletta.it to learn more and see photos of Colletta apartments available for rent.

Best of all, Colletta is perfectly situated for hiking. Our first morning here, we awoke to a blue sky, shouldered our packs, walked out the front door and onto a trail ascending 700 m (2296 ft) to the ridgecrest visible from our window. Numerous other trails, steep and lengthy, begin a short drive away. These aren’t mere strolls. They’re sufficiently challenging and rewarding for strong, serious hikers. Many remain snow-free in winter. Others, vaulting over much bigger summits a bit farther inland, are hikeable by early summer.

Colletta de Castelbianco (its full name) is a primo destination for a winter hiking holiday. For visual evidence, go to the Photos/Videos page of our website and click on “Italy.” The first six photos are of Colletta. Kathy shot photos 7 through 20 either while we were hiking or during our urban explorations elsewhere in Liguria.

Below are some of the trails we recommend for your winter stay in Colletta. But before you go hiking, you’ll need a map (“carta dei sentieri” in Italian). We used these:

  • Kompass 641 / Alassio – Imperia / 1:50 000
  • Studio Naturalistico SV-4 / Ceriale, Alenga, Alassio e Laigueglia  /  Sistema Ambientale Poggio Grande / 1:25 000
  • Istituto Geografico Centrale #15 / Albenga, Alassio, Savona /  1:50 000

None of these maps is ideal. All contain inaccuracies. But we found the Kompass map more reliable and easier to read.

Now, our suggested hikes…

Zuccarello to Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena

9-km (5.5-mi) round trip / 332-m (1090-ft) gain / 2 to 3 hours

Traverse olive-grove terraces on this historic stone path between two intriguing medieval villages. Zuccarello has a colourful  porticoed street and a beautiful bridge. The ascent is so gradual it seems only about 33% of the actual elevation gain. Enjoy wandering the intriguing warren of ancient lanes in the village of Castelvecchio.

By Vehicle

From the A10 highway, exit for Albenga. Follow signs toward Garessio and Castelbianco. Drive Road 582 northwest from Albenga. Just beyond Cisano sui Neva, where left leads to Castlebianco di Colletta, go right (north) 4 km (2.5 mi). Turn right, into the parking lot immediately before Zuccarello, at 118 m (387 ft).

On Foot

Walk through the village. Before exiting the far side, turn right (east) onto a lane where you see red-and-white paint blazes indicating a trekking route. Ascend above the village on an ancient trail.

It climbs east 0.5 km (0.3 mi), nearly to the namesake castle on a promontory above the village. Just beyond but still below the castle, intersect an unpaved road. Cross it, bearing left. Don’t go right toward Vecersio or San Bernardo.

Hike generally north. Pass San Giuseppe church at 2.5 km (1.6 mi), 367 m (1205 ft). Continue 1.3 km (0.8 km) to the church at Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena, at 450 m (1476 ft). Return the same lovely way.

Rio Della Valle under Rocca Barbena

8-km (5-mi) round trip / 317-m (1040-ft) gain / 2 to 3 hours

An easy, historic trail runs the length of this deep, narrow canyon. You’ll hike just above the Rio della Valle, which flows over beautiful bedrock, has many cascades and pools, and provides constant water music. This is an ideal place to hike during hot weather.

By Vehicle

Drive the coastal S1 highway to Borghetto S. Spirito, then turn inland toward Toirano. Entering Toirano, reset your trip odometer when you see the name of the town in gold letters on a stone wall. Continue 4 km (2.5 mi).

If you’re descending the road from Carpe, continue 2 km (1.2 mi) east of the bridge at Barabba.

From either approach, park on the east side of the bridge spanning the Rio della Valle, at 183 m (600 ft). (Maps indicate this as Salto del Lupo). There’s an info sign here.

On Foot

Hike north, upstream, on a stretch of gravel road, then a stone path, and finally a good trail through deciduous forest. Near sign #2, a spur ascends steeply northeast to a pinnacle—worth a detour. Though the trail ascends to the highway near Bardinardo, you can turn around at 4 km (2.5 mi), 500 m (1640 ft), feeling you know the canyon.

Poggio Croce Ceresa / Mont Pesalto

9-km (5.5-mi) round trip / 316-m (1036-ft) gain / 3 hours

Drive past the fascinating medieval village of Castelvecchio. Park on a ridgecrest above. Then follow a trail affording constant views as it rounds the head of a plunging valley. Proceed on a gentle, open ridge where you’ll overlook the Pennavaire Valley, Albenga, and the Mediterranean. It’s possible to extend this hike by continuing out Mont Acuto.

