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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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YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY

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.

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