At the mere mention of Italy, travellers’ heads are filled with images of famed masterpieces, majestic churches and revered historical sights, not to mention food and wine – the glorious food and wine! – of this fabled destination. Most people pinpoint the well-known triad of Rome, Florence and Venice, and feel they’ve seen the country once these must-sees are crossed off their bucket lists. The truth, however, is that one can’t truly appreciate Italy as viewed solely via some frenetic whirlwind tour. Italy demands the time it takes to slow down, engage your senses and fully indulge in la dolce vita.
On my most recent trip to Italy, I decided to join a kayak expedition in order to see the country from a different perspective, one paddle stroke at a time. My eleven-day adventure with award-winning Tofino Expeditions focused on Cinque Terre and Sardinia, two of the most beautiful areas in the country that also happen to be world class paddling destinations. The trip began and ended in Genova, the capital city of the Liguria region, in the northwest. Known as the City of the Sea, due to it being a strategic port on the Mediterranean, Genoa is also rich in art and history, with a past that dates back 1,000 years. For this reason, some have deemed it the City of Culture or the City of Art.
The town’s exceptional cultural heritage is displayed in its many museums, opulent palaces and Romanesque and Baroque churches within Porto Antico, the largest medieval historic center in all of Europe. Narrow streets and ancient alleyways called caruggi create a labyrinth for visitors to navigate. Wandering through this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll stumble upon one historically highlighted building after another, while down on the restored waterfront is the site of one of the largest aquariums in Europe, as well as a maritime museum that chronicles Genoa’s history as a sea power.
Our group was fortunate to get an insider’s tour of the city with a true local, who also just happened to be the fearless leader of our kayak expedition. Though Enrico provided much information and background about his hometown, he never bored us with too many details, allowing us to take in the sights and smells of Genoa on our own, up close and personal. This included visits to off-the-beaten-path medieval cloisters, stone churches and hidden courtyards adorned with sculptures and mosaics. And of course, we also stopped along the way for the essential cup of espresso and scoop of gelato at some of Enrico’s favorite haunts.
Paddling began in earnest on the second day, once we arrived at Cinque Terre National Park. Located along the Riviera coastline, nestled between Genoa and Pisa, Cinque Terre is made up of the five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Suspended between sea and land on sheer cliffs, these towns are known for their perfect mix of old world charm and breathtaking views. The landscape consists of rocky coastline, dry-laid stone walls, terraced vineyards, winding paths and enchanting beaches. Lemon trees with lemons the size of enlarged baseballs compete with splashy magenta bougainvillea to provide a brilliant contrast of hues and scents. And the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks further enliven the senses.
Corniglia has the highest elevation at 330 feet above sea level and is reached by a series of steep stone steps that seem to go on forever. These were especially daunting after kayaking all day, and required a healthy sample of gelato for effort. Its colorful houses mark Manarola, one of the oldest villages, making it feel like you’ve just walked into an impressionist painting. Vernazza is a pedestrian-only town, which boasts the 14th century Ligerian Gothic style Santa Margherita d’Antichia Church, while Monterosso al Mare is a bustling beach community with numerous restaurants, cafes and hotels. And Riomaggiore is famous for its wine, as well as for being an ideal place to catch a stunning sunset while dining on some of the best seafood in Italy.
Though Cinque Terre is known as a hiker’s paradise, where travelers can walk on clearly marked paths that span the various villages, it’s also nirvana for kayakers. Paddling from one town to the next provides a unique perspective of the dramatic scenery on this rugged portion of the coast. From the water, the villages look precariously perched upon the impressive cliffs. Over the centuries, people carefully built terraces on the steep landscape right up to these cliffs. It’s hard to imagine a more inhospitable place to settle, especially if you’re a farmer arriving by sea to this new land.
The distances between villages are not extreme, making them relatively easy to navigate by kayak. Although we occasionally shared the water with ferries and a few motorboats, we rarely saw other kayaks ply these waters. Whenever we arrived at one of the towns, everyone on the shore would watch us with great interest, even taking pictures of us in paparazzi style. We seemed an oddity, viewed with enormous fascination. This surprised me, as Italy is a Mediterranean country with plenty of gorgeous sea to make any kayaking endeavor a dream. The fact is that most visitors don’t equate the sport with the destination, although awareness has increased gradually in recent years.
The second half of our trip took place around the island of Sardinia, which we reached following a brief stopover in Pisa and an overnight ferry ride from Livorno. This is one of the many islands in the Archipelago of La Maddalena, which is about two kilometers from the northeastern shore of Sardinia. Each day, we explored the sparsely inhabited La Maddalena Archipelago National Park, with its crystal clear water, surreal rock formations and picture perfect coves. The rocks often took on recognizable shapes such as animals or humans, and even Disney characters. Some, like Octopus Rock, had been previously identified and named accordingly. Wild and relatively untouched, this area is regarded by those in the know as one of the Mediterranean’s best kayaking playgrounds. We visited isolated islands, swam and snorkeled in the warm turquoise sea and picnicked at unspoiled beaches reached only via the water. Enrique would lay out the booty for the day’s lunch and we would devour the fresh vegetables and fruit, meats and cheeses and crusty bread with relish. Then we blissfully relaxed, our hunger sated, in the idyllic environment of sun drenched beaches and dazzling sea.
One of the days, we went inland on Sardinia for a look at the island’s verdant and hilly countryside. It also served as an opportunity to gain insight into the vibrant culture of the region. Historical sites dot the landscape, depicting the various invasions over the centuries. The mesh of different influences can still be seen today in the island’s archaeology and architecture. Roman remains exist, along with the conical towers of the Nuraghi, which date back to the Bronze Age and are considered a symbol of Sardinia. More than 7,000 of these ancient structures have been found over the years, though archaeologists believe there are nearly 10,000 in existence.
Food was an integral part of the trip, and Enrique and his convivial assistant Daniele, took their mission seriously when it came to introducing us to the numerous regional specialties from fried anchovies and octopus salad to chickpea focaccia, Sardinian cracker bread and seabream ravioli with clams. Each meal was a farm-and-sea-to-table gastronomic feast for the senses, accompanied by local wines, and ending with a shot of limoncello or mirto, a special liqueur made from berries. As for the gelato, I aimed at trying a new flavor each day –for research purposes, of course! All were deliciously creamy and flavorful, but the winner was a heavenly concoction of ricotta and figs. Everyone in the group ate with gusto; after all, we were expending much energy kayaking each day! And when we saw the satisfied smiles on the faces of the chefs upon noting our buon forchetta, or good appetite, we felt we had done our part in showing our appreciation for their sumptuous cuisine.
Traveling through Italy on the seat of a kayak allowed me the opportunity to experience the beauty of this country at a pace that kept me fully engaged in the moment. It was a unique way to rediscover this enchanting destination, while providing the chance to participate in a challenging, yet highly rewarding activity.
About the Author Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.
About the Author
Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.