A Hike in Liguria: Turning Lemons into Lemonade

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The day could have been a disaster. A train strike from 9 to 5 had brought all of Liguria to a screeching halt, including us—four hikers stuck in Sestri Levante. Three days of rain had scrubbed the air to a brilliant aquamarine, and we were anxious to hike to Portofino under clear skies. But since commuters were driving to work and grabbing every parking place, I couldn’t shuttle my group to Camogli, our intended trailhead, without the possibility of circling for hours in search of a spot.

So instead, we set out on a hike that my husband had done as a schoolchild: over the promontory of Sestri Levante, towards the ruins of a lookout tower on Punto Manara, then on to Riva Trigoso, a ship-building town. (It was this field trip that introduced Claudio to Sestri Levante, a lovely Riviera town that we now use as our base on PIEDMONT & CINQUE TERRE TRAILS; we feel it’s a better alternative to the more crowded and touristy Santa Margherita.)

I love climbing out of Riviera towns. It’s like a Better Homes & Gardens tour, offering peeks into private vegetable gardens, tiny olive groves, and darling houses painted with the gold and rose hues of Liguria. Cobblestone paths are enclosed by ancient stone walls, where lizards scoot between the unmortared rocks and flowering jasmine perfumes the air.

Past the last house, we climb into woods. Tall umbrella pines mix with low scrub, and the rocks radiate heat. I sniff and tell the group to remember these smells—fragrant herbs, yellow broom, salt air. We’ll find them again that night in the Vermentino and Pigato we’ll be drinking at our wine tasting, held on the hotel terrace overlooking the tranquil Bay of Silence.

A young family catches up to us at the first overlook. Three young girls are all dressed in blue-and-white striped dresses. The youngest smiles and says, “How!” The father laughs and explains, “That’s a mix between ‘ciao’ and ‘hello.’ ”  Like many Italian men, he takes pleasure in fatherhood, drawing his eldest close for a geography lesson. “Look,” he says, pointing towards Sestri Levante, far below. “That’s a peninsula, because it’s attached by a strip of land. Without that, it would be un’isola, an island.” She nods, attentive and still her daddy’s girl, then bounds up the trail.

Up more rocks, past more pines, our pace is slowed by countless Kodak moments on the mountain ridge, where picturesque seascapes flank us on either side. “Spectacular,” I say every twenty steps—and mean it. The Mediterranean sea bewitches with its intense colors. There are rippling bands of azure, turquoise, and navy blue, and rocks are visible deep underneath the sparkling waves.

So far, the trail has been clearly marked, but as we start our descent, I notice that the red rectangular blazes have switched to blue dots. Did we miss a turnoff? I climb back to the peak to check while the group waits. I’m in luck. A nimble old Italian couple is coming my way. Retired publishers from Milan, they habitually rent a cottage in Rapallo and know these trails well. We fall in step, and they offer to lead us through the tricky tangle of shortcuts that descend past the hillside houses to Riva.

On the phone the night before, my husband had warned me about Riva. “It’s nothing special,” he cautions, but my publisher guide thinks differently: “Let me show you the old part of town, where the fishermen lived.” We dutifully follow, cutting through alleys and past clusters of retirees until reaching a seaside promenade lined with trees. A row of low houses painted with trompe l’oeil decorations gently curves around the cove. It’s truly charming and so Ligurian. “See out there?” he says, pointing to a pod of bobbing boats. “They dock in this bay and come for a swim.”

He’s ready to prolong the tour, but my group is hungry and eager to catch the bus back to Sestri. I’d been told one runs every 15 minutes. No one mentioned that the bus line pauses for two hours at lunch. Naturally, we’ve just missed the last morning bus. Stuck again, we return to the promenade and settle down in a café, dawdling over a tasty lunch of toasted panini and huge bowls of salad. Before catching the 2:15 bus to Sestri, we dash into a gelateria for our exercise reward. (“Gelateria,” one delighted hiker keeps repeating. “I love that word.”) Pignolo, or pine nut gelato, is an appropriate flavor after trekking past so many umbrella pines, their source. Subtle and sweet, it’s a Ligurian treat that nicely caps off the day. A glorious one, as it turned out.