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Walking the ‘Salt Road’: Italy

Through 100kms of Italian Alpine meadows and small mountain inns, Richard Holmes discovered a type of holiday guaranteed to give him a reset.
Italy

It’s really not hard to have a relaxing holiday in Italy. A little villa in the rolling hills of Tuscany. A seaside apartment gazing onto the impossibly blue seas of Sardinia. Perhaps a chic hotel on the shores of Lake Como. Take your pick.

So how exactly had I found myself tramping along a muddy path through a Ligurian forest, as late-summer rain fell in sheets about my ears?

Happily it didn’t take long to find the answer, as the clouds cleared to sunshine, and dark forest opened onto a path threading through high alpine meadows filled with flowers. In the distance I could make out the summit of Monte Chiappo; at 1700-metres one of the higher peaks in the Apennine Mountains of Liguria, and the end of my day’s walk. Those hills had, after all, been worth it.

It was a journey that had started in Milan just a few days before. My plan was a simple one: hop the train an hour south; lace up my boots; walk to the coast across the Ligurian Apennines; and have a swim in the Mediterranean, 100 kilometres south at the seaside town of Camogli. Simple, right?

Easier said than done, perhaps, but luckily the hard yards in planning had already been taken care of by On Foot Holidays, a UK-based operator that specialises in self-guided walking holidays. My accommodation each night was booked, I had route maps and directions, and my luggage would be shuttled from one guesthouse to the next each day. All I had to carry was a small rucksack with lunch, water, camera and a raincoat. And if I ran into trouble, a local fixer was a phone call away.

In Liguria that fixer was the ebullient Paul Lizoli, who greeted me at the door of Villa Arabella, the charming guesthouse he runs with his wife Arabella on the outskirts of Mornico Losana, a small farming village surrounded by orchards and vineyards. Over dinner – borage and ricotta ravioli, sautéed zucchini flowers and local wine – he explained how most of my route to Camogli follows the ancient Via del Sale, the ‘Salt Road’ on which mules once carried blocks of salt from the coast to the trading towns inland.

My first day was a gentle introduction, skirting wheat fields and hamlets where I dove into the deep forests to admire the tall corridors of towering beech trees. At times the Via del Sale was like walking through a wild arboretum, as I picked out downy oaks and chestnut trees.

By late afternoon I left the forests behind and wandered down to the town of Varzi, once the wealthy centre of the region’s salt trade. My bed for the night was at Locanda le Cicale, where Greta and Enzo Coperchini greeted me with a cold beer and a plate of local salame di Varzi and salame cotto, made with pork from the family farm. After a shower and amble around town, dinner: a superb plate of fresh pasta with generous shavings of summer truffles.

I needed every calorie the next morning, as pelting rain and a stiff climb beyond Castellaro made me question my holiday choices But by the time I hit my stride, and the ridgeline to Monte Chiappo, all was right with the world. Birds sang, cowbells jangled and crisp mountain air blew away the cobwebs of a long month at my desk. Walking holidays are a workout for both body and brain, and stepping out solo for a week offers ample opportunity for clearing out mental clutter.

I was alone as I headed up and over Monte Chiappo, and my path ambled downhill to the charming mountain inn of Albergo Capanne di Cosola. The rooms were wood-panelled and cosy, gazing out across misty valleys as rain rattled the windows.

The following day followed a familiar pattern, of paths tracking the high ridgelines, and remarkable views from the peaks. From Monte Carmo I could, for the first time, just make out the distant Mediterranean.

But there was still plenty of hard walking ahead, as I tramped through villages quiet in the siesta of a Sunday afternoon.

That evening’s inn was a highlight of the walk. Built on an island in the Trebbia River, the Hotel Due Ponti has been in the same family for six generations, with the low beams and deep hearth to prove it. The restaurant dished up simple yet superb local cuisine. Trofie pasta traditionally topped with basil pesto and peppery olive oil, followed by roasted pork off the open fire.

Italy_2

From Monte Lavagnola the views of the Mediterranean were superb, and I wandered through low scrub and quiet villages to reach the bustling town of Calcinara. With Birra Moretti and more local salami to toast the sunset I could almost smell the sea air beckoning, and make an early start on my final day to Camogli.

Just five hours of walking brought me to the stone staircase leading me to the final steps to the seaside. The Genovese coastline stretched westward as I hurried down to the town, where pastel-coloured apartments rose up from a beach bristling with sun loungers and umbrellas. I was something of a strange sight in my hiking boots and crumpled hat, but my feet had earned a rest in the warm waters of the Med. The rainy trails and endless hills were long forgotten as I soaked my feet and wondered, where next?

www.onfootholidays.co.uk

by Richard Holmes

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