Friday, November 11, 2016

Walking across Liguria: Via della Costa / Sentiero Liguria / Alta Via dei Monti Liguri

So I can now claim to have walked all the way across Liguria!

From Chiavari southeast to Luni, in one week, in September 2015, proceeding from there along the Via Francigena to Rome. 

And from Chiavari northwest to Ventimiglia, in just over two weeks, in October 2016, ideally as the beginning of a Long Walk to Santiago de Compostela. 

When I told people I was planning on walking across Liguria, most of them said, "Ah, the Alta Via?" The Alta Via dei Monti Liguri totals 440 km and crosses the region high up along the crests of the mountains, which means you don't pass through many towns. And so if you don't want to have to walk down the side of a mountain every night to find food and accommodations, and back up in the morning to resume your walk, you have to carry a tent, a cookstove, pots and dishes and plenty of food and water. I'd like to do it some day, but it's a different sort of trip. One to be done in the summer, and preferably not alone! Nonetheless, the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri or AVML is the best-known route among the general public. 
There are however two other routes to follow when walking across the region. 
The lowest, and shortest, is a 348 km route running along the coast, aptly named the Via della Costa, conceived as a link between, or to, the pilgrimage routes heading south to Rome and west to Santiago. That's why the route marker is a double-headed arrow. 

The double-headed yellow arrow of the Via della Costa.
Here it corresponds to the Sentiero Liguria
The double-headed arrow is a constant friend; unlike the Sentiero Liguria trail marker, its reassuring presence stays with you even in the middle of the cities you walk through. 

The Via della Costa is described in Monica d'Atti and Franco Cinti's guidebook published by Terre di Mezzo, and by Anna Rocchi and Silvio Calcagno on this website, available in English, French, Spanish and, of course, Italian! The two do not always correspond, and there are alternate routes in some sections, so that in some places you will run across double-headed yellow arrow markers in places where you don't expect to see them... but in any case you can be confident that if you follow them you will be going in the right direction! 

On the western side of Genoa you will sometimes find the yellow shell symbol of the Camino de Santiago appearing in association with the double yellow arrow of the Via della Costa. The first time I came across this symbol I found it very exciting - confirming that I really am on the road to Santiago!

Theoretically there are churches and convents that provide accommodations for pilgrims on the Via della Costa, but they are not as well-organised as on the Via Francigena, or as commonly frequented. I myself did not rely on them, but stayed with friends in places where I knew someone and in inexpensive hotels and bed and breakfast establishments elsewhere.

The third way to cross Liguria is along the Sentiero Liguria: a 600 km network of trails that presents the region of Liguria in all its variety, wandering up into the mountains and down to the sea, passing through beautiful villages and tiny hamlets, with variants for avoiding big cities and busy roads. In fact, following the Sentiero Liguria you can be sure you will never have to walk along the side of a busy highway, even if this means walking further and longer. In some spots (such as the industrial parts of Genoa and Savona) the directions suggest taking public transport and skipping the ugliest bits - this is fine for hikers, but since I am approaching the walk as a pilgrim, I walked every bit of the way! 

My approach was to combine the Sentiero Liguria and the Via della Costa, not travelling a fixed itinerary determined in advance but making decisions daily on the basis of the weather, the availability of places to stay, my fatigue and state of mind, etc. 

There are two kinds of Sentiero Liguria trail marker:
this painted red and white symbol, and the green and blue plaque shown above

Red: Sentiero Liguria
Yellow: My track
The Sentiero Liguria website, though available only in Italian at the moment, is very well-done, providing downloadable instructions for walking the trail in both directions and GPS tracks which you can download to a mobile phone, so as to be able to check whether or not you are on the route at any time along your way. Above Camogli, for example, as shown in the GPS track screenshot here, I walked higher up into the hills than I needed to, and ended up walking a different way - which was fine, but in some circumstances might not have been (late in the day, in bad weather, when particularly tired...)

Having the GPS tracks on my phone turned out to be very handy several times when I realised I hadn't seen any trail markers for a while and wasn't sure whether I had taken a wrong turn or just not noticed them. 

Another practical note: September/October is really the best time of year. In summer, it is too hot and there is little shade on some stretches of the trail, and also it is difficult to find accommodations due to the crowds of people at the beaches. In winter the days are short and many hotels in seaside towns close. But in September/October most are still open and have plenty of vacancies! And the sea is still warm enough to take a refreshing dip at the end of a long day hiking. An added bonus in September is free fruit along the way - there are plenty of blackberries and figs to pick as you go! Spring might be all right too, but - no free fruit, and the sea is still cold!

Just what you want to see after a long day hiking in the hills!
A final note: Whatever way you choose to do it, walking across Liguria is likely to be a solitary experience. I walked alone for 12 days without ever meeting another pilgrim, only day trippers, cyclists and hunters on Sundays. On the 12th day I met Aldo, and we recognised each other as pilgrims by the laundry hanging to dry on the back of our packs! We walked together for three days; on the last day we crossed paths with three pilgrims heading in the opposite direction, but after I left and Aldo continued on his way into France, he met no further pilgrims along the way, at least not for several days (I haven't heard from him since).

Particularly on the eastern side of Genoa, you may often come across blue arrows spray-painted on the pavement;
unofficial trail markers showing the way to Rome!
As the Via della Costa is not a well-known pilgrimage route, you will often find yourself explaining what you are doing to the people you come into contact with along the way. And if you want stamps for your Pilgrim's Passport, or Credential, you may have to take whatever you can get: in a few places I managed to get to a church during the parish priest's office hours and obtain a proper church stamp, but in other places I asked for stamps at the town hall, the library, a museum, my hotel, a café where I had breakfast...

I hope the authorities will accept them as evidence of my route when I do get to Santiago... whenever that may be! 

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