VERNAZZA, ITALY - The view one gets of the ocean from this magical town that clings to Italy’s jagged Ligurian coast is spectacular.
Being nicely exhausted after climbing most of the day along trails that connect what’s known as Cinque Terre (Five Lands), the bench in Vernazza, from where we look out on the glorious ocean vista, comes just in time.
Then comes the mountain of crumbs — a local housewife has just emptied her tablecloth from the window above and the remnants of her last meal comes raining down on us like confetti at a wedding.
Above: Seniors gather to discuss the day's events in Monterosso.
But even that cannot ruin our view or this romantic moment at the start of our 50th wedding anniversary trip through Italy’s legendary Cinque Terre, which is located on the scenic Italian Riviera.
Considered a relaxed cousin of wealthy Portofino, Cinque Terre consists of five villages, Vernazza, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Manarola and Monterosso al Mare. Cars are not allowed in any of the towns and visitors have three choices by which to reach each — by foot, train or ferry.
We actually start our tour by visiting La Spezia and Porto Venere, which, while not actually part of the Cinque Terre, are lovely little towns that border this treasured area of Italy dominated by colourful villages that sweep down from high cliffs to the sea.
We drive to La Spezia, stay a night, and leave our car in the hotel parking lot for five days.
Then we hop on the local bus to Porto Venere and, after a wild serpentine ride upwards, arrive at our first lovely village to explore. The narrow streets take us up to the ancient church of San Lorenzo and Doria Castle and, finally, to the Church of San Pietro, built in 1198, which sits perched atop a hill with another jaw-dropping panoramic view.
Next day we take the train to Vernazza, where we stay at the Franca Maria Apartments. Best to heed the advice we got from a seasoned traveller: “Do not book accommodation in every village. Choose only one village and do day trips.” Lugging suitcases or backpacks up and down the steep Cinque Terre paths can be tiring, to say the least. We are impressed to see the number of people — of all ages and shapes — hiking here.
Above: Pretty towns with colourful homes greet us on our journey.
Train travel in this part of Italy posed a challenge for us. The ticket sellers speak very little English and with such large crowds, they just do not have time to try and explain things.
A very important tip: Do not forget to validate your ticket in one of the many machines placed outside the ticket office. If neglected, it could result in receiving a hefty fine and tourists are not exempt. It is difficult to find out how much the fine is, but we overheard one ticket taker saying it was 50 euros (about $75, Cdn.). We buy tickets only for the villages we are going to and they are good for 75 minutes after validation.
Vernazza is a one-street town dotted with charming shops all the way to the oceanfront and the village has recovered nicely from a flood that crippled it in 2011. The walk along the shore is nothing short of spectacular and if you are fortunate, you may see some young men diving from the high rocks that dot the shoreline.
It’s a climb up to see the ruins of Doria Castle; the family that built the castle of the same name in Porto Venere apparently built this one, too.
The main tower is called Belforte and it was built in the 15th century to fend off the pirates who patrolled the coastline. A restaurant that bears the name of the tower is considered Vernassa’s best.
Above: Beaches and bikinis are everywhere in the Cinque Terre.
The lovely Santa Margherita d’Antiochia Church, built in 1318, sits on a rock right at the ocean. After a visit to light a candle or two, be sure to stop by the Ananasso Bar right outside and enjoy a cappuccino under their inviting yellow umbrellas. Perhaps the town’s character, Mauricio Carro, will thrill you with a few songs while he is bringing in his boat.
Riomaggiore is straight uphill from the train station, where the tunnel to the town is decorated with attractive mosaic tiles and stone. Fruit and vegetable shops dominate the main street.
Primo Platto, where Roberta Ricci makes handmade pasta and will cook it for you in five minutes, is not to be missed. Just choose your topping and Roberta puts it in a container and — ecco! — a delicious lunch to eat on the go for just five euros!
On the other side of the now paved-over river that separated the town, is a wonderful view of the sea and there are sailboats and rowboats aplenty for rent. If you have the energy, climb higher to San Giovanni Battista. Further up is the ancient castle of Riomaggiore and once again, remember, good walking or hiking footwear is a must!
Manarola is the second smallest of the Cinque Terre towns and it, like Riomaggiore, is a delightful place to swim and sunbath on the lava rocks. The town’s beautiful pastel-coloured homes look like they are built one atop another. Hike up to Nessun Dorma for a drink and a platter of salami and cheese while enjoying the splendid view.
Corniglia is the smallest of the villages and perhaps the oldest. There are 365 steps — but who’s counting — up to the landlocked town centre. However, the bus is also an option and it only takes a few minutes to arrive at the top. Although Corniglia is not on the ocean, there is a terrific panoramic view to enjoy from the town centre.
Above: The freshness of the food is something that can't be matched anywhere.
We really felt we had to try the fresh anchovies that are a classic dish in this region, so we make ourselves comfortable at the Bar Terza Terre overlooking the ocean and sample an aperitivo — two glasses of local white wine (quite good), anchovy toasts, pesto toasts, a cheese platter and honey, all for 13 euros. We find the anchovies to be surprisingly delicious and are glad we tried them. Sitting at this nice café while viewing the surrounding terraced vineyards is an amazing experience.
Monterosso al Mare is more of a resort town with a long beach studded with colourful umbrellas. We regret not having packed our swimsuits because everyone seemed to be enjoying the turquoise water.
Most of the outdoor cafés here sport red and white checked tablecloths that beckon scores of hikers. It seems there are more hotels and eateries here and this is quite a large town in comparison to the other villages of Cinque Terre. A tunnel takes us to an older section of town with more shops.
Above: Walks along rocky cliffs that drop into the sea are lined with fresh fruit.
One must be in reasonably good shape to venture into this region as most of the time here is spent climbing or hiking. If it isn’t stairs that are very old, it’s long and winding paths or cobblestone streets that you must navigate — wear good shoes!
All throughout the villages, the atmosphere is relaxed and laid back — quite wonderful.
It’s said Cinque Terre has mille delizie — a thousand delights — and we enjoy them all.