5 Days in Cinque Terra

April 8, 2013

Photography, Travel, Uncategorized

The International School of Lausanne is in the midst of a two week break right now, so we decided to take advantage and do some more traveling together as a family. After weighing a number of options, including Morroco and Turkey, we decided to travel down to Cinque Terra, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy, where we have just spent most of the last week.

The villages of Corniglia and Manarola in Cinque Terra.

The villages of Corniglia and Manarola in Cinque Terra.

Cinque Terra, or “Five Lands,” refers to a series of five small and very isolated villages that dot a 15km stretch of coastline along the Italian Riveria, about an hour east of Genoa. Each of the ancient fishing villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore is a colourful, pedestrian-only oasis of old Italy that, with the exception of the odd internet cafe and satellite dish, is like stepping back 100 years in time. While no cars are permitted, the villages are connected by regular train and boat service, as well as a series of coastal walking paths that are very popular with hikers. Cinque Terra is a designated national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kathryn and I have dreamt of visiting Cinque Terra for years. In the course of researching our trip, however, we learned that the area was devastated by flash floods and landslides following torrential rains in late October of 2011. Most of the villages were inundated by water, mud and debris, and many roads and sections of the coastal walking paths were heavily damaged (you can watch video of the flash floods in Monterosso and Vernazza here and here.) While the villages have mostly recovered, work continues on restoring the footpaths and the main coastal trail – the Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail) –  remain “officially” closed. We decided to visit the area regardless, and to play things by ear as far as hiking went.

In the end, Cinque Terra more than lived up to our expectations. Even our skeptical teenage kids  were easily won over by the quaint villages, friendly inhabitants, rugged coastline and ocean views, and, of course, the amazing food!

Monterosso al Mare

Monterosso al Mare

Our trip began with a six hour drive from Lausanne to Cinque Terra last Tuesday, arriving in Monterosso in late afternoon, where we set ourselves up in the Hotel Porto Roca, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the town. Monterosso, the largest of the five villages (pop. 1500), is divided into two parts by a large rock outcrop, with a 100m long tunnel connecting the two halves. The main “old town” features a large piazza surrounded by cafes and restaurants, a 13th century church, and a descent-sized beach. Narrow walkways snake out from the piazza into the village proper, where one finds more cafes, restaurants and shops, as well as characteristic residential buildings of pink, yellow, orange and green stucco.

Recently restored main piazza in Monterossa

Recently restored main piazza in Monterossa

The main piazza was heavily damaged by the flooding in 2011 and has been almost completely restored with new stone, benches, landscaping and a children’s playground. Workers were just putting the finishing touches on it when we visited. Some of the surrounding hillsides and trails remain unstable, however, as evidenced by the massive rockfall that wiped out a cliffside pedestrian walking path connecting the two halves of town just 2 weeks before we arrived (thank heavens for the tunnel!).

The “new town” of Monterosso, where one first arrives by train or car, has a more resort-like feel and features a handful of hotels and cafes stretched along a few hundred metres of beach. The boardwalk and beaches of Monterosso are packed with tourists and young travelers in summertime.

IMG_4412

Fresh seafood at Trattoria Ciak

On our first night in Monterosso, Kathryn and I enjoyed delicious “antipasto al mare” at a restaurant called Trattoria Ciak, including marinated shrimp and octopus, stuffed mussels, and both salted and stuffed anchioves (the local delicacy). The staff and chef were very friendly and attentive (you can see chef Luigi working in the kitchen here.) Emma and Lachlan were relieved to eat pizza at a local pizzeria later that night.

On Wednesday morning Kathryn and I explored Monterosso further while the kids slept in. After looking around the old town we hiked up to the top of the rock dividing the two sides of town, where we found an old convent and the town cemetery. Dead ancestors and loved ones clearly occupy the best real estate in Monterosso and enjoy the best view in town!

Start of the Sentiero Arruzo in Monterosso

Start of the Sentiero Arruzo in Monterosso

After rousing Emma and Lachlan from their beds we planned to take a boat down the coast to explore the two farthest villages, Riomaggiore and Manarola, for the afternoon. Unfortunately, although the weather was sunny and gorgeous, the seas were quite rough and the local boat service was cancelled for the day. We opted for the train instead, which, while it couldn’t offer the same coastal views, brought us to Riomaggiore (the most easterly of the 5 villages) within less than half an hour. It’s worth mentioning that most of the rail line through Cinque Terra is bored through solid rock, making the experience similar to taking the subway.

