On ancient merchants’ footprints: Hiking the Italian Apennine Mountains

The Salt Paths are ancient merchant trails connecting the inland cities of Northern Italy to the Mediterranean Coast across the Apennine Mountains.

Val D'Aosta on map of ItalyI hosted hiking tours on the footprints of ancient salt merchants in late Summer month with local guides & co-hosts Lorenza and Gianni.

The experience was exhilarating.

 

Our group of hikers on our first day on the Salt Paths in Piedmont

 

Over 8 days we hiked on separate path stretches, not following one single specific trail, starting from the quaint village of Pontecurone in Piedmont, Italy, eventually reaching the Mediterranean Sea at Portofino, on the Italian Riviera.

We “immersed” in more than 2000 years of history as there ancient routes had been used by prehistoric populations inhabiting these regions, later by the Romans and throughout the Middle Ages by salt merchants and their mules to transport salt from the coast to Italian inland cities.

Mount Antola

Mount Antola, Piedmont

One  of the most ancient path, trailing high on the crest of Mount Antola (about 500 ft) on the Ligurian Apennines, offers hikers the opportunity to admire a majestic landscape in the Italian regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Liguria: unobstructed mountains’ views, deep valleys dotted with small hamlets, distant creeks, the Mediterranean Sea peeking among the summits at some point.

As a matter of fact, after a few days of hiking in the remote distance all members of our group could catch a glimpse of the far away Mediterranean Sea and the Ligurian Coastal villages of Rapallo, Portofino, Cinque Terre, our final destination.

Every night of our 8 day hike we stopped at lovely B&B in small villages, in the past centuries thriving posts along the Salt Paths.

Due to the huge value of salt throughout history, praised as preserving agent, essential human and animal diet component and as flavor enhancer, simple rest stations along these Apennine Mountain trails evolved into villages and later in larger towns with their own economies, such as  the ancient small town of Bobbio, which thrived in the Middle Ages.

Originally a convent during Roman times, the city of Bobbio became a central and favorite stopover for merchants and pilgrims during their journeys.

Enriched by the taxes imposed to merchants,  it provided rest and protection to caravans, also a spiritual haven to thousands of pilgrims en route to Rome. A Roman bridge (the Humpback Bridge built, according to a legend, by the devil), medieval churches, an ancient abbey (the Abbey of St. Columbanus) and a mosaic of byzantine origin stand as witnesses of thousands years of history.

But one of the highlight of our days was food!

We ate delicious picnic lunches, and at night, once arrived at our destination, delectable dinners featuring local, homemade delicious foods including: wild boar, flavorful stews and roasts, hams, cheese and salami, mushroom dishes, local jams and preserves, herb liqueurs and other delicacies.

Despite we traveled over 60 miles in total from Piedmont to the Italian Riviera, which we reached at Portofino, (around 8-10 miles per day average), the local food could not have been more different from one location to the next.

The lower valleys provided corn and wheat for our lovely polenta and homemade pasta, mixed with chestnut flour, root vegetables, sauces, meats and delectable mushrooms.

The not to far away Mediterranean sea provided plenty of seafood; in Liguria we ate pasta dressed by the local famous pesto, a sauce made of fresh basil, pine nuts and olive oil, all locally sourced ingredients.

Mount Antola

Mount Antola, one of the tallest Apennine Mountain.

At night we found shelter at “agriturismo” – the Italian version of country B&Bs – which also provided our amazing and overly abundant evening dinners.

In the morning, after healthy breakfasts of local breads, jams, cheese and cold cuts, fruit, two or three types of pie, we slowly descended from the top of mountains to more gentle trails among forests of beeches and chestnuts.

Along the way, we passed small alpine huts, distant castle ruins, towers and farms. Eventually the sea got closer, and we could feel the salty breeze in our nostrils.

Before reaching the coast we still had time to experience another village, with its own traditions and legends. At Uscio, we visited a church built 1000 years ago, spared from destruction by the locals’ struggle against the bishop’s plans to demolish it to build a bigger one.

Close-by, we were led through a 200 year old factory Trebino Roberto featuring a private museum of the company’s main manufacturing product: church tower bells. The factory still produces tower clocks for churches all over the world. Some of their tower bells are at the Vatican, others in other main Italian churches.

A few miles away, a sanctuary rises to celebrate a miracle happened 600 years ago; and nearby, the villagers swear their valley is visited by UFOs on a regular basis!

Our last section of trail took us to a beach through a splendid forest: Portofino, a small village on the Ligurian Coast. Portofino, Italy - End of the hike

Portofino is a picturesque, half-moon shaped seaside village with pastel houses lining the shore of the harbor, shops, restaurants, cafes, and luxury hotels.

The crystalline green waters reveal a myriad display of aquatic life. A castle sits atop the hill overlooking the village.

The vegetation had changed and the salty aroma blended with the perfume of maritime pines, colored houses lined the harbor.

After a 8 day hike along ever changing trails, crossing wooded area, bare peaks, quaint village, we reached our destination, the Ligurian Coast, not too far from the famous Cinque Terre, the place where everything started, the origin of the Salt Paths.

We celebrated the end of our hike with a scrumptious Italian gelato!

 

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