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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cinque Terre: a place to love!

Dear friends,

Today I want to take you to another wonderful place of my Italy that I had the pleasure to visit several times with my parents and that I love ever since: Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre, which means Five Lands, is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. "The Five Lands" comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
All the towns slope down to sea-level except for Corniglia, which is perched on top of a tall cliff. Four of the towns possess an old-world charm (from North-to-South: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore). The northern-most town, Monterosso, is completely different. It is very beachy-resorty, with a beautiful boardwalk, modern apartment blocks and hotels, so different from the narrow, crooked streets of the other towns, lined with colorful old houses stacked haphazardly on top of each other.

The Cinque Terre is noted for its beauty, and I will assure you will fall in love with their landscaping. Over centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Mediterranean herbs and trees grow spontaneously from the top of the hills down to the water level. Well embedded in this magnificent natural scenery, one can admire the intense human activity of the ancestors, when the wine terraces were built. I was for sure an enormous (and somehow crazy) work of transportation, carrying all the heavy stones on men's shoulders and women's heads. A work through the centuries: in fact it's estimated to have taken about 200 years to build the entire stonewall network.

Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach it from the outside. As you can imagine it is a very popular tourist destination, but still you will not feel overwhelmed with it. There are places with so much beauty, breathtaking view that have the magic power to make you forget about anything around but what you see.

Traveling by car is by far the worst way to explore the Cinque Terre, there is little parking and what there is lies well outside the villages. On advise of a family friend, who was born there, we drove from Venice to La Spezia where we left the car and took the local train from La Spezia to Genoa to the "five lands". The tracks ran most of the distance in a tunnel between Riomaggiore and Monterosso. The train occasionally emerged from the tunnel along the way and there were quick glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea. Breathtaking!! On this picture you can see the tunnel near the ocean where the train punctures the mountain to travel from town to town.

I know that a passenger ferry runs also between the five villages, except Corniglia. The ferry enters Cinque Terre from Genoa’s Old Harbor and La Spezia, Lerici or Portovenere. I don’t know about the ferry, but I can say that the train ride was great!!



While in the 5 Terre there are walking trails that connects the five villages and walking is very popular, especially on the main coastal paths, which are subject to park entrance fees. The trails vary in difficulty from an easy stroll to a rough and physically challenging hike. There are fees to use the more popular walking trails, but the less frequently traveled (and most arduous I’ve been told) are free of charge. All of the trails are relatively narrow and are usually crowded in high tourist season. In order to walk along the trails between the villages, we had to purchase a pass (5 euros nowadays), which is available at the information offices near the train stations at any of the five villages. We payed a small supplement (an extra €3) for the pass and got unlimited travel between the villages, Levanto, and La Spezia on regional trains for the duration of the pass. This is what we did with my family while there and I must say made the whole trip easy going.

The Cinque Terre has one of the best coastline hiking trails in the world, and it was such a great experience to be able to walk them. I walk the path from Riomaggiore to Manarola. This is called the Via Dell'Amore (or roughly "Lovers Walk"). This beautiful trail along the shore was very easy to hike. I also hiked from Manarola to Corniglia, also easy. The trail from Corniglia to Vernazza had incredible views of shore but was steep at certain places. The trail from Vernazza to Monterosso was the steepest, but not overly demanding and was still doable: and winding through Olive orchards and vineyards and offering dramatic ocean views, was such a joy to walk. I enjoyed all of them…We were all very tired at night but we all had memories to share forever of so much beauty!!

The walk between all the villages took the better part of our days for sure. We decided to walk but we were aware that there was also a pedestrian ferry service to all five villages that gives you nice views of the villages from the water. The milk train that connects all the villages was also a quick way to hop among towns…but we had time and energy so we walked.



The villages of the Cinque Terre were so beautiful that I only wish you could go and see it for yourself.
Riomaggiore is the southern-most of the 5 Terre. During the day you could hear bell towers chiming and at night the frogs were in frenetic chatter. Mysteriously, while I was there a fleet of ships had appeared at night and their yellow lights all clustered together offshore were so beautiful. I remember that I woke up early hoping to see them on the daylight …but by morning they were gone. The village is dated from the early thirteenth century and is known for its historic character and its wine, produced by the town's vineyards. While in Riomaggiore we visit its ancient stone “castello”. The first mention of this castello appeared in a document from the mid-500s, which already described it as “ancient”. Its quadrangular walls with two circular towers were built to protect the citizens in case of an attack from the sea. In 800, the castello became a cemetery, and parts were destroyed to adapt it to its new function. Nowadays it is one of the monuments of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. Very beautiful!!

While in Riomaggiore I remember that most of the life at night was found at the Bar Centrale.
Most of the action in Riomaggiore was on the main street, Via Colombo, where there was an assortment of cafes, bars, restaurants, and of course, gelaterie.

There were also “alimentari”, food shops, selling the typical yummy Italian fare: fresh fruit (strawberries, cherries, and nespole), an assortment of salumi (salami, mortadella and the like), cheeses, olives, etc. These were good places to stock up for the hikes into the hills, although all of them were not very far from a town.
We had lunch at a great restaurant called “La Grotta” and dinner at “ La Lanterna” near the harbor, with specialty: mussels and pasta. Both great places, even if we were told that the good was great basically everywhere!! 

Bar & Vini, was a wonderful place on the side of the mountain above the sea, that my family loved to stop by at night. The place had the usual mix of tourists and local families with their kids, even well into the night. I have so many wonderful memories of this place. I hope to be able to get back one day soon.


In Riomaggiore I had the chance to walk the “Via dell’Amore”, a path connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola: a 15-minute stroll along this picturesque Via dell’Amore ("Love Walk") was just out of this world with magnificent views all around. I didn’t have the chance to feel tired at all…there was so much beauty all around that time flew away and so did our feet. Only to write about 5 Terre makes me happy!! Beautiful during the day and and at down!

