Sunday, 11 March 2007

Cinque Terra Sightseeing

Cinque Terra - the unknown Italy

If you take a train north from La Spezia, a city equidistant between Pisa and Genoa, you will pass through an exceptional number of tunnels along the coast line to Rapallo. As you look out the windows between tunnels you will see little villages clinging to the sides of cliffs, like barnacles on an old freighter. This is the area known as the Cinque Terre, the Five Lands.

Each village is basically pretty much like the next, built essentially in a gully above the seashore. The Five Lands are actually five of these villages, built in the Dark Ages to hide out from marauding pirates. The villages have been declared a National Park and to preserve their historic authenticity large hotels, in fact nearly all new buildings of any kind are prohibited. The only access is by the train and the sea. There is a well kept up hiking trail joining the five villages that can best be described as climbing out of a village, then descending into the next village, then climbing out of that village and so on. But the views from the hiking trail are spectacular.

Here the coastline is running east to west and the five villages in that order are: Riomaggiore where the hiking trail starts, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare (Red Mountain by the Sea) where the trail ends for our purposes. Because of the ban on building, there are few hotels, there are B&Bs, pensiones and other small places for the light traveller.

Vernazza has a very old ruined castle overlooking its small natural harbor and it is a great place from which to explore the Cinque Terre. First day, you can catch the early ferry to Riomaggiore and start hiking through the villages back to Vernazza. It's about six to seven hours, allowing time for a wine here, a lunch there, etc., along the way.

The first stretch from Riomaggiore to Manarola is fairly level, the locals call it the Via Dell'Amore and takes about 15-20 minutes. Manarola is a good place to pick up a few things for a picnic before heading on to Corniglia. This village sits above the coastline. You can walk right through the lower part of the town and head out to the next village, if you don't pause for a moment and notice that there is more of the village well above the trail, in fact 370 steps zigzagging up the hillside to the upper level. The climb is worth it though, the fantastic view enhances the wine and the food and there are quite a few private rooms for rent.

The story is that a Roman farmer named the village after his mother, Cornelia. Corniglian was once so famous that urns of it were found in the ruins of Pompeii. Now you can follow the high trail through the vineyards and a few olive groves. Between Corniglia and Vernazza, you'll see a beach called Guvano with (in the summer) nude sunbathers reposing along it. It's the Italian version of counter-culture: pierced nipples (male and female), tattooed punks, hippies in dreadnoughts and plain exhibitionists. Not a family beach!

This part of the trail is the most interesting, with its terraced vineyards clinging to the mountain walls all along, wild flowers, the salt-lace aroma of the sea whenever a breeze blows it up the mountain side. There are a few spots for the daring to do high dives down into the sea and numerous refreshing waterfalls. This is a two hour hike if you don't press it. Eventually it descends into Vernazza.

If you have the time to linger awhile, then plan to stay another night in Vernazza and then you can visit Monterosso tomorrow. Vernazza has pretty much one street that stretches from the harbor up a slight grade to the train station and on into the vineyards beyond. There are a quite a number of fishermen who sail out of this little harbor early in the morning each day, you can count on some very fine fresh seafood in any café here. Evening entertainment for the locals is a few laps between the station and the harbor before retiring. They're in no hurry, just leisurely strolling along, chatting about heaven knows what. There's highway that roughly follows the outline of the coast but at least 5-10 kilometers away from the towns. Some brilliant engineer in Rome decided to help Vernazza join the 20th century by running a branch road over a mountain ridge and down towards the village. Alas, the villagers had other ideas and constructed barriers at the top of the ton and that's where the road still ends. No vehicles in Vernazza, thank you very much!

Next day, hike over to Monterosso. It boasts the only sandy beach in the entire Cinque Terre, the rest are all pebbles, well worn and round pebbles, but still not sand. This is a resort town, with all the cars, hotels, paddleboats and crowds under beach umbrellas that you'll find along any sandy beach from here to the Riviera. When you've had your fill, head back to Vernazza on the train. The trains run through the Cinqua Terre like Italian clockwork almost hourly. There's also a ferry that connects the five villages.

One lasting impression that you may take away with you are the church bells ringing at all hours. In olden times, the bells would call in the fishermen and the vineyard keepers from the mountain sides in the event of an emergency. They are still calling, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Before closing, I must mention the food. Fresh seafood of course, but this is also the home of pesto. Fresh basil from the mountain side gardens, cheese (half parmigiano from the cows and half pecorino from the sheep), garlic, local olive oil and ground pine nuts, poured over a generous plate of pasta. Ambrosia of the Gods!

The Cinqua Terre is a great place to lay back and let the world go by for a few days. The wine is cheap and very good, the food is simple but incomparable, inexpensive accommodation is available if you look around for it. Great scenery and the locals pretty much ignore you. What more could you ask for?


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1 comment:

Villa Mimma said...

I lived in Bonassola, two villages after the CT, going from la Spezia to Genoa.

Bonassola has the best beach of the Riviera di Levante (Eastern Riviera) and it is a little jewel not to be missed if you are at the CT.

I would reccommend to eat at the restaurant "Da Malvina" and ask for the "Spaghetti al cartoccio" or her "branzino al forno".

Bonassola, although still under very strict building regulations, has a few small - family run- hotels. The best one is Hotel Belvedere, but i also like the Pensione Moderna.

On the hillside between Bonassola and Levanto, there is a resort with small villas for rent and a pool half way up on the hills. It is paradise and it is called "La Francesca".

Levanto is a bigger town and it is a very good base for visiting both the CT and Bonassola. There are many hotels, restaurants and B&Bs. It has a long sandy beach and many beach resorts where you can rent chairs and umbrellas. Worth considering, although it is not as romantic and petit as the CT (even Monterosso!) or Bonassola.

This area is certainly worth a visit and if you haev been to the Amalfi coast, you cna think of a more colourful version of it, also less spoilt by tourism, although it is becoming ever so popular during the spring/summer time.