Our guide across the Italian Riviera towards Rome was the Emperor Augustus, as we followed his famed Via Aurelia east.
For four hundred years, this formidably engineered Roman road served as one of the Empire’s principal arteries, over which armoured legions and charioteers marched, and couriers, traders, government officials and commoners rode or trekked.
It was a major trunk route with rest stops and chariot service stations every 20 miles, a crucial part of a 62,000-mile road network that extended from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor.
Along this paved and finely graded route, Rome maintained its control over far-flung provinces, traded, made war, and spread its culture. As the empire began its long decline, so too did the Via Aurelia.
Swinging past ten miles of towering docklands at Genova through a series of curving tunnels and emerging into blinding sunlight each time, we considered the efforts of the Classical road makers.
Much of the Empire’s mindboggling infrastructure rests on the hard graft and physical labour of legions and slaves. Everything seems built to scale, and the scale is grand.
The imagination and feats of engineering accomplished to bring about the construction of the Via Aurelia is inspiring, and a little diminishing.
We went humbly eastwards keeping the blue waters of the Gulfo di Genova to our right and curving along the scenic and narrowing coastal road high above fishing ports and chic settlements below.
Pitched up at the grand merchant harbour of La Spezia in the town’s ambulance station car park (which has a side-line in renting spaces for motorhomes, campervans and striking self-built conversions) we set off early the next morning to explore the famous five waterside villages of Cinque Terra.
These tiny fishing villages tumble impossibly down upon themselves, wedged tightly into rocky crevices and fissures.
Brightly painted and tottering houses and stone churches seemed carved out of the rocky cliff face, and impossibly steep vineyards seemed tended by mountain goats which nimbly navigate between the vines growing on slopes of ninety degrees.
The villages are best seen from the water, so we stayed on board the little tourist cruiser which first visited the larger harbourside commune of Portovenere. Stone churches and a stone castle squat amongst the tall, colourful waterside terraces of houses.
This beguiling spot was chosen by Byron as his Ligurian haunt and it’s from here that he swam across the gulf to visit his friend and fellow poet, Shelley at his rented home in Lerici. The beautiful rocky coastline looks as it did when the two giants of English Romanticism were meeting and discussing lyricism, philosophy and poems and Percy’s wife Mary was quietly writing ideas for a horror novel.
Shelley died too young, out in the bay overnight in his wooden sailing boat and caught in a sudden storm. His body was burned in a pyre on the sandy shore. Distraught, Byron left Liguria and grieving, inconsolable Mary Shelley completed her greatest work, Frankenstein.
The morning’s dazzling light bounced off the frothy emerald waters and the gleaming white bows and port sides of a bustling flotilla of pleasure boats and tourist cruisers.
Everyone, including us, was straining over the sides of the boats for the perfect photograph of the magical coastline. It took two hours to travel past the first four fishing villages, ogling, and delighting in the many painted colours of the cottages standing out against the harsh, rocky background under clear, azure skies.
At the most easterly village, Monterosso, we were deposited in the small sandy harbour with the instruction to return on board in 30 minutes.
It didn’t seem enough time to properly explore but we gamely climbed up the steep stone-hewn alleyways, called carrugi, admiring the tiny terraced houses now bijou artists homes and workshops. It was not the only time that day that we regretted being on a timetable without a watch between us!
Barely back on board, we were bustled out of the tiny enclosed harbour and headed back west to stop at Vernazza.
As before, we scaled the rocky passageways up and between pretty cottages and peeking into tiny and basic-seeming kitchens. It was noon and already the aromas of garlic and fresh fish and seafood were filling the narrow alleyways.
Our boat honked and hurried us onwards and we sailed by but did not stop at Corniglia. Of all the villages, this one seemed to cling most tenaciously to the rock face, one hundred metres above the sea.
Our fellow passengers, mainly Americans, began grumbling about the need to stop and eat lunch (although one one guy was already enjoying his ‘Mr Moretti’ beer).
As the boat pulled into the tiny stone harbour at Manarola we hung back to allow the determined diners to disembark noisily first. Leaving them at the rustic fish restaurants by the waters’ edge we again scaled steep carrugi to reach the village’s simple stone church. Inside were medieval wooden icons painted with a gold gilt and a dusky and ancient looking painting of the Madonna.
Up above the church bell clanged out the hour, as centuries before it would have sounded in warning of pirates. Below us we could hear the chatter of the luncheoning Americans as it wafted up to us through the alleyways.
It felt timeless. As indeed we were. Without a watch between us and dreamily wandering in the upper village we missed the returning boat loaded with Americans and heading back west.
Bizarrely, and a little incongruously we found a railway station and hitched a 30 second ride to the next village, Riomaggiore. It was time to eat!
Wandering downhill we found La Lanterna, a traditional bistro with a tiny terrace and a lovely view of the Marina Piccolo below. We don’t eat out often on our trips as its too costly on the day’s budget, but this was an exception.
Feasting like locals on plates piled high with pasta and seafood, some of it recognisable but all of it tasty, we toasted the day with a glass of local white wine.
The early evening boat ride back to Portovenere was quiet and thoughtful, despite the packed benches of day-trippers. Many had hiked high on the cliffs, others had used the train to get between the villages and now we were all enjoying the evening sunshine on the boat home.
Everyone seemed caught in a reverie and eager to reflect upon it gently, by themselves.