By Vehicle

Drive Road 582 northwest from Albenga. Just beyond Cisano sui Neva, proceed right (north) on 582 up the Neva River Valley to Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena. Continue ascending tight switchbacks to the hamlet of Vercersio, at 500 m (1640 ft). Drive 2.5 km (1.6 mi) farther to where the road makes a tight zigzag south, then north. Turn right onto the initially-paved secondary road signed for Santuario Monte Croce. Immediately left is a pullout. Park here, at 520 m (1706 ft).

On Foot

Walk this secondary road about 50 m/yd. Look right for a signposted trail departing the southwest side of the road. This exciting trail contours just below the road (so you’ll neither see nor hear passing cars), and on the north side of Rio Auzza Canyon. You’ll be hiking southeast, curving under Poggio Grande, to reach a 710-m (2330-ft) knoll: Poggio Croce Ceresa. Just beneath it, cross a dirt road that goes left, connecting Poggio Croce Ceresa and the Santuario. You could walk back that way after returning from Mont Pesalto.

You’ll have seen an enticing ridge southeast, on the south side of Valle Iba. Head for that trail in open grass. Descend to 650 m (2132  ft), then ascend to 686-m (2250-ft) Mont Pesalto.

Return to the dirt road you previously crossed. Follow it to Santuario Monte Croce, at 749 m (2457 ft). Just above is 802-m (2631-ft) Poggio Grande. If you have time and energy, or you return here another day, hike the trail east from Santuario Monte Croce. It follows the ridgecrest 2.7 km (1.7 mi) to 747-m (2450-ft) Mont Acuto. It drops all the way to the sea, so turn around when you feel like it—unless you’ve arranged a shuttle.

Grotte di Toirano to Pietro dei Monti

11-km (6.8 mi) round trip / 850-m (2788-ft) gain / 4 to 5.5 hours

If caves appeal to you, tour the one at Toirano. People say it’s impressive. But we prefer sunshine and altitude, so we skipped the cave and instead hiked the mountain above it. The trail climbs among dramatic cliffs, ascending steadily through a creek drainage to a pass. From there, you can summit San Pietro dei Monti. Or, for an easier hike, stay on the main trail to the clearing above San Pietrino chapel and gaze out across the Mediterranean.

By Vehicle

From the A10 highway, exit for Borghetto Santo Spirito. At Toirano, about 3 km (1.9 mi) inland from Borghetto, follow signs to the Grotte di Toirano, at 60 m (197 ft). Ascend to the huge parking lot in front of the cave entrance and gift shop.

On Foot

Go through the gate (hikers don’t have to pay), pass the grotto, and follow the marked trail northwest. Be aware. Several minor trails access climbing routes, and it’s easy to wander. Stay on the main trail. It drops slightly before ascending the right side of the rocky gorge. Don’t go right (northeast) on the scant route signed “Bellevista.”

At 1.5 km (0.9 mi) the steep trail curves southeast beneath cliffs. Near 3.5 km (2.2 mi) reach a fork in a small saddle. Ideally, go left (north) to ascend San Pietro dei Monti. After zigzagging northwest, the trail reaches the summit at 5.5 km (3.4 mi), 891 m (2923 ft).

Your other option is to continue on the main trail generally southeast about 20 minutes to a grassy clearing above San Pietrino chapel, where you’ll overlook coastal towns and the sea beyond. From here, the Sentiero Terre Alte leads north, offering many days of trekking.

Vignolo toward Mt. Galero

10-km (6.2-mi) round trip / 800-m (2624-ft) gain / 4 to 5 hours

You’re unlikely to see anyone hiking here until summer. Yet these south-facing slopes—where wind from the sea helps the sun melt the snowpack—invite you to ascend surprisingly high in winter. Had we started earlier in the day when we hiked here in mid-February, we could have crested Mt. Galero’s summit ridge. And that was shortly after a couple days of snowfall that locals described as a “freak event.” Galero is a prominent landmark, visible from many trails throughout the region. Here you’ll attain close-up views of Galero’s south face and pinnacled cirque. By late May, it’s possible you could follow the long-distance “Alta Via dei Monti Liguri” northeast along Galero’s summit ridge to the top of the 1708-m (5602-ft) mountain. In summer, strong, experienced hikers can complete an 8- to 10-hour traverse, starting here on the west side, vaulting over Galero, then descending the southwest ridge toward Mont Alpe, and finally dropping to Colletta di Castelbianco.

