VERNAZZA, Italy – Catchy harmonica music wafts across the cafe umbrellas that line the minuscule harbor of this conch-shaped village, squeezed between vine-covered hills and the Mediterranean Sea.
Tourists sip aperitifs and enjoy the sunny cliches of the Cinque Terre, one of the most scenic (and overrun) stretches of the Italian coast. But today, sweat-drenched and a bit wobbly, I feel smugly that I am in on a secret: I have earned this gorgeous view because I hiked here, up and down a cliff-hugging sliver of a path that will take me several more strenuous miles by day's end.
There, the only tunes are cicadas above and pounding waves below. Bursts of purple bougainvillea and glimmers of silvery olive trees provide the splashes of color. And rather than sipping cocktails in a cafe, hungry hikers get to feast guilt-free on sublime seafood specialties at locals-only restaurants not far from the trails.
From a full-day hike linking five medieval villages to a leisurely stroll (called passeggiata by the locals) through one of Italy's largest botanical gardens, walking is the best way to experience this region of pine-splattered mountains plunging into the cobalt sea. Here are my four favorite walks in Liguria, going west to east along this arc-shaped slice of Italy, from the border with France to Tuscany's coast, along with recommendations for restaurants.
GIARDINI HANBURY (GARDEN): In the late 19th century, Northern Europeans flocked to get health treatments at seaside resorts on the westernmost stretch of Liguria. One visitor, Thomas Hanbury, an Englishman who made a fortune in silk and tea trade from China, devoted a 44.5-acre promontory to a collection of exotic plants, now managed by the University of Genoa.
The botanical garden on a terraced hillside is now home to 6,000 plant species and also offers wide views of the sea and horizon. A series of trails cascade from Hanbury's stately villa down to the sea, passing by a papyrus-fringed fountain, through a cypress-lined path and in between a wild assembly of plants ranging from azaleas to eucalyptus, from aloe to olive trees.
It might be the most genteel speck of Italian Riviera, nature exquisitely tamed and framed as a series of perfect backdrops. Another kind of nature — seafood, in the form of the prawn-and-squid fritto misto — is exquisitely framed at Ristorante Lilliput, on a hillside farther east along the coast, above the medieval hamlet of Noli.
LUNGOMARE EUROPA (PATH): Pink-veined white boulders alternate with ink-black rocks in coves along the recently completed Lungomare Europa. The wide, 4.5-mile path was paved over an old railroad line between the small towns of Varazze and Cogoleto.
Wedged between hills studded with silver wattle trees and vacation homes, and a series of tiny pebbly beaches, the walk is the favorite offseason passeggiata for local families.
In summer, the blindingly white and black rocks form curtains between tiny coves that grant refuge from the teeming, deck chair-covered beaches at each end of the lungomare, which is accessible only by foot or bike.
At dusk, the salt air mingles with the smell of blooming pittosporum and wild fennel, not suntan lotion. While night falls, I like to be the last person on the still-warm pebbles as the sea playfully pulls and pushes them and the first boats venture out to fish for anchovies they attract with powerful spotlights.
Then I am on my way to eat at U Baracun near the hamlet of Alpicella, just inland from Varazze, which serves the best pansotti (herb-filled pasta in nut sauce) and cinghiale (wild boar roast) in Italy. Not that I would ever forgive myself if I passed on the dozen fresh antipasti, ranging from artichoke frittata to porcini crepes and homemade olive paste.
PUNTA CHIAPPA (TRAILHEAD AND SWIMMING SPOT): Punta Chiappa, the rocky point where the forest-covered Monte di Portofino meets the sea, is one of the best swimming spots on the Italian Riviera.
It's also a pool-size harbor if you want to cheat and come by boat; a long sliver of gray rocks jutting into deep water; and the end of a breathtaking 45-minute downhill trail.
With ample provisions of focaccia and water, I started from the church of San Rocco, high above the fishing town of Camogli and the departure point of many trails on the mountain, taking in the view encompassing the sprawling city of Genoa and the curving Riviera di Ponente, with the Maritime Alps at the horizon.
Making my way down toward the point, I passed fig orchards, terraces crawling with jasmine vines and bushes hiding hedgehogs. The goal was to stake a speck of rock with my beach towel and plunge with a refreshing splash in the sea.
The other goal was a meal on the open terrace of Da Drin restaurant, just above the mini-harbor. I first had its spaghetti al cartoccio, bursting with crayfish, mussels and calamari, a few years ago, and nearly didn't make it back up the trail. But last summer after stuffing myself, I was nimble enough to avoid the baby boars scurrying across the path in the dark.
SENTIERO AZZURRO (TRAIL): This 9-mile "azure trail" links the five villages of Cinque Terre and provides a way to experience them as something other than a series of postcard views with a "for rent" sign in English in virtually every window.
The hardest and most rewarding stretch is from Monterosso to Vernazza and on to Corniglia. Climbing nearly 1,500 vertiginous feet up the dark-green hills, the unpaved, rocks-strewn trail meanders among olive trees, fragrant shrubs, and gnarled pines.
On a July weekend, I met only two kinds of fellow hikers: awestruck tourists who were more likely to say "hi" than "ciao," and taciturn Liguri tending the fantastically terraced vineyards that cling to the cliffs.
After passing through the main piazza of Vernazza, huddled between the church and a black castle tower, the trail takes off again on the cliffside unto Corniglia, perched high on a hilltop. Then it gets back to sea level and, at Manarola, becomes a wide, paved passeggiata known as the "Via dell'Amore" (the way of love) that ends in Riomaggiore, where the train takes you back to Monterosso.
Last stop, La Brinca restaurant, which serves up the vegetable-and-meat cuisine of inland Liguria, like springy lettuce wraps in hot bouillon. Only an arduous day on the trail can justify its gargantuan antipasto-to-dolce meal.
Beyond jaw-dropping views (and dishes), walking the trails of Liguria is to get right inside the poems of native son and Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale. One of his most celebrated verses, "Meriggiare pallido e assorto," turns a stroll under the blinding sun on a pallid afternoon into a melancholy existential metaphor.
But there are sadder ways to live than, as Montale puts it, walking alongside a "scorching orchard wall" as "scales of sea pulsate far away among branches" on the Riviera's trails.
If You Go...
GETTING THERE: Fly into Genoa, in the middle of the Riviera, then travel by train: www.ferroviedellostato.it
WALKS: All walks are enjoyable year-round, best in late spring and early fall. Anyone in any shape can do the Giardini Hanbury, the Lungomare Europa and the Manarola-to-Riomaggiore part of the Cinque Terre hike; the rest are best for the moderately fit. The Hanbury gardens — www.giardinihanbury.com — and the Sentiero Azzurro — www.parconazionale5terre.it — charge a small admission fee.