Manarola is a town filled with boats, at least on the lower part of it. Covered boats of all kinds line the main street, was all I noticed in the beginning and the fact that is was hard to say when they had last been out. There were many lovely places to eat and drink also in Manarola. La Cantina Dello Zio Bramante was the one that we enjoyed the most where we had acciughe (anchovies) fresh from the sea, with lemon, olive oil, and fresh, crusty bread. Super delicious and super healthy. We went back a few days later for more!!  It turned out that Manarola also had one the greatest gelateria of all the towns: 5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia: their gelati were delicious and the warm weather had for sure made us love them even more….the view added some magic to it!!

Manarola also had a nice little swimming area. There was a little cement pier next to some big rocks that you could wade out from, into the blue blue waters. There were plenty of caves and coastline to explore, and underwater rocks. So much fun!! There were stairs going all the way down to sea level, and a small little terrace about halfway down with picnic tables where we could see locals enjoying a simple lunch. There were lots of sharp mussels and barnacles down by the rocks, but otherwise the swimming was fantastic here too, without many people around. We bought plastic shoes that we wore to get into the weather and we were all fine to go!!

In Manarola the citizen has made an enormous nativity scene on a promontory nearby the village. This “Presepio”, is overlooking the village all year round but is illuminated only at Christmas. We visit family friends many years ago for Christmas and I got to see it….even if I was a child I still remember the sight: magical!!


All of the Cinque Terre towns were accessible by boat except Corniglia, which sits about 300 feet above the Ligurian Sea. We went there with the train: what a ride between lemon trees, vines, lilies and vegetation of all kinds, and in May, when I visit, the air was full of the perfume of flowers.
Corniglia felt smaller and quieter, but just as quaint as the other towns. All in all, because of its altitude and its small size, Corniglia is the least visited of the five towns, and once we reached it, even though we were only two or three hours from the airport of Pisa or Genoa, or a half-day from Rome, we felt a wonderful, stress-relieving sense of isolation. It is a town that some guidebooks mention only in passing. Both the food and the wine are raised on the sides of cliffs, in spaces hacked out and terraced for plant and animal life. Corniglia has been isolated for all its existence, and that’s reflected in the character of its people. I went with my dad into the Enoteca PirunCorniglia.

While in Corniglia, we started our days with breakfast at Bar Matteo in the village’s most hospitable piazza, where we were recognized by the staff and called by name already the second day.
This was a little piazza with a communal olive press where we could sit and pass the time. People were very friendly here. I loved Corniglia. Was like the time stood still at time here!! Everyone who has ever walked the path from Vernazza to Corniglia has to walk up these stairs as they pass by these private home entrances. With all those people walking by every day, I was so impressed to notice how clean it was.



We took then the Blue Trail from Corniglia to Vernazza, the next town to the north. This was a dirt path that started off in an olive grove above the town. It kept climbing and things got a bit sweaty and steep in some places, with many stone steps and a few switchbacks. Nothing too strenuous though, at least it wasn’t for me….if you ask my dad he will tell you a different story!!  You need to wear walking shoes…and and have some serious sun protection!! The trail along the sea gave great backwards views of both Corniglia and Manarola.

Vernazza is approached from above and there are two ancient towers in prominent view (they close at 7PM…so don’t get there too late like we did). The town itself was a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead down to the main street. At first sight, Vernazza seemed a little rundown to me and I’m sure you will feel the same. The paint on the buildings around the beach area were peeling off in large sections, but don’t let that put you off. Vernazza was lively and had a great night scene, two clock towers, a beach, boats, and a large public space with umbrellas and tables. The beach area was a small sandy strip that was not the best swim spot (there was only a small section of water roped off for swimming, beyond which were boats and then the open sea), but it was safe for kids and free of sharp bivalves….and at time quiet busy, if you ask me!!
While there we went to Pizzeria Fratelli Basso on via Roma, one of only two places in town where you can eat farinata—like a focaccia but made with chickpea flour. Very yummy!!
We spent the evening having drinks along the main street below the train station, lounging on a quiet bench above the town the sea, or by the sea, watching the mountainous coastline zigzag in and out, hiding to Monterosso. We spend one night here and it was like fairytale. So quiet and relaxing!!
You can find many Hostels and Bed&Breakfast in all the villages, but you can also easily find private rooms for rent. If you can't see signs, just ask in a cafe.


But most of the tourists in the Cinque Terre stay in Monterosso. This village is built to accommodate many tourists in large, modern apartments and hotels. It didn’t have quite the same charm as the other towns, but it did had a quite a large sandy beach with lots of umbrellas, and of course, beachside restaurants and cafes. It was worth visiting but the backstreets of Monterosso were not as interesting as in the other towns for me.

Depending on the time of the year there are some specific things to see: The lightning Nativity in Manarola (Dec. 8th till late Jan.). The world biggest Lighted nativity. Beautiful!!
The patron festivity of the 5 towns (all between late May and Aug.), a mix of religious ceremony and popular parties. A lot of fun!!
The pirate’s attack in Vernazza (mid summer), a celebration of the successful defense of the town from a Saracen attack occurred during the middle age. Very entertaining.

The harvest (early/mid Sept.) and wine making, when men's shoulders and women's heads are still used as they were hundreds of years ago. Suggestive and unforgettable experience.
I have heard that the sea storms (frequent in winter), a great show of nature's power. But I can’t confirm this, since, luckily, I haven’t experienced it while there!!

Given its location on the Mediterranean, seafood is plentiful in the local cuisine. But stay tune for my next week blog to hear more about food and wine and some surprises of the Cinque Terre.


Love always,

Giada




3 comments:

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