The Forgotten Villages of the Gulf of the Poets

Mediterranean Landscape Hike near Cinque Terre
Olive Trees and the Abandoned Ligurian village of Portesone
Portesone, an abandoned village near Lerici on the Gulf of the Poets.
A short bus ride from Lerici, this Ligurian trail runs along a Mediterranean hillside with bright views over the Gulf of La Spezia toward distant Portovenere, past centuries-old olive trees. The ancient path winds through rocky terraces while song birds remind you that life is free, and leads you to the ancient abandoned villages of Portesone and Barbazzone and the living Italian hillside village of La Serra. This is the very experience that draws tens of thousands of hikers to the nearby Cinque Terre, so you might expect plenty of company, yet if you meet six people on the trail, it will be one of the busiest days of the year.

This hike is moderately easy and will take about 2 1/2 hours, although it can be shortened at several junctures along the way, since you can climb to the peninsula road that parallels the trail. There are only a few steep parts, and no cliffs, and we think it would be safe for children accustomed to hiking. There are no water sources en route, and only a basic food store at Serra . The trails are rather rocky, so shoes with good soles are recommended. It can be reached by car or by public bus from Lerici, or by an uphill walk from Lerici and/or Tellaro.

Note: In Spring, 2016, there was a major cutting of vegetation around Barbazzano. We have seen photos and the area is more visible than locals can ever remember. Be sure to take the described side trip.

The village of Tellaro, Liguria from above.
Tellaro in a rare light fog as seen from the trail.
Our walk description begins at Zanego (also called Quattro Strade) on the road around the Caprione Promontory. See this very rough Forgotten Villages Map or the paper map referenced below. CAI trails 1AVG, 2, and 3 all cross at Zanego and you'll find an information board, a map, and an altar dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. However, there's no reminder of this locale's notable past. Here, almost 700 years ago, on April 17, 1328, the first popular parliament of the newly-created podesteria (district or town) of Ameglia was convened in open air. Exercising the greater liberties allowed by Castruccio Castracani, Viscount of the territories of the Bishops of Luni, 146 citizens from the villages of Ameglia (35 men), Montemarcello (27), Portesone (39), and Barbazzano (45) met to administer their new responsibilities. The attendees elected a mayor, deputies, a prosecutor, and a committee to draw up proposed borders. We especially like that the name of every person was recorded; so Romanelli Rolandi of Montemarcello and Giovanni Caravita of Ameglia and 144 others will forever be recognized for standing openly as a citizen.

Travel Tip_____________________________________________________________________
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                             Link:Car Rental Tips for Italy - Pick It Up Right 
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The trail is well marked by CAI volunteers.

Begin the hike by walking downhill and westward on CAI 3 toward Tellaro and La Serra. The trail is gentle and provides glimpses of the far-off Portovenere peninsula and the Gulf, as well as peeks into the activities of nearby homeowners. The plant life is wonderfully Mediterranean, and lucky is the hiker who has studied botany. Here and there the trail preserves the ancient paving (also known as stones) that kept the roadway from turning to total mud in wet weather. These paths are the original means of travel between the villages of the promontory, and are thus at least 1100 years old!

Abandoned village trail from Zanego to La Serra, Liguria.
Hairpin turns with ancient pavement. Zanego to La Serra trail.

Walk and look and walk some more, generally downhill. The views here are excellent as there's quite a bit of open area. After about 20 minutes, the Trail CAI 3h and then CAI 466 branch off left down to Tellaro, but you'll continue on the main CAI 3 for almost the entire hike. On two occasions, you'll walk past evidence of enormous rockfalls. Gigantic boulders sit above and below the trail, stupendous reminders that, in creating this wonderful landscape, the earth doesn't sweat the small stuff.

Abandoned Italian village of Portesone
The village of Portesone abandoned after the Plague.
At about the one-third point between Zanego and La Serra, you'll reach the remains of the abandoned village of Portesone. This settlement was one of the larger villages on the Caprione for hundreds of years. It was abandoned in the 14th century after being devastated by plague, and its inhabitants moved to Barbazzone. The village would have consisted of many more houses than those you see today. It was not a fortified village, but it had a guard tower with a line-of-sight to the watchtower at Barbazzano. Some of the houses you see have clearly been used after the abandonment, but the weight of the centuries is palpable nonetheless. These houses were shared between humans on the 2nd floor and livestock on the ground floor. Keeping livestock inside was common for European peasants in medieval times and earlier (and we've seen it in very old New England farmsteads). Livestock was often the most valuable possession a family had, so leaving them outside was too risky - and besides, it was warmer in winter!

When you resume the hike, pay attention to the terraces. Though they are now overgrown in many places, in centuries past almost all the land was utilized, and the views would have been panoramic. These flat patches of land, bolstered by rock walls, were necessary to increase the agricultural production of the land by optimizing water use and soil area while minimizing rocky areas. The important crops for these villages were figs, olives, vines, grains, and vegetables. Pasturage was also important for the production of cheese and the raising of sheep, as well as chickens and pigs. The enormous amount of earth moved to create the terraces, shovelful by shovelful, rock by rock, was done by individuals seeking economic gain, but under much different circumstances than ours. This land was owned by the Bishop/Count of Luni, and was worked under terms that required the peasant to make payments in money, produce, and/or labor.

