We had been in the comune of Porto Venere for little more than half an hour – just enough time for a €2 cappuccino and a look at Byron’s Grotto - when a little lady standing no taller than about five feet tall yelled out to us.
‘Are you going up there?’ she said, waving uphill in the direction of the gothic-style Church of St Peter.
‘Yep,’ we replied. The stone steps were wide and uneven, and after morning rain, a little slippery too.
‘Could you do me a big favour and help me get up?’
Maria Rosa, 85, was born in Portovenere.
UNESCO world heritage listed in 1997, it is made up of three villages: Le Grazie, Fezzano, and Portovenere itself. It was at this time too that its more famous but equally Ligurian neighbour, the five villages of the Cinque Terre, was recognised by UNESCO and the southernmost of those towns, Riomaggiore was our goal, on foot.
Portovenere is accessible by bus from La Spezia (either purchase your €2.50 ticket at the bus station, just outside the train station or at a nearby tabaccheria: marked by a black sign with a big capital T in the middle in white). Tobacco and salt were historically government-controlled resources and stores needed licenses to sell them, which is why the standardised signs read ‘sali e tabacchi’. You’ll need to take either the bus marked ‘P’ or the number 11, depending on the time of year, but we found enough friendly locals to guide us in the direction both of the bus stop and the tabaccheria itself.
Meaning Venus' Port, and said to date back to the middle of the first century BC when it was a fishing community, the comune became a base for the Byzantine Fleet after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was later destroyed by the Lombards, around 643. Today, tourists spend lazy days feasting on seafood and basking in the laidback pace of this little piece of Ligurian coastline.
Portovenere makes up part of the Gulf of La Spezia, nicknamed the Gulf of Poets for the presence of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in the 1800s. Byron reportedly used to swim across the often tempestuous waters to see his mate and fellow poet who lived in San Terenzo in nearby Lerici. Shelley died off the coast nearby in 1822 when his boat overturned, just months before his 30th birthday.
Maria Rosa though wasn’t interested in the history: instead she was heading to the underbelly of the church, with a canvas shopping bag full of seashells at the ready. Both of her knees had been replaced, and they’d messed them up three times on one side and twice on the other. She walked gingerly, more on the left than on the right leg, and as my travelling companion held her arm she recounted stories of her family – like an aunty who had given birth to three children in the family home. Most days she headed to the church to work on a project, she said.
‘I can make it from here, but let me give you something. You’ve gone to so much trouble,’ she says, producing a turtle fashioned from shells from the canvas bag. Maria Rosa bids us farewell and we follow a procession of hikers well into their 50s and 60s up a calf-cramping set of stairs, past the Doria Castle into the Porto Venere National Park, where the 13.4km walk to the Cinque Terre begins.
The first third of the trail is tough going and made up partly of exposed rock with no clear path, just rocks to make your way on. It’s easy enough to navigate, as long as you take your time, watch your step, and don’t expect to keep up with the European contingent who are more accustomed to this than Aussies are. The efforts are rewarding, with truly breathtaking views, comparable to those on the Sentiero Azzurro that passes through the Cinque Terre.
Without the mishmash of colourful buildings piled on the sides of the rockface through these views become uninterrupted, with more than 180 degrees visible from on high, and an infinite horizon that melds seamlessly into the sky. If you’re familiar with the Sentiero Azzurro, this is a comparable walk, and although it was only early May, it was busy on the trail. We went no more than two or three minutes without hearing the voices of other hikers or tick-tacking with the big group that started in front of us.
We stopped for lunch on the northern border of Campiglia, having refilled our water bottles while passing through town. Most people seemed to have packed picnic lunches like we did, but there are a couple of little restaurants both in Campiglia itself and Telegrafo, 30-40 minutes walk further on, that were welcoming guests for lunch. The recommended allowable time for the walk is about six hours. It took us just under that time, with half an hour for lunch, a coffee at a little joint in the woods near Telegrafo, and meandering along taking pictures.
The other options is to wait and refuel in Riomaggiore, but there it was already both busy, and pricey, which you’d expect in such a popular place. The wander through to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre, is nothing short of spectacular. You quite literally feel like you're on top of the world.
Wildflowers of all colours and persuasions are already abundant, especially between Telegrafo and Riomaggiore. The downhill portion (which is uphill, if you tackle the trail north to south) is steep too, but made of steps rather than rocks, and once you reach Riomaggiore you'll find the bustle of the Cinque Terre is real, even outside peak season.
The big advantages of this walk are twofold: the diversity of covered woodlands, sweeping sea views and wildflowers and careful tended plants and herbs, as well as all the advantages of the Cinque Terre with a fraction of the foot traffic, right until the approach to Riomaggiore. A stunning day out and suitable for anyone with the patience to take it easy over the rocky sections and up and down the stairs, this is a perfect place to get to know Tuscany’s lesser-known neighbour Liguria a little better.