WHAT IS THE CINQUE TERRE?
Eighteen kilometers of sheer rocky coastline in northern Italy, terraced hills and vineyards sloping steeply down to the sea. Five little villages are built into the rocks between the beach and the hills. You can hike, swim, drink red wine, and watch blazing Mediterranean sunsets away from the tourist throngs in the Italian cities and the French Riviera. Centuries old footpaths and mule tracks wind about 500 to 1,000 feet above the sea, leading through olive groves and vineyards, orchards and chestnut woods.
Each village has its own character. There are almost no cars as the villages are not easily accessible by road, but the main railway between Rome and Paris runs along the coast, mainly in tunnels.
Map of the Cinque Terre
Several months ago, I wrote a preview on spending a wedding anniversary in our most favorite country, Italy.
My apologies for the delay. I disappeared for 9 weeks to the Philippines and did not have my journal with me. Here now is the full travelogue.
So I told you that I surfed the net on the best romantic place to celebrate “I do’s”.
We have thought about Venice but we were looking for some place nearer to drive.
Venice takes 6 hours by car from where we live. The net is filled with nice reviews of Cinque Terre in the Italian Riviera. It was voted “the very top seaside area in all Italy”.
We are obsessed with hilltop villages. The semi-derelict buildings. The fairytale ramparts. The medieval stonehouses linked by tiny passageways and covered arches and a lot more that would give you a taste of a bygone glory.
Armed with our tent, picnic table, picnic basket containing bottles of wine, wineglasses, china and cutlery, few changes of clothing and of course, our tattered map of Italy, we left the house that afternoon, two days to our anniversary. As always, when on a driving holiday, the holiday starts from the moment we start the car, that is, no rush, no worries, just enjoy the scenery and if hit with thirst and hunger, to choose only the charming places to have coffee or a meal. It doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive restaurants for we do believe that half of the fun is to be able to enjoy something without digging deep into our pockets.
After an hour of driving, we stopped by Laigueglia for coffee and also bought a nice poster at 10euros which we could frame and hang on the wall and would remind us of our anniversary trip. The poster is a coastal scene of the town.
Seaview of Laigueglia
Luckily, the Saturday flea market was ongoing
We sat for a coffee and watched the world go by
Travelling is our passion. But it’s not a cheap one, so being smart-alecks in spending money is our standing principle. We go to the local market to buy our food which is mainly ham, cheese, lettuce , tomatoes and some fruits in season. For our bread, we buy them fresh from the local panetteria. Finding a good place to picnic is the big challenge especially in Italy where almost all coastlines are “taken” (privatised). In France, it is not the case. All beaches are open to the public. If there are privatised ones, they are very few and far between.
After driving for an hour looking for a place to unpack our basket, we finally came to the right place. A parking lot perched aboveground overlooking the blue sea and the mountains, where some ruins of a chateau are left standing.
In Europe, picnicking is a way of life, especially in good sunny weathers. In just a few instant of setting up our table, several cars have also stopped next to us and started preparing their own picnic meals.
Where to sleep?
One of our favorite sleeping stops is a seaside parking lot in Sante Margherite. Our big car serves many purposes – for work, for shopping, for transporting bags of cement and DIY materials. We have been renovating our house for years now, in-between contracts of H. In fact, we just installed a roofbar in order to transport wood and pipes longer than the car. It is also our mobile bedroom! Yes, we have slept in the car loads of times. Sometimes we even find the seats more comfortable than a hotel bed, as some hotel beds are fitted with very hard mattresses. Inside the car, we just have to recline the seats, attach curtains on the windows, have some blankets and pillows, and voila! a comfortable and cozy place to sleep. And it’s free!
As always, sleeping in the car after a long hard day makes you sleep like a log. We woke up at 7am! Upon drawing the curtains, wow! What a beautiful sight infront of us! Just simply mind-blowing! That’s the Italian Riviera, my dear!
Next, we have to find a good place for breakfast. Portofino is just walking distance away so why not there? Although I won’t advise you to eat in Portofino. It is a very popular tourist spot well among the rich and famous. All the local eateries do is just give you a tiny plate of insignificant food that will cost you a fortune! We could not stop there anyway as the parking lots were all taken, at 8 in the morning!
To the Campsite
The best place to set up camp is in Levanto, the gateway leading to the five villages of Cinque Terre. At 23euros per night we could park the car, set up tent and have full access to electricity, water, shower room and toilet. That is cheap! We would rather spend our hard-earned money on good meals, you see. Even if this is our anniversary holiday, sleeping side-by-side inside a small tent is enough to get those romantic pins and needles going.
At the train station, we bought the Cinque Terre card at 13euros each. That will give us free access to trains and shuttle buses plying through the five hilltop villages up to the big town of La Spezia. We then searched for a shop where we could buy our provisions for our picnic the next day.
From our tiny tent, we were awakened by the sound of rain. What a good way to start the day of our tour, we thought. Nevertheless, we showered and got out of the campsite at 9am.