Like most villages in Cinque Terra, Riomaggiore consists of a jumble of multi-coloured stucco buildings improbably perched on rocks and cliffs leading down to the ocean. A narrow pedestrian walkway lined with shops and cafes leads from the train station down to the waterfront, a steep notch with just enough room for a boat-launch. Colourfully painted and well-maintained fishing dorries crowd what little space there is. Riomaggiore is the starting point for the scenic and extremely popular “Via dell’Amore” footpath, which leads west to the village of Manarola. Unfortunately, much of this path, which clings to the cliffs lining the coast, was wiped out by the landslides of 2011 and is still not passable. We spent an hour basking in the sun, people-watching, and enjoying slices of focaccia before heading back to the train.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

Manarola was our next stop. As one exits the train station here one passes through a 200m long tunnel that is colourfully decorated with ceramic and mosaic tiles. After exiting the tunnel one climbs up onto a small piazza that serves as a gathering place and soccer pitch for local families. From the piazza one follows a pedestrian walk to the spacious waterfront, which features a series of terraces and rocky outcrops ideal for sun-bathing. Emma and Lachlan entertained themselves for an hour clambering around on the rocks and dodging incoming waves here. Returning to Monterosso that evening, we once again dined at Trattoria Ciak, where we enjoyed risotto al mare, trofie e pesto, and an enormous bistecca fiorentina.

Manarola

Manarola

Thursday marked our first foray onto the famous footpaths of Cinque Terra, with the plan to walk from Monterosso to Vernazza, where we planned to spend a couple of nights at a B&B. While the official information we consulted said that the Sentiero azzuro was closed, a number of locals and other tourists told us that the trail was open and safe, so we decided to head out and see for ourselves.

Sure enough, the trail was fine, although there was certainly evidence of past damage and recent trail repairs. The trail itself climbs up and out of Monterosso via steep, narrow and rugged stone steps, passing through terraced vineyards and olive groves before leveling out about 1000ft above the village. From here the trail contours along the side of the mountains for a few kilometres, with fantastic views down to the sea and occasional glimpses of Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola in the distance. After a couple of hours of walking the trail descends steeply down to Vernazza. Just above the village the trail passes through a small gorge where a number of homes still show heavy damage from the flashflood of 2011.

Vernazza at sunset

Vernazza at sunset

With its u-shaped protected bay and the distinctive bell tower of the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, Vernazza is thought by many to be the most picturesque of the five villages of Cinque Terra. Looking down on the village from the cliffs on either side, it is difficult to argue with them. It truly is a lovely sight.

Vernazza and the Church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia

Vernazza and the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia

After spending a half hour exploring the town we fortified ourselves with gelatto for the 500ft climb up the trail on the other side of town to our mountainside B&B, L’Eremo sul Mare, owned by a lovely retired couple from Genoa. After making a wrong turn on the trail to L’Eremo we ended up approaching the property from the back, with the owner having to let us in through a gap in the fence!

The rustic L'Eremo sul Mare B&B, in the hills above Vernazza

The rustic L’Eremo sul Mare B&B, in the hills above Vernazza

Grand and rustic breakfast room at L'Eremo sul Mare

Grand and rustic breakfast room at L’Eremo sul Mare

On Friday morning we set out on the trail once again, for a short hike to nearby Corniglia, the one village of Cinque Terra that we had yet to visit. After a short climb above our B&B the trail leveled off and we encountered a number of sections where trail repair was on-going, including a work crew that was securing steel mesh to the hillside to prevent rockfall from landing on the trail. Within an hour we began a long gradual descent to Corniglia, passing through extensive olive groves and terraced vineyards along the way.

Corniglia

Corniglia

Corniglia is perched on cliffs several hundred feet above the sea and has one long, narrow main pedestrian walkway lined with a handful of artisanal shops and cafes. It was here that we had some of the most delicious handmade pizza and focaccia of the entire trip! Of all the villages, Corniglia had the fewest tourists, most likely due to the 33 flights of stairs and 382 steps one must climb to reach the village from the train station! Fortunately for us we only had to go down!

Family dinner at Ciak

Family dinner at Ciak

We spent our final night in Vernazza, where we sampled more delicious local fare, including grilled scampi, smoked tuna, and salted anchioves on bread, washed down with local Cinque Terra wine.

Vernazza waterfront at night

Vernazza waterfront at night

Lachlan about to chow down on anchioves on bread

Lachlan about to chow down on anchioves on bread

On Saturday morning we bid good-bye to our hosts at L’Eremo and made the 10 minute walk down into Vernazza to catch the train back to Monterosso. Once we arrived, no one was in a hurry to get into the car, so we stopped in a cafe for drinks and enjoyed the sun and ocean view for a little while longer. We stocked up on local wine, olive oil, pesto and pasta too, before reluctantly getting in the car for the long drive back to Lausanne.

Here are some video highlights from our trip:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/63502988″>5 Days in Cinque Terra</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user12260836″>Klisterhead</a&gt; on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Here is a gallery of photos from our trip:

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