By Vehicle

From the A10 highway, take the exit for Albenga. Follow signs toward Garessio and Castelbianco. Drive Road 582 northwest to Cisano sul Neva. Just beyond, bear left (northwest) on Road SP14. Pass the turnoff for Castelbianco di Colletta. Pass the village of Nasino, proceed 1 km (0.6 mi) farther, then turn right. Switchbacking, ascend northeast to the parking lot at the tiny (mostly abandoned) village of Vignolo, at 467 m (1531 ft).

On Foot

Ascend the walkway through the village. Following paint daubs, turn left and ascend north, out of the village. The trail rises above the east side of Rio Gallinaro. The trail intersects an unpaved road at 690 m (2263 ft), near the San Pietro picnic area. Ascend the road, then trail, then road again. (The trail shortcuts the switchbacking road and saves you significant time.) Cross a bridge near Ravinazzo (a few houses) at 980 m (3215 ft), then bear right, exit the road, and ascend on trail.

In two hours, at 1260 m (4133 ft), reach the flank of a subsidiary ridge. It provides access to the west ridge of Mt. Galero. The peak’s south face dominates the view. Continue as high as daylight and the snowpack allow.

Mont Alpe (direct ascent)

13-km (8-mi) round trip / 820-m (2690-ft) gain / 5 to 6 hours

Enjoy a little-used but excellent trail ascending the far eastern flank of Mt. Galero. You’ll attain views west to the sea, you’ll overlook villages below, and you’ll see Castell ‘Ermo & Mont Nero across the Pennavaire Valley.

By Vehicle

From the A10 highway, exit for Albenga. Follow signs for Garessio and Castelbianco. You’ll be on Road 582 to Cisano sul Neva. At the junction just past Cisano, go left on Road SP14. About 7 km (4.3 mi) farther, turn right and ascend to Castlebianco di Colletta. Park in the public parking lot immediately above the residents’ lot. Elevation: 260 m (853 ft).

On Foot

Descend a trail 25 m (82 ft) below the north side of the village to cross Oresine Creek. Then ascend the zigzagging trail to the paved road. Go right about five minutes to Veravo, at 330 m (1083 ft). Enter the village. At its northeast end, watch for the red-and-white paint blazes indicating a trekking route. Ascend through oak and chestnut forest on a well-marked, but narrow trail switchbacking up to the 945-m (3100-ft) pass. Then ascend right (southeast) 100 m (361 ft) to the summit of 1055-m (3460-ft) Mont Alpe for a 360° panorama.

Mont Alpe (via ridge traverse)

15.8-km (9.8-mi) loop / 905-m (2970-ft) gain / 5 to 6 hours

You must be skilled at routefinding and comfortable on steep terrain (Class 1 scrambling) to safely complete this one. If you are, you’ll love it. Ascending above Oresine Creek, the path can be deeply covered by leaves, but it’s easy to follow until you’re quite high. Then it’s very faint. Just below your initial goal—the ridgecrest—there’s only the sketchiest hint of a route, easily overlooked. This is where mountain-sense born of experience is required. After the final ascent among rock outcrops, intersect the ridgecrest trail. From here on, you can again enjoy relatively carefree hiking on a distinct trail.

By Vehicle

Follow the directions for the shorter Mont Alpe hike described above. Park in Colletta’s public lot, at 260 m (853 ft).

On Foot

Ascend the road 0.8 km (0.5 mi) north. Reach the village of Oresine in about ten minutes. At the north end of the village, find the marked trail ascending left (northwest). Follow the ancient, broad, cobbled path through oak and chestnut forest upstream beside Oresine Creek. Pass several cascades and pools.

About 45 minutes along, the path diminishes. It might be covered with leaves, but you’ll find it’s still decipherable. Paint blazes on tree trunks are helpful. Keep ascending within view of the stream or, when if it’s dry, the streambed. Follow the gorge leading northwest.

