Ah, Italy! Images of famed masterpieces, majestic churches and revered historical sights immediately come to mind. Not to mention the food, glorious food, and wine that seems to run like water in this fabled destination. Most people pinpoint a few notable cities when they talk about Italy, primarily the well-known, “must-see” triad of Rome, Florence and Venice. Such places are typically on every traveler’s bucket list and often serve as representative of the country as a whole. After touring these locales, many travelers feel they have seen Italy and opt to move on to the next European hot spot on their agenda.
Years ago, when I first went to Italy, I dashed madly from town to town, crossing off sights at rapid speed, then proudly announcing my feat to others. I had “done” Italy...or so I thought. Subsequent trips to this magical destination later in my life fortunately proved this assumption wrong. The truth is that one can’t truly appreciate Italy as viewed solely via some frenetic whirlwind city tour. Italy demands time – time to slow down and engage your senses, and to fully indulge in la dolce vita.
Walking and cycling through a country are wonderful ways to relax the pace of travel and I have enjoyed both these styles in the past. On my most recent trip to Italy, however, I decided to join a kayak expedition in order to see the country from a different perspective, one paddle stroke at a time.
My eleven-day kayaking adventure with award-winning Tofino Expeditions focused on Cinque Terre and Sardinia, two of the most beautiful areas in Italy that also happen to be world class paddling destinations. The trip began and ended in Genova, the capital city of the Liguria region, which is situated around the northwestern coast of the country. Known as the City of the Sea, due to it being a strategic port on the Mediterranean, Genova is also rich in art and history, with a past that dates back 1,000 years. For this reason, some have deemed it the “City of Culture” or the “City of Art.”
The town’s exceptional cultural heritage is displayed in its many museums, opulent palaces and Romanesque and Baroque churches within the Porto Antico, the largest medieval historic center in all of Europe. Narrow streets and ancient alleyways called “caruggi” create a labyrinth for visitors to navigate. Wandering through this maze, you’ll stumble upon one historically highlighted building after another, as the city is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hillsides surrounding the town are dotted with grand villas, while down on the restored waterfront is the site of one of the largest aquariums in Europe, as well as a maritime museum that chronicles Genoa’s history as a sea power.
Our group was fortunate to get an insider’s tour of the city with a true local, who also just happened to be the fearless leader of our kayak expedition. Though Enrico (picture a gregarious Italian Sean Penn, who is passionate about life, Italy and kayaking) provided much information and background about his hometown, he never bored us with too many details, allowing us to take in the sights and smells of Genoa on our own, up close and personal. This included visits to off-the-beaten-path medieval cloisters, stone churches and hidden courtyards adorned with sculptures and mosaics. And of course, we also stopped along the way for the proverbial cup of espresso and scoop of gelato at some of Enrico’s favorite haunts.
Paddling began in earnest on the second day of the trip once we arrived at Cinque Terre National Park. Located along the Riviera coastline, nestled between Genoa and Pisa, Cinque Terre is made up of the five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Suspended between sea and land on sheer cliffs, these towns are known for their perfect mix of old world charm and breathtaking views. The landscape consists of rocky coastline, dry-laid stone walls, terraced vineyards, winding paths and enchanting beaches. Lemon trees with lemons the size of enlarged baseballs compete with splashy magenta bougainvillea to provide a brilliant contrast of hues and scents. And the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks further enliven the senses.
Corniglia has the highest elevation at 330 feet above sea level and is reached by a series of steep stone steps that seem to go on forever. These were especially daunting after kayaking all day, and mandated the requisite gelato as a reward for effort. Manarola, one of the oldest villages, is marked by its colorful houses, making it feel like you’ve just walked into an Impressionist painting. Vernazza is a pedestrian-only town, which boasts the 14th century Ligerian Gothic style Santa Margherita d’Antichia Church while Monterosso al Mare is a bustling beach community with numerous restaurants, cafes and hotels. And Riomaggiore is famous for its wine, as well as for being an ideal place to catch a stunning sunset while dining on some of the best seafood in Italy at the harbor side restaurant of Luca Giaccio. A young, rising-star chef, Giaccio is devoted to the freshest of locally sourced ingredients and classical Ligurian cuisine.
Though Cinque Terre is known as a hiker’s paradise, where travelers can walk on clearly marked paths that span the various villages, it’s also nirvana for kayakers. Paddling from one town to the next provides a unique perspective of the dramatic scenery on this rugged portion of the coast. From the water, the villages look precariously perched upon the impressive cliffs. Over the centuries, people carefully built terraces on the steep landscape right up to these cliffs. It’s hard to imagine a more inhospitable place to settle, especially if you’re a farmer arriving by sea to this new land.
The distances between villages are not extreme, making them relatively easy to navigate by kayak. Although we occasionally shared the water with ferries and a few motorboats, we rarely saw other kayaks ply these waters. Whenever we arrived at one of the towns, everyone on the shore would watch us with great interest, even taking pictures of us in paparazzi fashion. We seemed an oddity, viewed with enormous fascination. This surprised me, as Italy is a Mediterranean country with plenty of gorgeous sea to make any kayaking endeavor a dream. The fact is that most visitors don’t equate the sport with the destination, although awareness is gradually increasing in recent years.