Olive tree along the Gulf of the Poets
Olive trees can live well over 2,000 years. Caprione Promontory.

Olives remained a mainstay of the economy in this area into the 1950's. In the centuries before roads were viable, this area's sea access was a valuable competitive advantage, and these sunny slopes are ideal for olives as well as figs and vines. Olive trees can live for thousands of years, so it's perfectly possible that the large gnarly olive tree that is now watching you pass, also watched Signor Carlo Bonaventura and his son Salvuccio of Barbazzone walking to that meeting in Zanego in 1328.

Ruins of Barbazzone.
Soon you arrive at a trail junction where signs indicate the trail down to Barbazzano. It's a short detour down from CAI 3. This historic town of the Caprione peninsula is now a total ruin. The vines and brambles cover the stone work and keep the town's secrets from the idle. This small hill overlooking the west side of the promontory was originally a Ligurian settlement and then Roman. Later it was part of the domain of the Bishop/Counts of Luni, and still later part of the Republic of Genoa. It was an important location when it belonged to the Bishop/Counts as it overlooked Genovese-controlled Lerici, and it generated substantial harvests. Its citizens live on in the history of the area. Seafarers of renown, they had the honor of accompanying the Bishop of Luni on his travels to Rome, Pisa, and Genoa. Later they are recorded as participating in sea battles in the service of Genoa.  They were also pirates at times, if area legends are believed. Their port was the present Fiascherino, just outside Tellaro.

Abandoned Barbazzone, Church of San Giorgio.
Former Church of San Giorgio in abandoned Barbazzone.
The town was fortified with a wall around it in the shape of a trapezoid. You'll see a sign indicating 'Ruderi di Barbazzano', and this leads to the largest ruin, which is a square stone building that was Barbazzano's church, San Giorgio.  Further on, the path follows the town's perimeter defensive wall, which extends 73 meters (240 feet). There are identifiable ruins of a square guard tower and a entrance porta, as well as another square tower which may have been the sometime residence of the Bishop of Luni, who visited his valuable holding frequently. Within the perimeter wall there are the remains of numerous unidentifiable smaller buildings.

Although it is commonly said that the village was abandoned after attacks by Saracens in the 15th century, the truth is more nuanced. The village was indeed attacked between 1562 and 1564, but it was depopulation that slowly vanquished the town, and Tellaro gradually took its place. The town parish was transferred to Tellaro in 1570.

To continue, walk back up to Trail 3 from Barbazzano, and turn to the left. (near the ruins is the Trail 464 which goes from Barbazzano to La Serra more directly but we haven't walked it so we are reluctant to recommend it). The trail repeats the themes: terraces, olives, abandonment, renewal. There's invasive bamboo, deliberately introduced acacia and aguave. As you approach La Serra, there are a few homesteaders that have narrowed the trail with fences, but the beauty of the land is not reduced. Finally, near the gated entrance to a villa, Trail 3 crosses a concrete driveway/road. Here you turn right on Trail 469, and climb up the steep driveway to the peninsula's perimeter road.

La Serra, Liguria, church campanile.
Campanile in La Serra, Liguria.

When you emerge, cross the road and continue up a long stairway into La Serra. The village of La Serra celebrates the colors of Liguria from its extravagant location, and it's worth exploring. It has what you expect from Liguria - the narrow twisty lanes, the steep streets and stairs, doors that open under arches, and the friendly greeting of townspeople.  It also seems full of contradictions - there are lush gardens that reveal a dedicated gardener, and there are untended patches long forgotten. There are the relaxed homes of long-time natives hard-by the too-tidy second homes of city folk. The central piazza has broad views of the Gulf, and the town's campanile betrays an outsized pride-of-place that this much beauty seems to nurture.

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The return to the starting point at Zanego is along the asphalt road. It is generally uphill, but it will only take a little more than 1/2 hour, and the views of the Gulf will encourage you. Most days there is little traffic, but take care for the bicycles can approach quietly.

More Info
Recommended CAI Map  Bassa Val di Magra / Parco di Montemarcello-Magra 1:25,000 Carta Escursionistica. 4LandAlpine Cartography 6.50 Euro. Sold in area bookstores and news stands.
There's also a CAI Sarzana map online - CAI Sarzana Trail Map

Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) Sarzana Thanks to CAI volunteers for these trails. The CAI office in Sarzana at Piazza Firmafede, 13 is open Monday to Saturday from 5 to 7pm and has a good selection of maps.

Parco Montemarcello and  Parco di Montemarcello-Magra The Parco Montemarcello-Magra has more interesting hiking trails, but it doesn't promote them well. Some information is available on these websites and sometimes at an office in Montemarcello, near the two bars on the Gulf side of town.

Our story The Brides Walk from Ameglia to Tellaro, also passing through Zanego, is similar to this hike, but with more vertical displacement.

Caprione Promontory Our Google map with towns and points of interest as well as our notes on restaurants and miscellany.

Ameglia Nella Storia Della Lunigiana by Ennio Silvestri, the esteemed mayor, neighbor and historian we wish we had the pleasure to meet.

Cavanei-Barbazzano-Storie-e-Notizie-del-Monte-Caprione-di-Lerici A fascinating Facebook page by a fellow history lover.

Guide Al Parco di Montemarcello by Simonetta Maccioni  Sagep Editrice 1991.

Written by Martha