Do you need some travel inspiration? One of the most unique places in the world, one that combines beauty and authenticity, excellent food and exquisite wine and the possibility to be visited by train, boat, foot or even mixing the three together. As you can see I didn’t mention cars since, even though main roads exist, you will find yourself stuck in the traffic for hours instead of sightseeing.
Where are we? Liguria, an Italian region on the mediterranean sea. My advice is to get to La Spezia and then start your visit from there. If you arrive by car there are parking lots near the station or downtown where your car can be left for several hours or even for days.
Depending on how many days you have for your stay, here some suggestions:
La Spezia is a good place to start your journey and to find affordable hotel or b&bs; from here it will be easy to visit the Cinque Terre without having to spend a fortune to sleep there especially during the high season.
Buy the Cinque Terre Card http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/Ecinque-terre-card.php. Very useful if you want to go hiking or to take buses and trains.
Cinque Terre in order from La Spezia are: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.
From La Spezia you can decide to do a boat tour which lasts a day that will let you see all the 5 villages. Being a day tour, you will not have much time to really experience the atmosphere although you get the glance of it. Another option is to take the train to the last one, Monterosso, and then coming back with the train and see Vernazza then Corniglia, Manarola and as last one Riomaggiore where you can have dinner before taking the train back to La Spezia.
My personal ideal itinerary includes two days of visiting with some outstanding hiking routes that will enhance your trip.
First day: take the train in the morning to Riomaggiore, spend time in its narrow streets,“carruggi” in local dialect, walk to the castle which overlooks the sea and then relax having lunch with the best focaccia you can dream of. You will feel like being part of a postcard and it will be hard leaving but Manarola will not disappoint you. To reach Manarola take the boat so to have a sea view of Riomaggiore.
The main street of Manarola is on a slight incline running up from the ocean. Fishing boats line the main street along with shops and restaurants. Towards the top of the village there is a picturesque creek running through, near where the clock tower and the church sit. There is a great panoramic path to the north of Manarola that runs along the coastline towards Corniglia, which is closed at the moment. This is not the only path, though, you may take a bus (only 10 min ride) and get to Volastra. The bus is included in the Cinque Terre Card. From Volastra you may experience the real flavor of this landscape. 2000 years ago, this tiny village was called Vicus Oleaster which meant “the village of olive grove”.
For centuries walking trails were the only way to travel between the villages of the Cinque Terre and often provided the only link to the outside world. Walking here is done in the constant company of the sea, but also offers wonderful glimpses of unique terraced farms and coastal forests. You may think that since we are near the sea, these villages could be described as fishing villages yet residents won’t recognize themselves as fishermen. These were and are lands of olives trees and vineyards. While tourism is a current driving force behind Cinque Terre’s economy, long ago it was based substantially on winemaking. Incredibly, the mountainous coastline was turned into terraced vineyards by way of dry stone walls. Two types of wine have supported the livelihood of this region—Cinque Terre D.O.C. and Sciacchetrà D.O.C – I highly recommend doing some wine tasting to marvel at the exquisite flavor of these wines. Especially Sciacchetrà listed as an after dinner drink on restaurant menus, it’s a must-try for anyone wanting an authentic cultural experience when visiting Cinque Terre. It’s a Passito, which means at least two years of slow fermentation of drying well chosen grapes.
While walking along this awesome trail, which will take less then 2 hrs to be completed, you will see the farmers looking after olive and grape trees on the dry land of Manarola and Corniglia. The longest stretch of the trail winds its way through the vineyards and comes into the forest. The landscapes here are so astounding!
Here you can find some places, where heather and branches of chestnut trees interweave into a magnificent tunnel. At a certain point you will find a stairway to Case Pianca and then after 20 minutes you get to Corniglia. By now you well deserve an ice-cream, or a stop for some good wine-tasting or a dinner in one of the restaurants that overlook the sea.
Corniglia is the only town out of the five in which you can’t directly access the water, as it is perched high on the cliffs. It’s also the only point from where you can clock (and photograph) all five villages at once. The ferry that travels between the towns will not stop here. To get back to La Spezia take the Scalinata Lardarina (379 steps) downhill and reach the station or there is a mini bus that takes tourists back and forth from the station for 2.50euro , only until 7 pm though.
Second day: this day is dedicated to Monterosso and Vernazza. If you like to hike, the two villages are connected by The Blue Trail and in less then 2 hrs you can make the one way route.
Vernazza is my favorite of the five villages, which is very picturesque and with a quant atmosphere . Thanks to an ideal climate, plenty of sunshine and little wind there are many olive groves and vineyards. Although Vernazza may seem small, there will always be something to see; you will find monuments at every step, simply walking around the village or following the trails!