There is something very Zen-like about paddling, though I never would have made such a claim prior to this trip. In my limited sea kayaking experience, I only knew soreness and fatigue. With Enrique’s expert coaching, my skills improved tremendously over time. As I was in a tandem kayak, my improvement was much appreciated by my more proficient partner. Simple advice such as lengthening the arm when initiating a stroke allowed me to understand the concept of the paddle being an extension of the arm and how crucial it is for stroke efficiency. Another tip – remain upright and plant your bottom on the seat, while focusing on moving the torso from side to side – was important to my comprehending core dynamics and its crucial role in powering the boat. And when it came to turns, the most important rule – look where you want to go – became my mantra.
My improvement was gradual, but steady, and each day, I felt more confident and in control of the boat. There was a rhythm to paddling and I finally arrived at that Zen state, where going through each of the three stages in a stroke (catch the water, bury the paddle and exit) became second nature. I was working with the water, not against it, and it was an exhilarating and empowering experience. My partner and I worked together in sync, like a well-oiled machine. I like to think we were a thing of beauty, gliding across the water.
It’s hard to describe the water, as it takes on so many different colors depending on location, time of day and weather conditions. Our group would often discuss the colors of the sea and everyone had their own labels for it. The adjectives ranged from emerald green and aquamarine to milky turquoise and azure. And when the wind blew, the sea darkened to an almost cobalt tone. In certain places, where jellyfish were in abundance, their bright iridescent hues added to the chroma potpourri.
The second half of the trip took place around the island of Sardinia, which we reached following a brief stopover in Pisa and an overnight ferry ride from Livorno. Our base was Via del Centro B&B on the island of La Maddalena. This is one of the many islands in the Archipelago of La Maddalena, which is about two kilometers from the northeastern shore of Sardinia. Although we had stayed in several quaint inns and boutique hotels during our stay, Via del Centro proved to be the most memorable property for our group. Located right in the middle of town, it gave us prime accessibility to shops, restaurants and the waterfront. It was also spacious and very clean, but it was the innkeepers that made the place so special. Charming Fabrizio and his lovely girlfriend Jessica ran the place and they were exceptionally hospitable and kind, going out of their way to make us feel welcome and comfortable. They joined us for dinner most nights and enjoyed talking to us about their town and laid back island lifestyle. If I could have bottled up their élan, I would have brought it back with me.
Each day, we explored the sparsely inhabited La Maddalena Archipelago National Park, with its crystal clear water, surreal rock formations and picture perfect coves. The rocks often took on recognizable shapes such as animals or humans, even Disney characters. Some, like Octopus Rock, had been previously identified and named accordingly. Wild and relatively untouched, this area is regarded by those in the know as one of the Mediterranean’s best kayaking playgrounds. We visited isolated islands, swam and snorkeled in the warm turquoise sea and picnicked at unspoiled beaches reached only via the water. Enrique would lay out the booty for the day’s lunch and we would devour the fresh vegetables and fruit, meats and cheeses and crusty bread with relish. Then we blissfully relaxed, our hunger sated, in the idyllic environment of sun drenched beaches and dazzling sea.
One of the days, we went inland on Sardinia for a look at the island’s verdant and hilly countryside. It also served as an opportunity to gain insight into the vibrant culture of the region. Historical sites dot the landscape, depicting the various invasions over the centuries. The mesh of different influences can still be seen today in the island’s archaeology and architecture. Roman remains exist, along with the conical towers of the Nuraghi, which date back to the Bronze Age, and are considered a symbol of Sardinia. More than 7,000 of these ancient edifices have been found over the years, though archaeologists believe there are nearly 10,000 in existence.
Food was an integral part of the trip, and Enrique and his convivial assistant Daniele, took their mission seriously when it came to introducing us to the numerous regional specialties from fried anchovies and octopus salad to chickpea focaccia, Sardinian cracker bread and seabream ravioli with clams. Each meal was a farm-and-sea-to-table gastronomic feast for the senses, accompanied by local wines, and ending with a shot of limoncello or mirto, a special liqueur made from berries. As for the gelato, I aimed at trying a new flavor each day –for research purposes, of course! All were deliciously creamy and flavorful, but the winner was a heavenly concoction of ricotta and figs. Everyone in the group ate with gusto; after all, we were expending much energy kayaking each day and believed we were totally justified in our hearty consumption. And when we saw the satisfied smiles on the faces of the chefs upon noting our “buon forchetta,” or good appetite, we felt we had done our part in showing our appreciation for their sumptuous cuisine.
Traveling through Italy on the seat of a kayak allowed me the opportunity to experience the beauty of this country at a pace that kept me fully engaged in the moment. It was a unique way to rediscover this enchanting destination, while providing the chance to participate in a challenging, yet highly rewarding activity.
If you go:
Tofino Expeditions is a top-ranked, international sea kayak outfitter, committed to wilderness ethics, as well as to the quality of their adventures. The company features a range of kayaking trips worldwide designed to meet the needs and desires of both novice and experienced kayakers. For more information: www.tofino.com
Photos by Deborah Stone