Above the stream, keep ascending the forested drainage beneath escarpments. Your goal is the ridgecrest. About two hours from Colletta, strong hikers will surmount 1140-m (3740-ft) Passo di Gerisola at 5 km (3 mi), just beneath Mont delle Gettine. Turn right (southeast) here and follow the ridgecrest trail. It stays just beneath (south of) the crest for 3.5 km (2.2 mi) to reach a 1035-m (3395-ft) summit in about 45 minutes.

Descend 0.6 km (0.4 mi) to a 945-m (3100-ft) pass (the same one attained on the shorter Mont Alpe hike described above). Either ascend southeast 0.8 km (0.5 mi) to the 1055-m (3460-ft) summit of Mont Alpe, or descend the obvious trail right.

Switchbacks ease the steep descent back to Colletta. Reach Veravo in 3 km (1.8 mi). On the paved road immediately below the village, turn right. About five minutes farther, turn left, off the road, onto the signposted trail descending to Colletta, which is visible below.

Castell ‘Ermo & Mont Nero

15 km (9.3 mi) one way with hitchhike / 1180-m / 3870-ft) gain / 5 to 7 hours

In Colletta it’s impossible, unless you’re utterly unaware, not to gaze up at Castell ‘Ermo and Mont Nero. These are the craggy peaks immediately across the valley. It’s also impossible, if you’re a hiker, to resist the urge to surmount these peaks and hike the long ridgeline linking them and continuing much of the way toward Albenga.

By Vehicle

First, here’s where to park your vehicle so it’s waiting for you at the end of the day.

Drive from Colletta toward Albenga. Immediately before (north of) the junction of Roads SP14 and 582 (where left leads to Zuccarello), turn right to enter the west side of Cisano.

Or, from the Albenga exit on highway A10, follow signs for Garessio and Castelbianco. Drive Road 582 northwest to  Cisano sui Neva. Immediately after the junction where Road 582 goes right to Zuccarello, turn left to enter the west side of Cisano.

From either approach, drive across the bridge and along Rio Pennavaire, then through Cisano. Ascend on Crocere to the Conscente church, at 96 m (315 ft). Park here, then descend 75 m/yd back to the junction of Roads SP14 and 582. Hitchhike northwest 9 km (5.6 mi) up the Pennavaire Valley, past Colletta, to the borgo, just southeast of Nasino village. (Catching a ride is easy, particularly on weekends, because Colletta is a popular starting point for climbers.) Ask your benefactor to drop you near the small bridge. There’s a blue, metal sign on the left side of the road here.

On Foot

Ascend to and through the hamlet. Quickly pass the last house and its garden. Continue on a good trail leading south, up the Rio del Borgo drainage. At 5 km (3 mi) reach Col d’Onzo at 840 m (2755 ft). Unfortunately, a dirt road surmounts this ridgecrest from the gentler Onzo Valle. Picnic tables will tempt you to lunch here, but you’ll get a better view about 20 minutes farther, where you can dine on the lawn beside a chapel.

From the picnic tables, proceed up the unpaved road for five minutes, then veer left onto trail. It gently ascends to the chapel, which is just below Castell’Ermo. A spur detours to the pinnacled, 1094-m (3588-ft) summit.

Begin the ridgewalk by descending 100 m (328 ft), then ascend about 200 m (656 ft) to the summit of Mont Nero at 981 m (3218 ft). From here on, you’ll occasionally see the option of a descending shortcut trail that will save you from having to plod the tediously switchbacking road that follows most of the crest.

Hike southeast over 923-m (3027-ft) Mont Pendjno, 858-m (2814-ft) Montenero, then 646-m (2119-ft) Croce di Arnasco. At 7 km (4.3 mi), the trail intersects the road. Follow the road to a fortification with a brick moat, at 546 m (1790 ft). Skirt it on the right, then look left for the narrow trail descending sharply to the Conscente church, where your car is parked. This descent is the most challenging section of an otherwise moderate hike.

Monte More

24-km (15-mi) round trip / 774-m (2540-ft) gain / 6 to 7.5 hours

Northwest of Imperia is the village of Taggia. Slightly north and east of Taggia is a high, bare, stony ridge running north-northeast for about 30 km (19 mi). What we describe here is short section of that ridge. It’s hikeable year-round. Between 1149-m (3770-ft) Mont Faudo (south), and 1181-m (3874-ft) Mont Moro (north), you’ll see the awesome work of the Contadini who hundreds of years ago built stone walls to create agricultural terraces. You’ll also see well-preserved caselle—ancient pastoral dwellings built of slate. The caselle are reason enough to hike here. They’re marvelous. One has an intact, conical roof utterly devoid of supporting beams.

