It seems appropriate to start not at the beginning but at the end after falling head over heels in love with a part of Italy I can’t wait to visit again.
I’ve enjoyed the most glorious three days exploring the coastline between Portofino and Riomaggiore, having been based in a gorgeous town called Santa Margherita.
Most of us have heard of the Cinque Terre, but the rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera is so much more. It’s in the Liguria region of Italy and compared to the South of France, it is relatively inexpensive and extraordinary in its scenic beauty, history, food and wine.
The first day I was truly spoiled. A friend and colleague picked me up with his wife and we drove to Portofino along an expressway with multiple tunnels and the Mediterranean sitting as a jewel at the end. This part of Italy’s coast is very popular with the Italians as it is easily reached by train or car in just a couple of hours. The hotels and restaurants are very busy on Friday and Saturday nights so it’s necessary to book even in June or September – count yourself incredibly lucky if you get a room at all in July or August.
We wandered through the quaint fishing village, stopping for Prosecco and an impressive selection of nibbles that the Italians usually present with your aperitif. These include delicious cheeses, prosciutto, home grown olives and tempting pastries and breads. Then we headed way above the port to meet with family and friends to share in a delicious meal peppered with gales of laughter and everything you think Italians to be – slightly mad but completely lovable! From such heights it’s easy to appreciate why the port is nicknamed “narrow port” and at the same time difficult to imagine how the super yachts, which dock in this area, get in at all.
On day two we rented a small motor boat which was a great way to see the coastline. If the weather had been better we would have loved to have explored areas around San Fruttuoso only reached by foot or boat. After returning to Santa Margherita via Portofino, we enjoyed a lovely lunch of Spaghetti alle Vongole – spaghetti with clams accompanied by a bottle of Vermantino from Sardinia. We used our local connections to get a booking at Portofino’s La Taverna del Marinaio. The food was exceptional – although I was told Puny, U Magazin and U Batti are excellent too. Be sure to make a reservation.
The following day we took the train to Riomaggiore – the most southern of the five villages of the Cinque Terre. A walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) connects the villages but we were disappointed to find the lower pathways between Manarola and Corniglia closed. Mudslides hit the region hard in 2011 and have caused lasting damage in sections so our only option was to go up and over the hills. At times, these felt like mountains. It was a grueling exercise and one I would suggest only if you are fit or slightly crazy! The views from the top are glorious though so well worth the effort.
Heading north again I discovered the fourth village called Vernazza which was, to me, my favourite. Back down by the water we lunched at a fabulous restaurant perched above the rocks and village in the remains of an ancient fortress. After a long day we headed back by train to Santa Margherita.
The Cinque Terre is very touristy but very beautiful. The villages are pretty and contain many historical and religious features – some quite similar to Corsica. It really is astounding how the people have adapted – their gardens, olive trees and vineyards are carved into the rocky hillsides. We were told that the gardeners need to wear rope around their waists to save them from falling. Apparently the walk between the northern most towns of Vernazza and Monterossa is the most picturesque. For that reason, I would recommend travelling in the opposite order – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and lastly, Riomaggiore.
The trains are inexpensive, run relatively frequently and offer some stunning views. There are also ferries and tour groups for those who don’t want to walk. I found the ferry’s ability to back up to the rocks in quite a large swell both impressive and a little scary.
We were pleased to have based ourselves in Santa Margherita at the Hotel Continental. The town was picturesque and a good location. The hotel has received mixed reviews however, including great views, very average décor, both good and very poor service combined with appalling internet access. Taxis are horrendously expensive so walking or train is best where possible. Overall, my experience was amazing and I can’t wait to return.