Hot! Why I Climb

This Easter was a good example of one of the best answers I have to the question of why I climb. Friday night I grabbed the fourth spot in a climbing quad going to La Spezia for the holiday weekend. The only thing on the agenda: climbing the walls of Muzzerone – a scenic area overlooking the heart of the Italian Riviera.

La Spezia is a port town on the Gulf of the Poets which is something of a joke because at first glance, the only poets La Spezia might inspire would be Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allen Poe. The town has a fitting industrial and military feel with matching smells and sounds. But what La Spezia lacks in touristic beauty, it makes up for in convenience. It is the gateway to the Cinque Terre, romantic port villages, and small islands dotting the place where the Ligurean Sea meets the Mediterranean.

A quick drive away from the town square and we are looking down on Portovenere heading to the regional park that includes Muzzerone. On a clear day, my friends say you can see all the way to France and Elba Island. But it is overcast today. Bad for tourists, but perfect for climbing. The westward facing walls of Muzzerone get the full afternoon sun. It’s typically a winter climbing spot.

It’s Easter weekend, and as we hike down to the Central Wall, it looks like a gym. A beautiful spacious piece of rock with a panorama of the sea – and every route filled with people and their children.

Stefano guides us past and we continue downward. As the trees clear, the people disappear and we stand on the edge of Italy. It’s breathtaking. Even on a gray day, the changing colors of the sea and rock create a mysterious feeling of past and present. In the silence we only hear the crashing of the waves and a low hum of a ferry taking tourists to the Cinque Terre.

We climb like this for two days, leaving the rocks in the late afternoons with time to clean up, have dinner, then visit the tiny port towns surrounding the gulf. Portovenere sits below a fortress and we walk past small houseboats and sailboats bobbing in their docks towards cheerfully lit restaurants where couples lingering over their dinners and the romantic views. From the fortress walls we look down at the sea crashing onto the rocks. Even on the busy holiday weekend, there is a sense of privacy and no urgency to keep moving. Our group of four looks into the dark each of us trying to follow the coastline towards where we climbed earlier in the day.

After two fantastic days outdoors, we rest on Monday before heading back to Finale. I have never been to the Cinque Terre – the famous five towns perched above the sea – or walked the trail that connects them. We take the short drive and park above the villages. The shuttle bus takes us to Riomaggiore. Apparently, the rest of Northern Italy has had the same idea. The town is wall-to-wall people. Every narrow alley is filled with groups trying to find their way around. We make our way to the lookout points and ahead of us, see the train station and entryway to the Via dell’Amore. It is disappointing enough that you now have to pay to walk the short 5K between the towns, but even more unappealing that there is a line down the street waiting to get in. After two days of solitude and equally amazing hikes and views, none of us are interested in doing this. Stefano suggests a plate of spaghetti covered in tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese would look much better. And we agree.

Soon we are back in La Spezia with these dishes in front of us and we toast our weekend – a weekend filled with a beauty of Italy that cannot be planned from touring guide book.

Climb on.

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