Rupert Parker walks the Ligurian medieval Salt Road, from Pavia to Genoa and discovers that Albert Einstein also came this way in 1895, sleeping outside and studying the stars
For hundreds of years, from the Middle Ages onwards, sea salt would be carried from the coast, up from the Gulf of Genoa, crossing the Ligurian Apennines, to reach the Po valley in North West Italy. In Pavia, at journey’s end, a kilo of salt reportedly sold for the equivalent of £19,000 so the route was busy with mule trains. Hannibal and his elephants came this way in 218 BC as he battled the Roman Empire, but these days there are few people on the “Via del Sale”. It’s now a hiking route, from the heights down to the coast, with more downs than ups.
I fly into Genoa and then take the train an hour or so North to Voghera. At Villa Isabella, the guesthouse where I stay the first night, they tell me that I’m the first of the season but not to worry as they’ll come and find me if I get lost. Ahead of me, I’ve got six days to trek 80 miles, before reaching the sea at the small Ligurian fishing village of Camogli. As well as breakfast and dinner, packed lunches are provided and luggage is transported between hotels. Each day comes with detailed route notes and maps, so I’m fairly confident I’ll find my way.
The route begins in the rolling fields of Oltrepò Pavese, the largest wine-growing area in Lombardy, and nicknamed “Little Tuscany” as the landscape shares the same features. Every available slope is filled with rows of vines and the hilltops are crowned with villages, often with matching ruined castles. The first two days are relatively easy, mainly on deserted country roads, through tiny terracotta hamlets before reaching Varzi. This is the first town of any size and was once an important stop on the Salt Road.
It’s still a regional centre and there’s time to visit the bustling Sunday market before I leave. Varzi is famous for its sausages so I stock up for the days ahead. This is going to be the toughest section of my hike and unfortunately the storm clouds are gathering. As I climb steeply into the Apennines, it begins to rain, then sleet and finally snow. I’m now in cloud and visibility is zero but fortunately the path is well marked. It’s so cold that I worry I’ll get frostbite in my fingers, remarkable for Italy in early June
The Albergo Capanne di Cosola is the highest hotel on the route but each room has its own gas fire, perfect for drying wet clothes. Even better, their meals are perfect for the hungry hiker, with starters of salami and ham, then three plates of different pasta, before a main course of roast meat. In fact all the innkeepers on this hike provide so much food that you’ll probably end up gaining weight rather than losing it.
From here the trail touches 1700m and follows a ridge which on good days promises majestic views. I don’t get to see much but, as I descend slightly, the sun comes out and I’m suddenly confronted by a handful of wild horses, galloping towards me. They abruptly change track and settle down to graze, always keeping a safe distance. They’re not the only animals I meet – every day I surprise the occasional deer, and there are always dogs barking as I pass farmyards.
After four days the long descent to the coast begins. To the North, there are glimpses of the snow covered Alps, and ahead is the perfectly turquoise Mediterranean. This is one of the most delightful parts of the walk, shaded by chestnut woods, and lined with colourful bursts of alpine spring flowers. Frank Sinatra’s mother was born here in 1896 in the village of Lumarzo, although the family emigrated to the USA not long after.
The path winds its way downwards, terminating in a few flights of steep steps before reaching the end of the Salt Road at Camogli. Charles Dickens described the village as the “saltiest, roughest, most piratical little place” and there’s still a small fishing fleet here. Clustered round the port, the houses rise vertically five or six stories high, dominating the sea front, painted in distinctive pastel shades.
Every year, in June, they hold the Sagra del Pesce, a two day festival with processions, bonfires, fireworks and a big fry-up. Scaffolding supports a massive frying pan, four metres in diameter, holding 3000 litres of olive oil to fry around three tons of fish. Even if you can’t time your arrival with the dates of the festival, Camogli is a good place to relax for a few days. The beach is stony but the sea is the perfect place to soak aching feet, using the medicinal properties of that expensive salt to guarantee a full recovery.
On Foot Holidays offers an eight night self-guided trip with accommodation, luggage transfers and most meals, from £895pp from April to October. Flights and airport transfers are extra. Tel. 01722 322 652.
Return flights from London Gatwick to Genoa start from £95 with British Airways.
Liguria has information about the region
Italia has information about the country.