28 February 2009
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. And there are more benefits to this than just the physical kind. Walking in these beautiful, quiet lanes blows away the cobwebs, clearing my mind, helping me to organise the day ahead, remember things to do, and above all giving me new ideas and inspiration. At the same time, I get a chance to peer into gardens that inspire, or frustrate me, and to admire the lovely old houses that I secretly covet for my future b&b plans (a girl can dream!).
Montenero is a big village sprawling up the hillside – upper and lower Montenero. On some of the houses you can still see the old shop signs - ‘Panificio’, ‘Drogheria’ – from the days when the village was more self contained. The only shop up here in Montenero Alto now is a minimarket.
Many of the houses still have a village feel: terraces of green-shuttered homes with rows of bright flowers and plants in terracotta pots on their well-swept balconies. They contrast with the wealthy villas with their castle turrets, elegant balustraded balconies, high walls and security gates, behind which dogs bark threateningly.
On weekdays I start my walk from Via di Montenero where I leave my car after dropping off my ten-year-old at the primary school there. Instead of heading back up this steep hill, where 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 (that’s where I will go one day kids!) 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. Things are unfussy, unpolished (except the Pope's head); no show is put on for visitors, or anyone else.
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.
To see more photos of my Montenero walk, click here.
How to get there: bus number 2 to Piazza delle Carrozze, and then it’s all uphill from there!
Duration: this walk takes me about 40 minutes.
Refreshments: there are several cafés in Piazza di Montenero and Piazza delle Carrozze, as well as a few restaurants and pizzerias.
The minimarket in Via di Querceta sells a bit of everything, including bread, ham and cheeses, in case you're in need of an en route snack! (ALAS, now closed as of 2013. Nearest general store is down the hill in Via delle Pianacce)