Prehistory in the Shadow of the Alps, Italy and France

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15645A, International


  • See seldom-visited prehistoric sites
  • Enjoy beautiful Lake Como
  • Tour a castle and small villages


  • All lodging in hotels and all meals
  • Full-time English-speaking guide
  • On-trip transportation and all gratuities


DatesJun 15–26, 2015
Price$3,825 (12–15)
$4,325 (or fewer)
StaffGene Goldberg

Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates and title have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

The Trip

Northern Italy and nearby France have been home to humans for tens of thousands of years. Each era has left behind its particular traces: Paleolithic stone tools, Neolithic petroglyphs and bronze age ruins making a striking contrast to medieval castles, picturesque contemporary villages, and the elegant villas of Lake Como. We'll be investigating all of these, primarily the petroglyphs, with a little bit of the rest and, of course, contemporary life, culture, conservation, and food. 

We meet near Milan and go directly to the Val Camonica, a UNESCO site inhabited for millennia and containing thousands of petroglyphs.  After a day and a half in this low mountain environment, we go on to Lake Como for two days to cruise on the lake, visit a castle, some villages, and a beautiful villa with its awesome botanic garden.  We then visit several small villages in a wide variety of landscapes, including lakes, mountains, hills, and seaside. We will take moderate walks in these varied terrains, stopping at organic farms, visiting a castle, and delving into prehistoric cave sites. 

Next we go the Piemonte region to hike in the hills and visit organic farms, wineries, and local cheese producers.  After two days here, we continue on to Finale Ligure, a seaside village in a less frequented part of Italy. Our two days here include hiking with views of the sea and visiting prehistoric caves. 

Moving on to France, we will spend two days in Valee des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders), visiting some more prehistoric sites with petroglyphs and enjoying beautiful mountain views. Finally, we drive to the French coastline, where we will enjoy visiting coastal villages, and we end our trip in Nice.


The following is our planned itinerary; changes may be made due to weather, closures, or other unforeseen events, but we will try to include as much of the mentioned activities and sites as possible. 

Day 1: We meet this morning at a hotel near Milan's Malpensa Airport. You can stay the night before at the hotel or you can bus out from the city.  We encourage you to arrive a day or two early to overcome jet lag and allow any delayed baggage time to catch up to you.  After an orientation meeting, we board the charter bus we'll be using for the trip and transfer to the Val Camonica. Leaving our baggage at the hotel, we take a short, easy walk amongst some of the petroglyphs found throughout the area. 

Day 2: Today we make a more extensive exploration of the petroglyphs while enjoying the beautiful scenery.  Walking will be easy, and the pace will allow for studying what we see. Val Camonica is on the UNESCO World Heritage list owing to the presence of one of the world's greatest collections of prehistoric petroglyphs -- more than 140,000 symbols and figures carved in the rock over a period of 8,000 years, depicting themes connected with agriculture, navigation, war, and magic. We will try to rediscover the most significant and meaningful ones on this very special exploration. 

Day 3: We begin today with a transfer to Lake Como, one of Italy's largest lakes and one of the most beautiful sights in Italy.  Breathtaking views will be our background today, offering an incredible combination of colors and shapes: the blue of the water and the sky, the green of the trees, the majesty of the villas and gardens with silhouettes of their ancient statues overlooking the water.  Here we hike along a path overlooking the lake and end our day at the ruins of Castle Vezio, where we may attend an interesting falconry training program, weather permitting.

Day 4: Taking full advantage of our lake stay, we will walk, ride a local ferry, explore pretty Bellagio, and visit beautiful Villa Carlotta with its 17-acre botanical garden. The villa itself is a very special museum that houses, among others, masterpieces by Canova and Hayez. The setting is extremely interesting as it is all in a 17th-century building, splendidly refurbished by the eccentric Giovanni Battista Sommariva, whose mysterious fortune was tightly tied to Napoleon. The garden is especially known for azaleas and rhododendrons.

Day 5: Again boarding our bus, we transfer to the Piemonte (Piedmont) region.  Piemonte means “at the feet of the mountains,” referring to the neighboring Alps. Some of the best wine in Italy is produced here, where vintners have been working for many years at developing sustainable farming of high-quality vineyards. Our hike through the vineyards will be scenic and informative, as we learn more about the different varietals planted here and how the soil influences the flavors and properties of the grapes, and ultimately the wine.  We can also sample some of the wines at a family-owned winery, where we will also learn about family ties and traditions.

Day 6: We'll take a longer hike today, meandering through the farmlands and stopping for lunch at an organic cheese farm, where they also raise their own sheep and grind their own grains for the bread. The owner is a very special character who will explain how he wants to become fully self-sustainable.  We will learn about Slow Food, a movement started nearby in 1986 when Carlo Petrini founded a non-profit association to support and promote the local food and flavors so tied to local culture and traditions. If we still have energy after the hike and lunch, we can visit a small village and castle.

Day 7: Today we move to the Finale Ligure area, a less visited corner of Italy, but surely one of the most beautiful parts of the Riviera. We'll take a hike with views over the sea to visit the charming and colorful village of Final Borgo with its interesting archaeological museum, and then end the day near Sanremo. Time permitting, we may also jump in the ocean for a refreshing swim!

