Sunday, October 25, 2015

Visiting Cinque Terre on the Coast of Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy 
Four years ago I took a hiking tour of Cinque Terre and Tuscany in Italy with Backroads. Hiking tours range from extremely strenuous to modest. Backroads had options for a variety of walkers. My husband and I had gotten into shape but mostly we were the laggards. Where I took the van the last mile, others in the group found an extra loop to walk. An important lesson I learned from that tour was that being in good enough shape to hike the distance is not sufficient: I needed to be better than that, fit enough to enjoy the walking. 

Despite the discomfort of being behind almost everyone, I had a terrific experience.

I had not been to Italy, so the landscapes with olive trees or Lombardy poplars were enchanting. Wow! it looks like pictures I've seen!

view from hotel in La Spezia
The tour guides met us in La Spezia, and we hiked over a hill to Porto Venere. Oh Look! There's the Mediterranean spread out below us. 

Mediterranean from west Italy

Mediterranean from northwestern Italy

That area has quarried marble for millennia. Here is a scabious in flower among the rocks. 


To hike the Cinque Terre (Five Villages), we began in Riomaggiore and walked northeast. (Map). The books all say there are no roads to Cinque Terre, and that is true, BUT the railroad goes there. So as hikers we could walk some, ride the train some, walk some more. The tour took us through there in a day. I thought it spectacularly beautiful and resolved to come back some day and stay in one or more of the Cinque Terre rather than just pass through. 


The entrance tunnel at Riomaggiore was lined with colorful murals.

walking to Cinque Terre, Italy

We walked paths high above the Mediterranean on a beautiful sunny day in October. 

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy

In the last four years I've gone from a retired professor of plant ecology to a wandering botanist trying to absorb everything about plants everywhere I go. On the Cinque Terre trip, I did not take anywhere near as many plant pictures as, in retrospect, I wish I had.--Another reason to go back!

But here you see that along the trail were cacti. This prickly pear (Opuntia) is native to the Americas. When Europeans first saw cacti, they were enchanted and took them home. Cacti survived the ocean voyage well, thrived in Europe and in dry areas like coastal Italy, escaped to become weeds. This one has been written on by hikers. The hillsides are covered wtih graffiti. I'm appalled by writing on living things...but I also wish the plants along the trail were European, not weeds from America.

prickly pear cactus in Italy
prickly pear, Opuntia
And that was a small prickly pear, look at this one:

prickly pear cactus, Cinque Terre, Italy

A second conspicuous weed along the Cinque Terra trail is agave (Agave sp.). This too is an American plant that has escaped and become a weed.
agave, Cinque Terre, Italy
agave, from the Americas
Also on the ground were weeds I knew, such as the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and purslane (Portulaca oleracea) shown here. Those are plants native to Europe that wouldn't be familiar to me except that they have colonized North America. Both are traditional food plants in Europe, the leaves and roots of dandelion are eaten, the leaves of purslane.

dandelion and purslane in Italy
dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
and purslane (Portulaca oleracea) in Italy
The trail took us through olive groves. The trees were small and stunted, but ripe olives lay along the path. That was really neat: olives in Italy. Of course! There were also lots of trailside plants I did not recognize. 
old olive trees, Italy

Oh, the scenic vistas from the Cinque Terre trail!

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy

olive tree

The food was equally memorable. It was fall and the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants were ripe and absolutely delicious. The basil and rosemary, used as spices, were fresh and fragrant. Tomatoes and peppers came from the Americas, eggplants came from Asia, both reaching Italy in the late Middle Ages. Modern cuisines frequently combine foods with diverse origins, often so thoroughly that the nobody remembers when the plant wasn't there. Basil and rosemary are two of the many food plants that Italy and lands around the Mediterranean have given to the world.

fall food, Italy

A spectacular place!

Italian coast

Note: about a week after I was there, there was a tremendous storm, with serious landslides. I'm sure you can see the scars of that, but it will not prevent a grand experience.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

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