One of the most reliably surprising experiences of any trip to the Riviera usually happens right at the start, even before you have fully arrived.
When you come by plane from northern Europe, you will be flying over the snow-capped peaks of the High Alps one moment, then you blink, and the next time you look out of the window you are already looking at the vast blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea.
On land, the transition from mountains to coastal landscape is obviously slower but, in places, no less sudden once you have accounted for the lower speed. Take St Agnes which, for all practical purposes, is a suburb of coastal Menton with a regular bus connection (line no. 10 since you ask). But once you get there, you find yourself at an altitude of 800 metres. The trip takes a mere 25 minutes, but you will be entering a different world: one that is dominated by stony cliffs rather than palm trees. And don’t forget to bring a sweater: temperatures can be up to 10 degrees lower.
Not everywhere, however, is the transition as sudden as that. On the Italian side of the Riviera specifically, the rise is less steep, and there is a band of hills between High Alps and coast which is more reminiscent of the German mittelgebirge – such as the Black Forest – than of the barren and rocky hinterland of the French Riviera.
This is the landscape that we will explore today, once again together with the VIVA ITALIA hiking group.
A lovely spring hike on the Ligurian Queen of the Hills
Our starting point is the central piazza of Apricale, …
… where we begin our hike with a brief tour through the ancient streets of this lovely village which lies approx. 10 km to the north of Ventimiglia.
Walk down the main street until you have reached almost the end of the village and turn right …
… continuing uphill until you reach an asphalted road where you are allowed to catch your breath for a minute or so.
We all felt a bit chuffed when our guide Eleonora congratulated us for having completed most of the trail’s difficult, “climby” sections – only to lead us immediately off road to a steep path further up …
… and although much of the remaining trail stayed on fairly level ground …
… the general direction continued to lead us upward, mainly along the old mulatierre, the “mule paths” that used to connect isolated settlements (most of them long since abandoned) and their olive groves, until we reached the high plains near Semoigo Chapel.
Having a guide on a hike like this has two main advantages: first, you have someone reliable around who can tell you what all those flowers on the ground and the wild birds in the skies around you are called. Until our walk, for example, I had no idea what a “short-toed eagle” was or, indeed, that eagles had “toes” to begin with. (Whenever I spot a moving thing in the sky, my curiosity normally extends just about far enough to establish whether it is bird, a plane, or Superman. To insist on any more detailed distinctions had always seemed rather pedantic to me.)
Secondly, and more to the point, guides are familiar with footpaths that you would otherwise not find or not have the confidence to use, out of fear that they will not lead anywhere (except for off a cliff, perhaps).
On top of that, there were times when we were guided across fields of grass with no discernible footpath at all. (Suffice to say that the trail we took was entirely unmarked.)
So while you are free to try this on your own – the walk proceeds counterclockwise around Apricale to the northernmost point of Bivio Foa, before it descends gently down back via Vigna Colla and Bivio San Pietro – it is probably best to give Eleonora (who speaks a bit of English, but mainly Italian) a call at +39-3494624532 to inquire about a group hike that you might be able to join.
The trail has two main attractions: one of them is obviously Apricale, one of most picturesque places in Liguria, a ridge-top rather than a hilltop village like Baiardo and Perinaldo. Unlike those two that you can glimpse from far away, Apricale does not perch high on top of its surrounding landscape but rather wraps itself smoothly around it, more cat than eagle (short-toed or not).
On the trail of this lovely spring hike, you get some great panoramic views of Apricale …
… as well as interesting close-ups on the descent back to town.
The real star of our Easter Saturday walk, however, was the awakening spring. Flowers and blossoming trees served as a reminder that this is a lovely time of the year to get your kit ready, to throw a few things into your backpack and just go for it, whether you are in Apricale or elsewhere. What are you waiting for?