Day 8: We start today with a visit to the Toirano caves, where traces of prehistoric settlements have been found. We will then hike in the environs of the village of Triora, famous for its witch trials 100 years before Salem's. We will learn more about the trials and the Inquisition, and look for some of the places where the so-called witches used to meet.  We will then return to our lodging near Sanremo. 

Day 9: Saying arrivederci to Italy, we drive into France, where we settle into new lodgings in the Vallee des Merveilles. It will be a very dramatic change of scenery as we will definitely be in the mountains today. Short walks take us to a few of the many rock art sites here.

Day 10: We continue exploring the valley today. More than 30,000 petroglyphs have been found and catalogued after their first discovery in the 19th century by the amateur archaeologist, Clarence Bicknell. We will hike to find the most famous ones, depicting horned animals, daggers, axes, suns, stars, spirals, and other symbols, which we will try to decipher.

Day 11: Transferring to Nice, we have options today to explore the town and enjoy some of the pretty villages of the coast, or take a last hike in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea before our farewell dinner. 

Day 12: The trip ends after breakfast with a transfer to Nice's airport.



Getting There

The trip begins and ends in different cities.  We start on the morning of June 15 at a hotel near Milan's Malpensa Airport.  Malpensa is the principal airport for Milan and has flights from just about everywhere. The nearby Linate airport is used primarily by budget airlines. Allow an hour by bus to Malpensa from either the city or Linate. The meeting hotel has a free, on-call, 20-minute-long shuttle service to Malpensa.  Plan on being at the hotel, ready to go no later than 9:00 a.m. Arriving at least a day early will help you avoid problems. The hotel has a delightful garden and is on the edge of a quaint village. 

The trip ends in Nice on the morning of June 26. Nice has a regional airport with frequent service to hubs such as Paris, Milan, or Frankfurt.  A transfer to the airport is included for those flying out this morning. Additional travel information and recommendations will be sent to approved participants, including ideas for what to do before and after the trip for those arriving early or staying on afterwards.

Please make sure that your passport is valid at least six months past the end of the trip -- a requirement of many countries. You are responsible for having your own passport and obtaining any necessary visas or other travel papers. Currently, U.S. citizens do not need a visa for either Italy or France. Travel insurance is strongly recommended. You are encouraged to arrive at least a day or two early to help overcome jet lag before we begin hiking.  It would also help should your luggage be delayed in arriving -- unfortunately, not a rare occurrence. 

Accommodations and Food

We will be staying at two- or three-star hotels, in double or twin rooms; if you are traveling alone you will be paired with someone of the same gender. All rooms will have private bath. Single rooms may be available at additional cost; contact the leader if interested. 

Breakfast will be served by the hotels. Expect a traditional continental breakfast of bread, pastries, butter, jelly, tea, or coffee.  There may be cereal, yogurt, or cold cuts and cheese at some of the hotels, but generally speaking, there is very little protein.  Lunch will be a mix of brown bag sandwiches or stops at small diners. Dinners will be at our lodging or nearby restaurants. At the restaurants, we will be ordering from the standard menu. Italians like to take their time over meals; a full dinner out, for them, could easily last a couple of hours or even longer. We will try to reduce the time needed at restaurants so we can have more time to explore.  Vegetarians can easily be accommodated; if you have more restrictive dietary requirements, please contact the leader.  Bottled drinks such as beer, wine, and soft drinks are not included in the trip price. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is suitable for active adults and mature young people.  Stops to study the petroglyphs or take photos are welcomed.  Some of our days will be strolling slowly along while studying petroglyphs.  Others will be actual hikes, typically no more than 5-6 miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain.  Our most difficult walk will be about 7 miles long with 2,000 feet of elevation gain.  On the trails we will walk at about 1.5 to 2 miles/hour.  In general the trails will be in good condition.  Except for the hikes on days 2 and 6, the walks are routinely done by average tourists.  That said, please remember that any trail can be slippery, and care is needed in the event of rain.  We will have a number of walks to choose from, and most days can be adjusted to suit the group's desires. 

Equipment and Clothing

No special equipment is required. You will need the gear you normally use on day hikes. Lightweight, broken-in boots are the most important item. Besides that, bring a daypack with your hiking essentials; including water, good rain gear, and something to keep you warm should the weather turn unexpectedly cold. You may also want a camera, sketch pad, binoculars, etc. Be sure you have enough extra room for your share of the picnic lunches. The leader will provide a more detailed list later.  Finally, don't forget your sense of adventure!




Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward environmentally understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad.

The areas we will be visiting have been inhabited for millenia. We will learn what we can about the people who lived here 8,000 years ago and compare their impacts on the land with modern man's. We will have an opportunity to see different approaches to preserving these sites.  We will also be visiting sustainable agricultural operations and learning about their techniques.



Gene Goldberg has been leading Sierra Club trips since 1990. Now retired, leading is his principle occupation. His Sierra Club trips have included backpacking in the Colorado Rockies and archaeological trips in New Mexico, as well as hiking and cultural trips to Italy, Nepal, the Swiss Alps, New Zealand, and Bhutan, among others. From 1969 to 1972 he lived in Naples, Italy. He now lives in Santa Fe with his wife, Gail, and dogs, Whisky and Bailey.

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