The plan – the original plan – the one I started two months ago was intended to be merely a day trip.
Arrive in La Spezia early then hop the trains along the coastline of the Cinque Terre.
Knowing there would be a tourist ensemble, I instead settled for two nights at Rifugio Muzzerone at Porto Venere. Described in Airbnb as a ‘Hikers Retreat’, I took the title with a grain of salt, now well accustomed to the little embellishments hosts give their rooms in order to make a sale.
But there was no embellishing here. This was fucking hardcore.
Directions provided barely described the journey ever upward consisting firstly of cement steps, then steps hewn from rock, then just rocks strategically wedged into dirt. I had to do this a few times. It was a 15-20 minute hike straight up and was it worth sacrificing the cartilige in my knees?
Porto Venere isn’t considered part of the Cinque Terre and mabye that’s one of it’s advantages. Located on the peninsula of La Spezia’s harbour, there is only one road leading in so you’re either going there or you’re not meaning most of the people visiting are Italians from further away.The restaurant-lined harbour is a magnet for the millionaire super-yachts docking alongside the small sailing boats yet there is no ostentatious displays of affluence, just people coming to relax and enjoy.
Between the end of June and end of August, a jazz festival, outdoor cinema and numerous performers and entertainers grace the temporary stage at the base of Church of San Pietro.
Check ww.eventiportovenere.it for future dates in 2016.
There are no museums of any kind along this coastline just six tantalizingly isolated miles of vintage Italian fishing villages, either tucked cosily into a ravine or perched on a mountain with the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean are waiting for you at the bottom. I should point out that it’s not so isolated when it comes to tourists so timing is crucial.
The five towns comprising the Cinque Terre have no roads where public access is concerned and only a train and trail connecting them so if you aren’t staying there you either need to base yourself out of one of the five towns or nearby towns such as Porto Venere. Its a five minute train trip between each town and the day trip to La Spezia from Rome is about a 3 hour train ride, the price of which depends how early you book (1 week €49, 3 weeks €29 and so on). There is a small ferry service from Porto Venere on the peninsula of La Spezia’s harbour and smaller boat tours such as Angelo’s three hour sunset tours depart from Monterosso.
Five minutes on the train from La Spezia and I’m at Riomaggiore, an 8th century enclave typical of the Mediterranean-style houses of this region with coloured facades and slate roofs. Riomaggiore came into into existence either through Achaeans escaping persecution from Byzantine emperor Leo III or when the inhabitants of the Vara valley, searching a milder climate to raise grapevines and olive-trees without the fear of pirate raids. Or both.
There’s no beach in the town to swim at but if you follow one of the paths around the left, there is a beach of sorts where the sand is replaced with large, time-smoothed stones that make that make an odd avalanche sound with every crashing wave. Activities available in Riomaggiore range from kayaking, scuba diving and of course wine (which in Italy is a genuine activity). The specialty of the Cinque Terre known as the “Sciacchetrà” is famous all over the world, made by grapevines from “Bosco”, “Fermentino” and “Albarola” grapes.
Not long after Riomaggiore is Manorola, the second smallest, oldest and possibly most photographed towns of the Cinque Terre. The San Lorenzo church at the peak dates from 1338. At 70 metres above sea level, it looks down on a picturesque little harbour and town square where townsmen meet for discussion as they have for hundreds of years though possibly less frequently during tourist season. There’s no beach here but the two boat ramps are put to very good use with couples and families lounging about here on any given day in summer and walking around is very much an up and down affair with a maze of steep little alleys and stairs all over.
Unlike the other towns, the next town, Corniglia, is the ony town of the five where the houses are not fronting the ocean and to reach Corniglia you’ll have to climb Lardarina, a long flight of steps made from brick althought there is also a shuttle at the station. The upside to that is his tiny village of only 240 people is far less frequented by the visitors. You’ll see colorful homes – some facing the road and the others facing the sea winding, narrow roads and finely crafted terraces. There is of course, no beach though I was informed of of the most famous of the coast’s little beaches, Guvano. At an abandoned train station, walk through the spooky tunnel to the metal gate. Ring the bell and you’ll be buzzed in by a guy who will want €5 to cross his property to get to the Cinque Terre’s only nude beach though the male/female ratio can vary considerably.
Certainly the jewel in the Cinque Terre crown is Vernazza owing to the tall houses on the promontory encircling the small bay then surrounded by massive defensive walls. The climb to the ancient Castle offers magnificent views of the ancient narrow streets meeting the narrow stairs and above them the doors of pink or yellow houses.
Vernazza’s (pictured) charms lie in it’s summertime atmosphere, where the piazza fronts the beach and unspoken volumes of Gelati are consumed on the promenade alongside it. The small harbour filled with tiny fishing boats and teenagers still on school holiday completes the scene leaving nothing else to do but strip down to your shorts and jump off the jetty with everyone else then sit back against the wall with a Birra Morretti when the town bell rings at five. The way life was meant to be.
The Capuchin Monastery and further above is a cemetery that was once the ancient Fieschi’s Castle offering an incredible panoramic view taking in on one side the steep Punta Masco, featuring the S. Antonio abbey’s ruins then in the opposite direction cansee Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola
up to Monte Nero cape.
Monterosso (pictured) is probably the most visited of the Cinque Terre due to it’s ease of access from Levanto along with the overall size of the town and beach. Much more like many beaches on the Mediterranean, there are umbrellas and lounges available with a promenade that allows for a wide range of fresco dining options are. The town is separated from the beach, accessible through a tunnel at the far left end of the beach where alleyways and piazzas greeet you though it’s as if this town has been stretched with wider alleyways and a number of roads through the town.
The most pleasing thing about visiting the Cinque Terre is you can sit any one of the town squares all day reading and sampling the food and wine, hike the connecting trails or just watch people go about their lives though in hindsight it should be absorbed over a few days.
It’s the secret that many Italians in this region have known for years, Il dolce far niente, “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Sweet indeed.