Written by Robert Evans
A hiking tour visiting a few of Italy's best known sights leaves plenty of scope to see the lesser known areas between them: Start in the Dolomites on the Via Ferrata, relax atLake Como, visit the Shroud and more in Turin, stroll down the Via Garibaldi in Genoa, and finish your trip by hiking along the Cinque Terre.
Arrive in Venice, at the Marco Polo International Airport. If, at this point, you want to spend a few days in Venice to relax and see the sights, I wouldn’t blame you. When you feel ready, hop aboard the main railway line Venezia S. Lucia – Calalzo di Cadore. This takes you up into the Dolomites in about three hours. The Dolomites are beautiful: sheer cliff faces and deep valleys are everywhere. Really.
The Vie Ferrata, or Iron Roads, are old climbing trails set up during World War One by the mountain soldiers, to make passage through the mountains easier. Massively refurbished in recent years, they are now open to the rock-climbing public to enjoy. I strongly suggest you take up with one of the climbing companies.
The trail difficulties range from Easy to Very Difficult: The easiest trails are akin to an assisted walk and the toughest trails are practically rock climbing walls. Most trails fall somewhere between these two extremes and are built up with metal rungs, occasional staircases, and bridges. Still, it’s best to keep on your toes (ha!) and treat it as the real thing, because you are still going up and down mountains. By the way, point your eyes upward as you hike up the trail! Don’t put your head down, you’ll be missing more than just mountain views. Other visitors to the mountains indulge in free climbing, base jumping, and hang-gliding (very watchable activities, really). For the more apprehensive and easily nauseous among you, I suggest you focus on the rocks right next to you.
Spend two or three days climbing yourself to exhaustion, and then move on to Menaggio to relax on the shores of Lake Como (trains run regularly from Milan, a five to six hour ride). While this is a favoured resort area, you won’t be here long enough to have your wallet drained. For those who are still raring to stretch their legs, Menaggio offers mountain hikes. While not quite the soaring peaks you’ll just have seen, the hills and the lake do make for some wonderfully photogenic sights.
Be sure to find a ferry service to check out the various towns around the lake. Bellagio has two gardens and a fund of historical interest: the Basilica di San Giacomo retains beautiful frescoes and statues. The town of Como has two cathedrals and a church, as well as an ancient gateway and an art gallery. An inclined railway offers a trip up to the hill next to the town. Other water-based activities are offered up and down the shore, including sailing, windsurfing, and kite surfing.
My only caveat to you is that the lower end of the lake is considered too polluted for swimming, as the bacteria present gives bathers a dramatically higher chance of picking up a skin infection or (possibly)salmonella. Happily, the upper end of the lake has been declared safe.
Tear yourself away from the lake to travel on towards Turin for some historical sightseeing (From Milan, the train takes about two hours). The ancient city of Turin is most famous as the resting place for the Shroud of Turin, but is often overlooked as just “that city with the shroud”. Well, perhaps not totally overlooked – it's a major business, cultural, and educational center, and in 2006 it hosted the Winter Olympic Games. Because of its size, Turin contains a large train hub so you should have no trouble finding a direct route from Milan.
I would suggest you spend about three days here. The first thing to do, regardless of your beliefs on the subject, is to visit the Shroud. The Pope has approved the public display of the shroud in the spring of 2010. You may believe in it, you may not; but how many people can say they have seen it? Go, if you can.
Less pious sites are just as interesting and much more available. The Mole Antonelli, a former synagogue, now houses the National Museum of Cinema (and is believed to be the tallest museum in the world, strangely enough). Also worth visiting is the Museo Egizio, the Egyptian Museum. This museum houses the largest collection of Egyptian art outside of the museum in Cairo. The collection was begun by a private collector decades ago, and grew and grew until today. Mummies, sphinxes, sarcophagi, statues…this museum has it all. Make sure you take your time and see everything you can here.
If you’re still in the mood for museums, wander over to the Museum of Oriental Art. The entrance is flanked by well-maintained Japanese gardens, while the art is arranged by floor, including everything in between Japan and the Middle East. Finally, before you leave Turin make time to see the Palatine Towers. Built by the Romans and rebuilt in the medieval era, these towers originally served as one of the Roman city gates. They are very well-preserved and anyone with even a passing interest in history would be well-served by visiting them. Visiting the Turin Cathedral afterwards will round out the rest of your day.
Our next destination is Genoa (another two hour ride, this time from Turin). Hopefully you’ve recovered from the Dolomites, as this town on the Ligurian coast offers breathtaking hikes and walks. Again, finding a direct train to Genoa from Turin should be little trouble.
Genoa is a very old, and a traditional Italian merchant city. Once a major power player in the area, the city was already in decline by the time Napoleon snapped it up. Nowadays, the city is an important commercial port with a lot of history scattered throughout the city.
The medieval gates are a must to see, especially as they are in excellent condition. Cathedrals are always an architectural marvel, and Genoa’s Cathedral of St. Laurence does not disappoint. While there, you may visit the St. Lawrence treasure museum, housing the cathedral’s store of relics. Also, please take the time to visit the Strada Nuova, better known as the Via Garibaldi. Marked by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the road is quiet simply full of palaces, monuments, and wonderfully old buildings. One of these palaces, the Palazzo Rosso, is now a museum and open for viewing. The Lighthouse is also worth a short trip. There is a museum nearby to tell you more, but the tower itself has been around for nearly a thousand years, although it has been damaged by artillery fire more than once in its career.
Finally, shake off the dust and cobwebs and spend a casual afternoon at the aquarium. I know for a fact there is an open-air pool for ray fish – just try not to fall in. As well, there are special ticket deals that not only let you wander the museum, but take you out on a half-day cruise alongside the paths many marine mammals in the area use. Pack a lunch, though, as the cruise lasts four or five hours and the food on board is not included in the ticket.
Hop on a local train the next day to La Spezia for the last section of your trip (strangely enough, it’s a two hour trip!). You’ll be exercising those leg muscles again as you hike the Cinque Terre, so definitely book accommodations ahead as the small towns fill up quickly. Catch a train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore (ten minute ride); this is the first of many small towns strung along the paths and trails you’ll be walking. It tends to be busy, so do what you can to get out and on the path quickly.
There are five villages, but you don’t have to walk to all of them. Ferries and trains supplement the walking trails. Starting in Riomaggiore, the first walk to do will be the Lover’s Walk (Via d’Amore), followed by “Walk Number 2” (which you must pay to walk on!). Shell out the money and press on, as the farther down the trail you go the fewer people there are. Mind how you go, as some paths will take two hours and some might take two days.
About when you pass through Corniglia, the trail takes a turn for the spectacular - not that it isn’t already! Just like when you were on the Dolomites, you’ll start to climb up a hill and before you realize it you’re looking down at Corniglia from the top of a mountain, through olive groves and trees. Oh, and there’s a bar on the hill, too. Moving down, the beach town of Vernassa is just down the slope. Keep in mind, of course, that this is one of many routes you can take in the area; there are a LOT of other trails and hikes to take. If you want to extend your time, this might be the place to do it. Just make sure you have a good pair of shoes, please.
Otherwise, retrace your steps back to Genoa to catch a flight home. It's a quick local train from La Spezia back to Genoa, where (hopefully) you should be able to catch a flight from the Christopher Columbus airport home (or onwards, if that's what you like.) Either way, you've seen a couple of things you wouldn't be able to in Rome.
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