And what can tourists do in Vernazza if they have had enough of seeing monuments? They can enjoy the Ligurian Sea, taste some Italian cooking in the cafes on the waterfront or get a takeaway pizza or focaccia and sit on the rocks and savor the atmosphere of Italy to the full.
Places to see:
The square on the waterfront with the jetty and dock: this is the liveliest area in the village, which also offers a view of the picturesque coastline. The greatest attraction for tourists is the jetty that extends into the sea not far from the shore, as if nature itself built a castle with a watchtower to search for enemies approaching from the sea. In the past the jetty acted as a lookout point, but today tourists take a siesta on the rocks that emerge from the water and on the wall, while admiring the view and tasting the local delicacies of nearby restaurants.
The Doria castle and Belforte tower: these buildings are what remain of fortifications built in the XI century. In those times the castle and the tower, were constructed right on the Ligurian seafront as an observation point. These days tourists crowd the terrace of the Doria Castle (Castello dei Doria) because from the upper part of the building you can enjoy the beautiful panorama along the coast and over the village itself, with its brightly colored houses. Adjacent to the castle is the Belforte tower, considered the symbol of Vernazza. It can be easily pinpointed on most photographs of the village. The Doria castle with the Belforte tower can be visited at a cost of 1.50 euro.
The beaches in Vernazza: Since the beach in Vernazza occupies only a small piece of coast, you can safely say that in this village there are no real beaches. The beaches here are considered more a “refreshing point” where you can rest for a couple of hours and replenish your strengh. A very tiny beach like this is located near the central square. Another, a little larger, is located on the other side of the Belforte tower. The beach can be reached through a passageway in the rock that departs from the main street of the village.
This is the largest of the Cinque Terre villages. It is set between Punta Mesco and Punta Manara on the rocky cliffs from which you can look down into the depths of the sea. Moving around in Monterosso is very easy because the terrain is flat and the area is split up differently to the other villages. It is divided into the residential area of Fegina, the modern center with restaurants and cafes, and the historical part with many medieval buildings.
Tourists are not attracted to Monterosso al Mare for its monuments, but rather for the beautiful landscapes and everything the village has to offer. It is indeed a paradise for people who dream of a vacation in the heart of Italy in a lovely hotel with all comforts, and nightclubs and restaurants where they can spend the evenings. The other villages of the Cinque Terre, though, are more peaceful.
Monterosso al Mare is also suited to those who enjoy a vacation by the beach; because there are many beaches here and they are the only sand beaches in this area
The area of Monterosso al Mare which attracts the largest number of tourists is the historical center of the village. It is the old quarter of the village and still retains its medieval appearance, thanks to the ancient castles and towers, the walls of fortresses, towers and other defensive constructions which are located along the narrow winding alleys. The Aurora Tower, built on the hill of San Cristoforo, separates the “modern” part of Monterosso al Mare from the historic center.
The Church and the Oratory, adjacent to one another, are an example of Italian Gothic and Baroque. The church that bears the name of San Giovanni Battista was built in the XIII century; Matteo and Piero di Campiglia were involved in the works and built the facade. The most fascinating element of this building is the stone bell tower which was originally built as a watchtower. The Oratory of the Confraternity of the Neri Mortis et Orationis is especially interesting because the wooden statue of Sant’Antonio Abate is preserved inside, brought here from the monastery of Punta Mesco after it was destroyed.
The Capuchin Monastery (Monastero dei Cappuccini)
This is a unique place, recognized by tourists in 2015 as the most peaceful and beautiful place in Italy (place of the heart), where you can rest your body and spirit. Paintings by Van Dyck, Luca Cambiaso, Bernardo Castello and other Ligurian painters are conserved in the monastery. It was built in the XVII century and is located on the hill of San Cristoforo, which divides Monterosso al Mare in two parts: the historical and urban sections. The view from the hill is breathtaking!
The Aurora Tower
In the past, Monterosso al Mare was an entity under military protection: defensive watchtowers were erected, in fact, throughout the village. There were 13 in all. Only three remain today, among which the Aurora Tower (XVI century), built just little distance away on the hill of San Cristoforo. The Monastery of Sant’Antonio del Mesco is located nearby, though has not been preserved over time despite its religious character. The Aurora Tower is well preserved and is a private property and open to the public in 2017. To this date the tower’s upstairs floors are of private use only therefore not to be visited while downstairs you can find a restaurant.
The statue of Neptune (La statua di Nettuno)
The sculptor Arrigo Minerbi and engineer Levacher created this stone statue of the mighty god of the sea in 1910. On his shoulder, Neptune carries a giant sea shell. The cement statue, 14 meters high and weighing 1700 tonnes, was positioned in the immediate vicinity of the sea, near the beach of Fegina. Unfortunately Neptune was damaged by bombs during the Second World War and later by the storms of 1966. The statue has been partly restored in recent years.
