August 21, 2012

Travel Tuesday: The Italian Riviera

Todays Travel Destination is The Italian Riviera, daydreaming of Passeggiata  through the Italian Vineyards.  What I wouldn't give to be sitting on the sand sipping a glass of white wine....

The Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre is one of Italy’s most precious treasures. Its five lands, or villages—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore—are linked by a rugged, 18km coastal path that winds past steeply terraced olive groves and vineyards, white-sand beaches, colourful, higgledy-piggledy houses and the most spectacular rocky seascapes imaginable.

Generations have worked hard over the centuries to create this unique landscape, which is characterised by steep terraces sloping down to the sea and picturesque fishing villages.
As well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is now a National Park and Marine Sanctuary, thus its cultural heritage is well protected.

Coming from Portofino, the first village is Monterosso al Mare, the only one with a large beach and promenade, which produces renowned white wines. Vernazza, located at the mouth of a river, is protected by a rocky promontory and has always been the only safe landing point in the Cinque Terre. Corniglia nestles on a hill surrounded by vineyards. Manarola and Riomaggiore, with their houses piled up in a multicoloured mosaic overlooking the sea, are the most typical and unspoiled villages of the five, connected by the famous walking trail, "The Lovers’ Way".

The History of Cinque Terre

The stretch of coast along the Ligurian sea, roughly from Marseilles in France to La Spezia in Italy makes up what we know to be "the Riviera". The famous places known to most are separated by long stretches of coast. These coastal stretches, believe it or not, were hardly known by most of the traveling world even as little as fifty years ago - mostly because access to these coastal towns is difficult by land. Basically, the entire part of this coast is nothing but the ends of the French Alps and Italy's Apennine Mountains - crashing into each other and spilling down into the Mediterranean Sea. With no coastal plain and hardly any beaches to speak of (many of the beaches known today are man made by hauling sand in expressly for this purpose), land access along this coast has been very difficult throughout history.
Most people think that the Mediterranean coasts have been settled for a long time and that the local communities of Cinque Terre and other coastal towns were centered around the sea.
Yes, the second part of this statement is true since trade and commerce happened mostly by sea, but the first part of the above sentence isn't true. And this is because with the exception of a few centuries under the extensive Pax Romana throughout the Mediterranean basin, living on the coast or anywhere in sight of the ocean wasn't considered safe.
What we know today, as the Italian Riviera was plagued by pirates, slave traders, and marauders, to name a few of the evils that abounded. Around 1000 AD came the rise of the Italian cities of Pisa, Genoa, Venice and Amalfi and this created a new century of "pax" (peace) which allowed farmers and fishermen to begin to inhabit and develop their trades along the coasts of the Italian and French Rivieras.
The above mentioned maritime empires now made the seas safe for trading and the coasts safe for settling. In addition, with the turn of the 2nd millennium in the Christian era - this also marked the beginning of an increasing agricultural revolution. The population of Europe was increasing and this caused people to branch out and move east.
What did this mean for the Mediterranean basin? Farmers soon began to settle the Ligurian coast. It was during this era that the villages of the Italian and French Rivieras as well as the Cinque Terre were built.

Monterosso al Mare

Monterosso al Mare (Monterosso by the sea) is known as the resort town of the Cinque Terre. It is the only one of the five hamlets that you can actually drive all the way to the town. It comes complete with beach umbrellas that are rentable and a very busy and thriving nightlife.
Monterosso is also the only town that is built on flat land. And it's made up of two different parts. One is the new part of town called Fegina.
Fegina has the parking lots, the train station and a tourist information stand. The other part is known as centro storico - the Old World charm preserved in its crooked lanes, tiny hole-in-the wall shops, and pastel buildings.
Visitors can walk through a pedestrian tunnel that connects the two parts of the town. Or, if you want a more scenic stroll, take a little detour around the point and you'll end up with a beautiful walk.
You'll also see two important landmarks. Look for the 16th-century lookout tower which was built after a devasting pirate raid in 1545. And you'll see what is called, a "Nazi pillbox", which is a low concrete bunker where gunners hid. Read more about that on our history page.
One of the nifty things about Monterosso is that if you are on the beach, you can see each of the towns that make up Cinque Terre. It's especially pretty after dark, when each town is lit up and sparkles like diamonds in the night.
There is lots to see and do in Monterosso, particularly if you are more interested in the luxury-style hotels and nightlife. Nevertheless, it's a great place to visit and experience the old with the new.