Village #1……: RIOMAGGIORE
Despite all the hullabaloo written about the beauty of the Cinque Terre, I must admit that we were a bit disappointed. It is amazing: the houses built on cliffs, the terraced hillsides, the trek to the next hilltop village, but somewhere out there, they all seem to be more artificial than glorious. Maybe we were searching for the Julius Caesar days when the more shabby and decrepit a village is, the more mysterious it becomes. And yes, they are still around, some of them are, in fact, just few minutes drive away from where we live. Perhaps, we have seen so much of the old Italian villaggio, frozen by time, so that seeing a very touristy Cinque Terre hardly impresses us. Even the supposed to be centuries-old Via dell’Amore, the track where one can hike to the next village, is almost-perfectly paved. And finding a bar right in the middle of it is totally unexpected! Okay, they put it up there to welcome ‘thirsty’ hikers, but heck, isn’t this supposed to be what you call a ‘rugged hike’?
Before leaving the house, that was exactly what i thought it would be. I even debated on bringing a walking stick in case I slip on the rocky footpath. But seeing the smooth walkway of the Via dell’Amore, I could have well brought a skateboard with me so i could just sweep my way onto the next village in just few seconds!
Blame it on overtourism? Well, you can have tourism without destroying the character of a place.
Oh well, since we are already here, we might as well make the most out of it. The spectacular views of the mountains and the sea and the matured trees and plants are still a sight to behold!
We kept walking until we found a quiet enclave by the beach at the back of the cliff. Few people were lucky enough to have found this, away from the maddening crowd. There we set up to picnic then did some sunbathing.
Before getting sunburned, we decided to attack the Via dell’Amore to get us to the next village. The hike to Manarola is half an hour.
Via dell’Amore as seen on the left side of the mountain
To start the trek through Via dell’Amore, you have to go through a tunnel aged with graffiti. A noticeboard shows the timings on the tunnel. You must be out by 10pm (or something like that) or else, you will be locked in and no way to get out until the tunnel opens again the next day.
The tunnel which starts the trek to the ‘Road of Love’
A view of Manarola from the hiking trail
Instead of cars, the locals park their boats just outside their doorstep
a ceramic shop
A promenade of the village reveals that a portion of it is actually standing on a bridge, over a river
The handcrafted tiles of Manarola
Waiting for the train
From Manarola, the Via del Amore connects to village #3, Corniglia
We finally called it a day and returned to our homebase in Levanto where we planned to hold our anniversary dinner. We were feeling like splurging that night, our anniversary night, and so began the patient search for a decent restaurant. And by “decent”, it should also mean it has to accept our visa card so we are not left short of cash just as we are in the middle of enjoying a meal. We find that remote villages in Italy don’t accept credit cards, even if it means losing business from tourists.
We finally saw an Osteria (seafood restaurant) packed, inside and outside, to the brim of diners. A surefire way to gauge a restaurant’s gastronomic marvel is by the whooping number of customers patronizing the place. We later found that it was a good choice!
Fritto misto or fried mixed seafoods
Grigliato misto or grilled mixed seafoods
Ummmm… delightfully good! The seafood just melts in the mouth. Washed down with good sparkling white wine, the costly price of which is temporarily disregarded due to the importance of the evening ! H ordered the grilled and I, the fried. We always take a different menu each, so we can have a taste of two dishes by sharing “half-half”.
Same goes with the dessert.
After the main dish, we were served a plate of 3 kinds of cheese: the beautiful parmiggiano, and two others. That was the night when my love affair with the parmiggiano began!
Full, satisfied and poorer, we hurried back to the campsite, dropped our exhausted bodies inside the tent and fell asleep instantly!
We woke up with aching muscles and contorted backs! Despite the several layers of blankets which served as our mattress, the camping ground seemed like a giant rock flattened to make business out of tent people like ourselves! Next time, we shall be taking an inflatable mattress. Failing that, there’s always the car as the last alternative!
We took the train and decided to go straight to La Spezia, the biggest town that pretty well wraps up any Cinque Terre itinerary.
La Spezia is glorious! If you are passionate of classic Italian architecture untouched by progress, this is the place to go.
The town was a naval arsenal in the 19th century, hence the presence of artillery along the promenade
Painting the town red
After a quick tour of La Spezia, we took the train and headed for Cornilia. A shuttle bus ride to the hilltop village and back to the train station is included in the Cinque Terre card.
This was where we saw the biggest number of tourists comprising mostly of Americans, Japanese and a mix of other Europeans.
Blurred view of Manarola from the hilltop of Corniglia
A narrow alley of Corniglia
Tending their terraced vineyards and farms is hard work.
What a view from someone else’s terrace!
A bed of geraniums is all I need for a perfect sleep
“Don’t leave me…..!”
The beach of Vernazza
The last leg of our Cinque Terre escapade is the coastal town of Monterosso
It was getting dark when we reached Monterosso