By Vehicle

Exit the autostrade at Imperia Ovest (West), signed for Dolcedo. Drive about 7 km (4.3 mi) northwest to Dolcedo. Continue north to Prela, then follow the road left. It zigzags up to Valloria, at 407 m (1335 ft). It’s known for the 70 paintings by various artists on doors throughout the village. They’re amateurish, wildly overrated, but viewing them is an amusing way to begin a hike.

On Foot

Walk to the top of Valloria and the San Giuseppe chapel. Pick up the trail heading south, through mixed woodland punctuated by enormous chestnut trees. At 1.5 km (1 mile), atop the ridge, go right (west) ascending to a signed junction at 6 km (3.7 mi). Go right, toward Colla d’Oggia, on a narrow path through grass. The ascent soon steepens. After ten minutes’ labour, intersect the main path at 1000 m (3280 ft), on the ridge between Mont Faudo (south) and Mont Moro (north). In another ten minutes, under the knoll of 1129-m (3705-ft) Mt. Arbozzaro, you’ll see the slate dwellings. By now you’ve also attained views over the west side of the ridge into a deep valley and out to the Alpes Maritime on the Italian-French border. For a shorter hike of 14 km (8.7 mi), turnaround here.

2 km (1.3 mi) farther north along the ridge, reach Passo di Villa Talla at 9 km (5.6 mi), 1096 m (3595 ft). Ascend a bit more to summit 1181-m (3874-ft) Mont Moro at 12 km (7.4 mi).

Return the way you came. Ignore a small sign for Valloria, marking an ancient, stone path that descends a subsidiary ridge east. It does not lead to Valloria. We took it and ended up dropping to Novelli, at 521 m (1710 ft), just above Tavole, which required us to walk the paved road 3.5 km (2.2 mi) back to Valloria. Much better to retrace your steps on the trail you originally ascended.

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Hiking in “Crowded Europe”

Hiking in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast this winter (see previous posts) has reminded us that North Americans cling to a uniquely narrow definition of hiking.

In the U.S. and Canada, hikers expect to depart civilization at the trailhead and remain severed from it for the duration of their hike. Anything less than pristine wilderness, they believe, sullies the experience. In Europe, civilization is often integral to hiking. European hikers don’t expect to always leave civilization behind; they know they’ll encounter it at least occasionally. This doesn’t disappoint them; they appreciate it.

The majority of European hiking trails are historic. Outside the high Alps, many trails are on terraces held in place by ancient stone walls. Others are cobbled for long distances. European trails frequently pass, or grant views of, villages, castles, and myriad structures that are either still used or are now in ruins. Sometimes European trails briefly merge with roads, even paved roads. At higher elevations, most trails link huts or refuges, where hikers who’ve reserved ahead will have everything they need waiting for them: a hearty meal, a comfortable bed, and perhaps a hot shower.

So is hiking inferior in Europe? In our opinion, no. We love hiking here. The European definition of “hiking,” which embraces rather than spurns civilization, allows far more opportunities to hike. It can even make hiking more intriguing and rewarding. Spiderwebbing networks of trails in Europe allow you to tailor each trip to your circumstances, sometimes on the fly. Loops, in which you never retrace a step, are frequently possible. Here, trailheads disperse rather than funnel hikers.

North America and Europe are as different—geographically, historically, culturally—as they are distant. North America, with its vast tracts of wilderness, allows hikers the luxury of insisting that civilization and hiking be mutually exclusive. And many European hikers travel to North America to immerse themselves in “pure nature.” But relatively few hikers from North America reciprocate. They wince at the thought of hiking in “crowded Europe.” We believe their assumptions of Europe are inaccurate, and their view of hiking is blinkered.

We’ve devoted our lives to hiking. The wilds of North America are our natural habitat. Our home in the Canadian Rockies backs onto a mountainside frequented by grizzly bears, cougars, and elk. Yet the months we’ve hiked in Europe—ascending mule tracks through olive groves and medieval hamlets to mountaintops crowned with shrines, frequently greeting our fellow hikers en route—and the months we’ve backpacked in North America—through remote mountains and obscure canyons where we were utterly alone—have been equally joyful.

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Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.