The Great Outdoors

This time around in Italy we were determined to spend more time outdoors than in museums. And how could we not? The landscape is just absolutely stunning, and there’s so much variety within two or three hours’ travel of Milan. And really, if you go to Italy and you don’t spend time in the fields and the mountains and the seaside than you really haven’t been to Italy. There’s something about the way the centuries-old villages and farmhouses and villas are such an integral part of the landscape that makes it even more picturesque and beautiful.

In addition, it’s a super economical way to spend the day, especially if you pack a picnic. Most of the places we went were easily accessible by public transportation, but if we had wanted to do any serious hiking in the mountains or stay at an agriturismo we probably would have needed to rent a car. There’s always next time!

Varenna

We didn’t even mean to go on a hike, it just sort of happened. Behind the hotel we were staying at (Hotel Montecadeno), there’s a small road (Via Vezio) that rises steeply up to Castello di Vezio and a tiny village at the top of the hill. The castle was closed by the time we arrived, but the town is worth a short exploration.

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We found a hiking path (Sentiero del Viadante) that passed through some farmland and across the spine of the hill. The signs aren’t exactly straightforward but it’s a relatively easy hike, in fact I was wearing my fancy (flat) sandals and it wasn’t too much of a problem.

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We saw some stunning views of Lake Como from up high, and it was early evening so the sun was just behind the mountains and the light was totally amazing. And best of all in that hour we didn’t encounter a single other person.

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The bottom of the trail ended up on the opposite side of Varenna so it was an easy loop back through the town to our hotel.

 

Trebbia

Francesco, Chiara and Giovanni took us to a gorgeous spot on the Trebbia river and we spent the day sunbathing and swimming.

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The river is at the bottom of a wooded steep valley filled with rocks that makes for some dramatic scenery. The water was such a clear blue turquoise color that you could see all the way to the bottom. The water was freezing when we jumped in but felt so good after being in the sun for so long.
 

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There really wasn’t anyone else around for the whole day, and it was just a magical place – getting there definitely involves driving on some carsick-inducing curves. I wish we had spent more time in that area, we saw some trails that started around Bobbio that seemed worth a look.

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Cinque Terre

We planned on hiking the path between the five towns of Cinque Terre, but it was closed due to the danger of falling rocks! So we revised our plan a bit, started out in Riomaggiore and had a picnic overlooking the village from up high.

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We then walked on the Via dell’Amore to Manorola as it was the only part of the trail that was still open.
 

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We finished the rest of the picnic on a bench overlooking Manorola and eavesdropped on some old ladies talking about food.

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 We took the train to Corniglia in the evening, which proved to be ideal – we caught the best sunset I think I’ve ever seen in my life.

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As Corniglia is up high, you have a very wide view of the ocean and you can see Manarola in the distance. Just be prepared for the 368 steps from the bottom of the hill near the train station to the village at the top of the cliff.

We had dinner the next night in Vernazza, but it was rather disappointing. I think in general it was the most disappointing for me because my most vivid memories of Cinque Terre from the first time I visited more than ten years ago were of Vernazza. I remember it being a bit on the shabby side, kind of deserted (I visited in the fall) and quiet with some older people who were hanging out in the piazza. This time it just seemed overrun with tourists, the piazza was filled with tables with Americans stuffing their faces and everything was loud and brash and maybe a bit overdone.

That being said I think that Cinque Terre still retains some of its charms, we certainly enjoyed our time taking photos and sketching the afternoon away in Manarola. I guess I just shouldn’t have expected a quiet village on the seaside when it’s the height of tourist season.

Camogli

Camogli was definitely more low key than Cinque Terre and much more geared towards Italians. In fact I recommend staying at a town anywhere on the Ligurian coast that isn’t Cinque Terre if you want to get a feel for where Italians like to vacation on their own turf. Each town has its own character – Finale Ligure has a laid-back beach town feel, Santa Margherita delle Ligure is a more happening, social place and Levanto is the young-dudes-in-their-twenties-learning-to-surf kind of spot.

Camogli definitely has a local vibe, lots of 19th century buildings near the train station and older farmhouses up the slope. We didn’t explore the town itself as much since our main goal was to hike from Camogli to Portofino. Both towns sit on a pennisula, so the hike involves following the coastline of the pennisula (or over the top of the mountains) from Camogli, which is in the northeast corner, to Portofino, which is in the southwest.

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We heard conflicting reports about the length and diffculty of the hike, and we thought it would be around four hours and a moderate hike. Picking up the trail at the beginning is a bit of a pain as there’s a bunch of construction and it was totally confusing, but the first bit is pretty easy in that it’s mostly paved. It is sort of straight up the hill, but at the top you’re rewarded with a tiny village that overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea past Genova all the way to the Alps. And yes there is even a restaurant on the trail where you could probably enjoy some prosecco while watching the sun set.

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We continued on the trail and we passed some signs that said “DANGER FOR EXPERT HIKERS ONLY” (or what I gathered from my rather lame knowledge of Italian) with some more details about being prepared with lots of water and not going in the middle of the day. We pshawed the sign thinking, dude, we’ve climbed a volcano and the Great Wall, how hard could this be? The trail we were just on was just a piece of cake! But then quickly realized that they weren’t joking – there were literally parts of the trail that consisted of a vertical rock face, a chain attached to the rock face that you had to cling to and a 300 foot drop straight into the sea.
 

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Needless to say I tried to ignore the fact that I am afraid of heights and just plunged on ahead – we were too far into the trail to go back and that just seemed more painful.

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We didn’t even make it to Portofino, the hike just to San Fruttoso was so difficult that we basically ran out of gas by that point. We got on the boat instead – and then while we were sitting on a bench in Portofino a guy who had passed us on the trail earlier walked down into town past us and we felt totally lame. I’m really glad that we did the hike because the view was unforgettable, but if I did it again I would be much better prepared with a better trail map, a good pair of hiking shoes, two extra liters of water and a ton more food. Note to self: take signs seriously, even if it’s in Italian. I still recommend exploring the pennisula if you have any sense of adventure because the views are amazing and the landscape just feels so unique.

We were really glad that we got off the beaten path (so to speak) this time around in Italy. And remember: always pack a bottle of wine because you never know when you’ll need to break out the picnic!

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The Great Wall

I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves – the Great Wall was one of the highlights of our visit to Beijing. We highly recommend doing a hike with Beijing Hikers, my sister's friend Zach often leads the hikes and he's a great guide. You can experience the Great Wall away from the tourist hordes, meet other people, and see for yourself why it's called the Great Wall!

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