I’ve tried going to the gym, more than once, and I now know it’s not for me. Since moving to Montenero a few years ago, I have discovered a much more pleasant way of ‘working out’, and that is simply by walking - up, down and around the area’s hilly terrain.
I start my walk from Via di Montenero where I leave my car. Instead of heading back up this steep hill, where in the morning I would meet all the traffic coming down, I head up the adjoining Via della Vecchia Salita, bearing right into the slightly more gentle Via del Governatore, passing under the bridge that carries the solar-powered, century-old funicular railway which trundles tirelessly up and down its track.
Here the trees that line the road grow thickly, blocking out the light and any chance of a view. It is the perfect start since it offers no distraction from my thinking about the day ahead, and it helps me to prepare psychologically for the first killer slope on my route – ‘bun burner number 1’! The air is damp and smells of moss and mushrooms. All I can hear is my breathing and the birds. Two big houses hide behind wrought-iron gates and impenetrable walls which I would like to climb over to have a look. Instead I tackle the steep incline ahead and am rewarded at the top by the first stunning view over Livorno and the sea below.
Passing the old people’s home on the right the lane levels out slightly before climbing again, past a crowing cockerel, past the house with the red and blue crest, then up a flight of steps into Piazza di Montenero.
At eight thirty in the morning it is very quiet. The sanctuary is visited by many pilgrims, but now the wooden stalls that sell religious souvenirs are closed. I pass the pagoda that houses the lift for the funicular railway, the newspaper kiosk displaying local news headlines, bars already selling Easter eggs and soft toys, and the bronze-headed Pope overlooking the square.
Heading out of the square and down the hill, one of several pretty ceramic shrines dedicated to the Madonna di Montenero comes into view. I suppose they are intended to give comfort and encouragement to the pilgrims climbing the hill to the sanctuary. I’m heading downhill now, past the Middle School, and the nursery school - where a few last minute parents are dropping off their children -, another row of quaint cottages, a local restaurant and then a right turn into Via della Querceta where you have to flatten yourself against the wall if a car comes past! There is a scent of wood fires, and in winter a Persimmon fruit tree spills its glutinous fruits onto the road and I hope I never get caught underneath one.
Heading past the minimarket, and right into Via di Castellaccio, it’s time for ‘bun burner number 2’, another steep slope past a long terrace of cottages which comes out in Via Giorgio Byron, named after our very own George Byron who spent some time in Montenero.
Heading right at the top leads along one of the most spectacular stretches of my walk, with breathtaking views on clear sunny days. Towards the end of the road an American vine covers a high stone wall, turning a spectacular orange in the autumn. The narrow road drops and I’m back in the Piazza di Montenero.
Onto the home stretch now, back down Via di Montenero, the sea glistening in the distance. Ladies beat their carpets or sweep their steps, while others open doors to their ‘domestic help’ ready to do the sweeping for them (and I am reminded of what I haven’t done at home). A few drivers break the tranquillity by beeping their horns annoyingly at every blind bend. I walk past my son’s school and imagine what he’s doing, then get into the car and drive down into Piazza delle Carrozze and home.
For a challenge, repeat the walk in the opposite direction: when you come to the end of Via Byron, in Piazza di Montenero, head back down the steps and down Via del Governatore, then all the way up Via di Montenero back into Piazza di Montenero, back up Via Byron, down Via di Castellaccio, Via di Querceta and back down Via di Montenero to the starting point. Total time for both circuits, about an hour.