Friday, October 19, 2007

Isola Palmaria - Go for the Views

Those intrepid travellers, Gary and Lorraine, are still hard at it in Italy, hiking, eating and reporting on how to get the best out of the Ligurian coast with No Crowds.

The biggest island in Liguria, Isola Palmaria, which site just 100 meters off the tip of the rocky peninsula that ends at Porto Venere, is scarcely mentioned in the tourist guides. While Porto Venere is certainly on the tourist maps, often recommended as the ideal jumping off place from which to tour the Cinqueterre to the north, the island and its two small cousins, Tino and Tinetto, are usually glossed over. Getting there is simply a matter of approaching one of the water taxi services in the harbour and asking for a ride over. The taxis operate in typical Italian mode—they have a published schedule, but actually will take you whenever you want to go. They have a set price, but the thinking behind the pricing is elusive--€ 1.50 one way, € 4.00 round trip.

Arriving on the rocky beach which faces the port, we turned left (southeast) and worked our way along the shore to the tiny alleyway next to the island’s one business establishment, an excellent restaurant. Wandering through the small parking lot containing the island’s half dozen motorized vehicles, we stopped briefly at the map and tourist guide kiosk (the entire island is a national park). Moving on to the southerly hiking trail, it became clear why the island doesn’t rate much of a Fodor’s entry. The trails were not particularly kept up (although happily free of litter), and the island overall had a feel of a depreciating outpost from the last war, where the main purpose of the roads and trails was to gain access to machine gun nests and bunkers. Which of course, is exactly the case (little known fact: “The Guns of Navarone” was largely filmed on Tinetto).

After another 15 minutes, we were confronted with the reason why Palmaria should be featured in the guides. The entire island, it turns out, constitutes the best seats in the house from which to enjoy the drama that is the Ligurian coastline. As we rose quickly along the steep mountainous ridge toward the island’s summit, we were rewarded with a serious of glorious views, each with more perspective than the one before. The entire Bay of Poets (named originally for Lord Byron who once swam across it) was laid out in front of us. From south along the coastline to the busy harbours of La Spezia and Porto Venere, to the steep marble bluffs that lead north to the Cinqueterre, the effect was breathtaking. As we climbed, we realized over and over again that the only other way to get such a complete and lofty view would be to charter a helicopter!

Reaching the summit (or as close as we could get to it, owing to the fenced enclosure around the mountaintop weather and reconnaissance station), we had a chance to enjoy the view to Tino and Tinetto and the open Mediterranean beyond. On a previous occasion, my companion had taken the trail down to this far shore, and reported an excellent and deserted beach where the water in October was nippy, but refreshing.

We took the steepest path back down (with plenty of signposts to warn us), and were rewarded with a new set of views. We were also happy to find ropes, fences and guardrails to give us some amount of confidence. As we threaded our way along the very lip of the 200m cliffs on the ocean side, we had the occasional unsettling experience of looking directly down into a colourful local fishing boat. To the north, the huge headlands were in sharp relief, and blended in to the ancient fortification at Porto Venere, where rock and building seem to come together so well that you stop and wonder whether the fort and church of San Pietro might just have been the result of some geological upheaval millions of years ago. The town of Porto Venere that faced us, with it’s multicoloured vertical houses and active promenade along the water was clearly a more recent addition, however

As we neared the base of the mountain, we happened upon a small group of the island’s stunted mountain goats—they’re about terrier-sized. While they wouldn’t let us approach them directly, they were certainly not afraid of us, and gave us a demonstration of how they walk up an essentially sheer cliff without putting a foot wrong. Very impressive. After that, it remained only for us to make our way south along the shore to the dock, where our taxi driver was waiting to return us to the mainland. On our hike, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in early October (when hundreds are hiking the Cinqueterre trails daily), we had not seen another soul.

Isola Palmaria, La Spezia, Italy,9.84202
Photo by Gary and Lorraine

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