A little worn from weeks of touring around Italy, tired of crowded museums and molto rapiddo Italian drivers, my husband and I turned our rented Alpha Romeo toward the sea and headed for Le Cinque Terre––”The Five Lands”––a string of coastal villages on the quiet end of the Italian Riviera.
From the port town of La Spezia we headed up the winding, rising road to Cinque Terre, which is largely inaccessible except on foot, by boat or by riding a rickety train that runs between the tiny towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Arriving above Riomaggiore as the sun set over the sea, we parked, loaded up our backpacks and hopped on the parking lot shuttle down to the cobbled main street, emerging in a canyon of color, between stucco houses washed in faded tones of coral, pale gold and a watery blue-green. Magenta waves of bougainvillea careened off the balconies, and window boxes overflowed with red geraniums. Could it be so picturesque, so postcard-perfect? Bright blue fishing dories piled with nets were lined up at the edge of the stone jetty, and a few old men sat smoking. Looking north, we could see miles of misty coastline interrupted by craggy cliffs plunging into the Ligurian Sea like the scaly claws of a giant creature of the deep.
In the fading light, we wandered around, stopping at signs for rooms, and having no luck, walked back up the main road and got the last room at the Villa Argentina, a fine little hotel with a town and sea view. Our bathtub was huge, life was good.
Under a full moon on the patio of a restaurant near the hotel, we devoured frittatas di asparagi––small omelettes with wild asparagus and potatoes––and frittelles di bianchetti––rice-based, sweet fritters. Our waiter brought glasses of sciacchetra, a sweet, golden, locally-produced dessert wine, and he advised that we set off early on our hike, against the heat.
Next morning, fortified by a breakfast of muesli, yogurt, fresh fruit and breads, the typical hotel breakfast in Italy, we set off down the hill, pausing for double cappuccini in a caffe bar. At 8 a.m. on this May morning, the azure-blue sky and the water were exactly the same color as we started to walk, holding onto a chain railing on the anything-but-flat trail cut out of the rock, a hundred feet or so above the calm sea. This is where the blue really begins, the miraculous, translucent, timeless blue of the Ligurian Sea, a blue that never leaves your sight as you trod the narrow path.
Blood-red poppies blazed beneath the olive trees, and crop terraces clung to the foothills on our right, each level braced by a hand-built stone wall. The trail snaked around boulders and chestnut trees, climbing by uneven stone steps, descending in slippery gravel slopes, and climbing again. We were glad to be early, for the cool and the solitude. Later in the morning, the sun rose hot and other hikers appeared, from groups of school kids to muscular backpackers with Scandinavian blond hair and blazing blue eyes, to villagers with baskets of vegetables. Blue dories bobbed offshore and an occasional passenger ferry zipped by.
Manarola and Corniglia
As we closed in on the first village, Manarola, laid out snugly on a curve of hillside above a tiny breakwater, we detoured to a path above to visit the baroque parish church, St. Lorenzo. Just behind the church is a youth hostel, one of the nicest in Italy, and above here, actually a thousand steps up the mountainside, in the hamlet of Volastra is another parish church, this one dedicated to Our Lady of the Salvation, built in 1338 in a gothic style with a rose window and baroque interior.
We rambled another hour along the seaside trail, which was bordered by cacti in bloom and drifts of pink and lavender sweet peas where fat, fuzzy, black bumble bees buzzed loudly. In a smattering of colorful stucco buildings, the upper reaches of Corniglia sprang right up out of the rocks. Rather than take the main street, just a cobbled lane, down into the village, we collapsed in a little cafe, the Dau Tinola, right on the side of the trail, drank limonatas and watched a steady parade of workmen carrying tools, a gang of students dressed alike, fisherman in rubber boots, and grandmothers with little kids––rush hour in Corniglia.
We browsed in a nearby shop called Monica Comunello and bought colored tissue-paper lanterns that fold flat, and T-shirts hand-screened with scenes of the town. Only the next day did we find out that we missed the parish church here, San Pietro, built in the 14th century.
It’s an hour or so to the next town, Vernazza, past gravely bits of beach reachable only by mountain goats, if there were any, and some stretches of railroad track, where the little four-car train came rattling along a couple of times, her passengers’ noses pressed against the glass on the ocean side. (There is a little train station in each town, and a frequent schedule of stops in both directions, although the trains are seldom on time.)