Among the delicacies of this region of Italy, don’t miss the anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil, the farinata di ceci (chickpea pie), testaroli and the artichoke pie – a must taste! In the list of the best Italian antipasti, the place of honor goes to the seafood tasting platter, various seafood dishes and the many cured meats (salami, culatello, cured ham, coppa, etc.). and of course Pasta al Pesto!
Not only do these look cool but they are filled with fresh and tasty seafood bites. If you’re not too big on seafood, the seafood cone is a relatively cheap way to try some of the local catch without committing to a full-on meal you may not like. You can choose to have a mix of seafood including anchovies, fish and calamari or stick to the basic fish and chips, all of course, should be eaten by the seaside.
For the best Focaccia ever : Focacceria Il Frantoio in Via Gioberti, 1 for some of the best focaccia in Liguria. Try the version with anchovies and tomatoes
AURORA TOWER cocktail bar and restaurant, set in a land of outstanding beauty right on the sea and just underneath the Cappuccini’s hill. Elia Bellingeri, the young owner of Aurora Tower, has brought to life a unique restaurant, in a strategic spot of historical value, boasting a breathtaking view over Monterosso’s Gulf and in particular over all the “Cinque Terre”, without spoiling the beauty of Aurora’s ancient tower and taking care of every single detail from interior designing to the choice of menus. www.torreauroracinqueterre.com
Ciak restaurant is located in the heart of the historic part of Monterosso, right in front of the main church of St. John the Baptist which has a black and white striped facade. Their specialty is seafood that is prepared using traditional Ligurian techniques. Ciak has been the owner since 1974 and you can see him cooking through the restaurant window on the main street, dressed in his Popeye outfit and preparing each dish with rapid precision that can only be aquired through years of experience. Another thing that makes them unique is the use of a coals to cook fish. This method gives the classic grilled fish a much stronger and more prominent taste. Come, taste and enjoy! www.ristoranteciak.net
Enoteca Internazionale is the oldest wine shop in the historic center of Monterosso offering tastings of Cinque Terre wine. By reservation, Enoteca Internazionale offers wine tastings led by the Enoteca’s professional sommeliers for individuals and groups. Enoteca Internazionale boasts both indoor and outdoor seating where, all year round, guests may try delicious bruschette (including bruschette made with the salted anchovies of Monterosso), an excellent selection of cheeses served with chutneys, as well as cold cuts, salads and traditional desserts. www.enotecainternazionale.com
Bar La Torre – Località Preteccia: One of the best things this bar has to offer, other than it’s outstanding position, are the typical recipes of the region, prepared with patience and fresh ingredients: spaghetti with seafood, marinated muscles, anchovies, and Vernazza’s baked anchovies.
The restaurant is also good as a snack bar or a simple break before continuing your hike. Sitting at one of the panoramic tables you can taste a piece of local quiche accompanied by a glass of Cinque Terre D.o.c. wine or have simply a drink and enjoy a panorama that few places can offer.
Ristorante Cecio – Via Serra 58: located in ancient rooms once used for wine production, offers today wide spaces which bring back tradition. The family business is a garantee of passion, quality and creativity: the special ingredients of every recipe. The restaurant cooking follows Liguria tradition, a land settled between sea and mountains, serving delicious fish dishes and other italian gastronomic excellences, perfectly combined with a cellar furnished with Cinque Terre wine. Every aspect contributes to makes Cecio Restaurant adapt to every occasion. Good value for money.
Cappun Magru along the road to Volastra, 2 km from Manarola. The name is taken from an old ligurian recipe. Very good seafood and local food. Try the Cappun Magru, of course, and Spelt Pasta with cuttlefish or the bonito with artichokes
Trattoria dal Billy Via Rollandi 122: is located in the upper part of Manarola. In the two indoor halls and on the terrace you can enjoy the fish of the day and the products of the homegarden, fresh pasta and homemade cakes.
For a complete food and drink experience try Nessun Dorma While they don’t serve full meals (only bruschetta and appetizers) is a perfect place to enjoy the Dolce Vita!
Try multiple flavours including olive, pesto and even potato. It’s the traditional Italian way to eat them at room temperature and the bread is so fresh it doesn’t need to be warmed anyway. There are many little focaccia bakeries dotted along the main streets so you won’t have any trouble finding one! My favourite place is one tucked away in the main street of Riomaggiore. Panificio Rosi Via Colombo, 188.
A Pie’ de Ma’ Via dell’ Amore, 55: Simple, fresh and a little piece of paradise, A Pie’ de Ma’ is a charmingly rustic restaurant and wine bar in Riomaggiore. There’s a romantic and relaxing ambiance here, and guests can expect friendly service and good food – pastas and seafood dishes. You can also enjoy aperitifs and wine while you watch the sunset behind the cliffs.
For a truly unique wine experience visit http://terradibargon.com/blog/en
Continue your trip in the Gulf of Poets
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