Manarola is an easy vineyard walk. Attached to the train station by a 200-yard tunnel, the town spills down a ravine to the wild and rugged coastline at the Ligurian sea. 
On the west end, you'll find a wild little harbor and the east side has a small church square where the townsmen meet for various activities. And as most of the hamlets found in Cinque Terre, there are vineyards everywhere.
The tiny harbor at Manarola features a boat ramp, picturesque buildings tripping down the ravine and the town's swimming hole. Although there is no real beach here, it has some of the best deep-water swimming around. A ladder up the rocks and a shower are provided for those who love a little adventuresome swimming.
The town square, known as Piazza Capellini, was built in 2004 and offers the residents and their guests a fun place for kids to hang out and a little quiet - particularly for those who live close to the train station.
It's decorated with mosaics of the local fish and is a great place to sit down and eat a snack or your lunch.
If you want to venture up to the top of Manarola, make sure you check out the church. Today it serves as a religious and community meeting place, but in more ancient times, the bell tower was used as a post to watch for potential pirate raids.
No visit to this charming hamlet is complete without doing the Manarola Vineyard Walk. It eventually leads you to the trail that takes you to the next town, Corniglia.


Known as the 3rd town of the "five lands" of Cinque Terre - connected by train and trail, Corniglia is a frazione (the Italian word for fraction) of the hamlet of Vernazza. (Found in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, Italy - what a mouthful!). It's considered to be the "quiet" town - particularly since it doesn't have the glamor of an accessible beach front.
Perched high above the sea, Corniglia is surrounded on three sides by many picturesque vineyards and terraces, while the fourth side hurtles steeply down to the Ligurian waters below.
To reach Corniglia, one needs to climb the Lardarina, a long flight of steps made from brick. A little interresting tidbit: the climb is not for the faint of heart. It is composed of 33 flights of stairs, with nearly 400 steps. If you don't like walking up stairs, the alternative is to follow a road that, from the train station, takes you to the village.
Corniglia, along with the other 4 towns (Riomaggiore, Manarolo, Vernazza, and Monterosso) are connected by train and trail. The train is a small "milk train" that makes stops daily in each of the towns. If you are more adventuresome, take the trail known as the Sentiero no. 2 or Sentiero Azzuro. Sentiero in Italian means - you guessed it - trail. This trial is 11 kilometers long and if the whole trail is open, it takes about 5 hours to walk it in its entirety. One thing to keep in mind - the total elevation difference between the highest and lowest points of the trail is 500 meters, which makes for some vigorous hiking.
This tiny village of only 240 people has houses stretching along the main road, Via Fieschi. You'll see colorful homes - some facing the road and the others facing the sea.
Part of the charm of Corniglia is that it isn't as frequented by tourists as much as the other small fishing villages that make up Cinque Terre and it is characterized by it's winding, narrow roads and finely crafted terraces. It's a little bit cooler in climate than the other towns, it has a few restaurants and always seems to have an abundance of rooms for rent (affita camera).
Although each of the 5 towns have similiarities, Corniglia's town planning structure differs from the others in that you'll notice the houses are set lower and until recent times, were never built as high as ones that you'd find in Manarola or Riomaggiore.
One of the nice things about visiting this particular town in the Cinque Terre is you can sit in the town square all day and read a book, hike the nearby trails, taste the local wines and food, or sit at a cafe in the sunshine watching the local kids - if they are not in school. Whatever you choose to do here, you can be assured that you'll be participating in the secret that many Italians in this part of Italy have discovered, Il dolce far niente, "the sweetness of doing nothing."


The 4th town that makes up Cinque Terre, Vernazza.  There are lots of things about Vernazza that make it known as "the jewel of Cinque Terre", and probably the first thing would be the beach. It is the only town in the Cinque Terre that has the closest thing to a natural harbor and offers superb swimming - safe for kids too.
The town has 500 residents - all very proud of their Vernazzan heritage and you may hear some bragging about the fact that it is "locally owned - not like Portofino who sold out..." Basically, this means the residents got busy and stopped construction of a major road into the town and region.
Visiting the Cinque Terre is like visiting a living history. Families are very close-knit and go back a few centuries. Generations tend to stick together and homes owned are passed down within the family.
What do the Vernazzan's do for passing the time? Simple. Passeggiata, or in plain English, strolling slowly up and down the main street. It is a slower paced-life than most of us are used to and a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.


Starting from the south, this non-resort town is considered the first of the 5 hamlets that make up Cinque Terre. Perched precariously on a hillside leading down to the rock edge of the sea, this little town has a magic all its own.
There once was a major river that ran through the valley that is Riomaggiore - thus the name: local dialect river is “rio” and major is... you guessed it, “maggiore”. Today, this river ravine is paved over (same as all the rivers that once ran through these five towns). When the river was in existence, the town sported romantic arched bridges that connected the two sides of the community.
Now, those bridges are replaced with more modern roads. But, don't think that ends the quaintness of the first stop in Cinque Terre. It has many delights that you can only find while on foot, or taking a bus up into the hills, or an elevator ride that takes you to the top of the town.
Making the trek to the top of the town is well worth it. You'll be treated to spectacular views of the ocean and you can visit the church, perched high above or take some time to look at the murals of heroic fisherman and grape growers of the region on the walls of the city hall, painted by an Argentinian artist named, Silvio Benedetto. It'll be the part of your trip to Italy that you'll remember as the place you could take a break and not feel like you were missing anything.

On my first visit I would like to saty here:

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