On the heat-radiating, flinty path, the sound of the surf cooled our spirits, if not our brows. Picking wild roses, we somehow wandered down onto the railroad right-of-way and lost the path, ending up in a surprisingly upscale neighborhood of small villas with nice gardens, above Vernazza. We scrambled down to the waterfront through a gaggle of tourists and grabbed a table at Restaurant Gambero Rosso (the red prawn), one of the harborside cafes, and ordered two very cold Moretti beers.
Vernazza is the most photographed town of Le Cinque Terre–-an 11th century village crowded onto two pincer-shaped, rocky bluffs around a small harbor protected by a stone breakwater. Dozens of primary-color umbrellas shade restaurant tables against a backdrop of four-story buildings painted in coral and siena, with laundry hanging down and flowers cascading out of windows and over rooftops. Blue-green and red fishing dories are beached at the foot of the stone bell tower of the old parish church, and sailboats and yachts bob offshore. A ferry arrives every hour with a herd of locals and visitors.
Starving from our morning’s trek, we consulted with the restaurant proprietor about lunch. He insisted we have the specialty of Le Cinque Terre, acciughe alla griglia––grilled anchovies––and brought us a plate of the small, sweet, white fish dressed in olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon, served with large caperberries, marinated and still on their stems. The Vernazzans eat their anchovies raw or pickled, too.
We also tried another traditional Ligurian dish, troffie––nuggets of chestnut flour pasta tossed with slender green beans, diced potatoes, and pesto. Washed down by a chilled bottle of dry, white Vermentino, made from grapes grown on the terraces above the town, the meal fortified us for an expedition to the handful of shops selling trinkets, ceramics and beachwear. We noticed signs for “rooms” and “zimmer,” which is German for rooms. The accepted method of finding a place to stay is to ask at restaurants and shops. Every resident seems to have a friend or relative offering rooms or small apartments to rent by the day or week; Vernazza and Monterosso also have a few small two- and three-star hotels.
Monterosso del Mare
After cooling our feet in the clean, clear harbor waters, we headed back up to the trail and on toward Monterosso del Mare, the northernmost and the largest of the Cinque Terre towns. From Vernazza to Monterosso is the most difficult part of the Sentiero Azzurro, the “sky-blue footpath,” which is what they call this section of the trail. It was a rather warm, dusty, two-hour trek before we reached the rewards of Monterosso––a nice beach, in fact the only sandy beach on the Cinque Terre, and an outdoor market. Before descending into town, we came upon a beautiful hotel, the Porta Roca, riding high above the sea like a royal barge, her palm trees waving like flags. Once on the garden terrace here with cold drinks in our hands and a spectacular stretch of coastline below, we decided to stay overnight and explore Monterosso in the morning. We were lucky to snag an airy, air-conditioned room with a balcony. After cold squid salad and bowls of burrido–-Genoese fish soup––in the hotel restaurant, we lingered at our window table long after the sea turned gold and the sun dropped away, watching the flickering lights on fishing boats disappearing into a lowering mist.
We found good sightseeing and shopping in Monterosso, a lovely old place to explore, with clusters of multi-hued, multi-story houses, and numerous cafes and shops in meandering alleyways. The medieval Torre Aurora––the Dawn Tower––divides the old part of town from the new, and the ruins of an enormous medieval castle stand guard. In the church of San Francesco are several important works of art, the most notable being the “Crucifixion,” believed to have been painted by Van Dyck.
When the sun rose above our heads, we retreated to the pebbly beach, to lounge chairs under umbrellas reserved by the Porta Roca for their guests. Looking through maps from the tourist office that we came across in the town, we considered another hike, this time on a web of footpaths and mule tracks across the mountainsides. And yet, after a dip in the warm Ligurian Sea and a nap on the lounge chairs, and another dip, well, we only managed to make it to a nearby waterfront restaurant, La Tortuga. The fish was fresh, the wine was cheap, and the moment of departure came too soon. We finally turned away from the sea, stopping at a much-heralded cafe, La Voglia, for la pesca–-fresh peach––gelati, and headed for the train station, ready to hit the road to Rome
Latest News on Cinque Terre Storm Damage
You may recall that on October 25, 2011, Vernazza and Monterosso were hit hard by mud slides and floods caused by torrential rains. Travel guru/author/Europe expert, Rick Steves, went there soon after the disaster to report on the recovery, and he continues to write about Cinque Terre and sends his tour groups there. See his detailed descriptions and recommendations here.
Also, here are fabulous images and more insider advice about Cinque Terre, including information about how some of the trails have been closed due to the mudslides. If you’re going on your own, be sure to find out what’s the latest on the trails; a good resource is the Facebook page, My Cinque Terre.
For the guided walking tour of a lifetime in Cinque Terre and Portofino, book with Butterfield & Robinson.