The church bells strike 8am as the hint of an orange glow from the morning sun rises over the colourful and ancient fisherman village of Riomaggiore. Quite late I know, but that’s CINQUE TERRE in October!
MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I had been discussing taking a trip to this popular and scenic part of Italy for some time, but life (as usual) had other ideas and only now had the opportunity arisen to allow us the freedom to visit and explore this majestic area. A short weekend away whilst we were in Nice seemed like the best plan, so we packed our little motorbike bags, booked a gorgeous AirBnB and set off on yet another road trip across the Italian border!
Of the five villages of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore (the name rolling off the tongue with the distinct Italian pronunciation for the dramatic) is a 4 hour ride from Nice and the one which we had chosen to reside in and begin our petit sojourn around these distinctive hilltop communities. Stopping for an hour in the huge and hectic port town of Genova for fuel and a hot, stringy cheese panini, we got lost a few times attempting to exit this nightmare of a city until we found our way back and rode along the soaring rugged coastline, eventually rolling into the charming little Ligurian terraced town at around 5pm.
Housed in a valley style setting, the famous multicoloured houses of Riomaggiore(main photo)rise up on both sides from a tiny harbour, where the stacked apartments and their crude balconies overlook upturned blue and white fishing boats moored on the concrete dock. Rubber tenders/water taxi’s that take groups of excited tourists on boat excursions to the other four villages, sit waiting for their next adventure whilst they bob around clunking good-naturedly into each other with each rise and fall from the sea’s swell.
The walk into town from our bike park was a steep downhill trek, whilst the walk to our apartment was met with (sometimes) vertical stone stairs chiseled throughout ancient winding stone pathways and dead ends! This resulted in a cluster of bewildered and confused looking tourists and day trippers all clinging to the walls or looking around or at their phones, frantically searching for a way out of this rocky maze!
Our gorgeous little neat and clean two level house also came with a large tiled terrace which overlooked the fishing boats and the harbour and ABBA’s Dancing Queen blared out from one of the tiny wine bars or osteria’s that were cleverly tucked away and carved into the cliff somewhere beneath us. Restaurants, with their crew of swarthy Italian servers dressed in the traditional black and white uniform of European waitstaff (their long back aprons and starched white shirts reminiscent of the Italian bistro’s in the reign of Mussolini) lazily set up their spaces in preparation for the onslaught of diners eager for some ravioli, rest and relaxation whilst watching the sun go down!
A short 20 second walk from our front door lead us to a large open air viewing platform, where serious photographers and glammed up Instagrammer’s flocked to take their ultimate sunset shots whilst others clinked glasses of Prosecco on their cliffhanger balconies or kissed whilst basking in the golden glow of dusk. Sigh…
Our small panini lunch was all but a figment of the imagination by 7pm and after hastily raiding one of the two compact deli/minimarts in the main thoroughfare, we were soon sitting on our own private clifftop terrace, clinking glasses of the famous sparkling wine whilst devouring a bowl of plump Ligurian olives drenched in oil before heading out to our first dinner in Cinque Terre!
Easier said than done, even in early October finding a table at any of the restaurants without a booking was a headache, but we eventually stalked a little bistro Il Grottino with tables out on the street till we were given a seat. The meal was ok, nothing striking and the dessert a little bizarre and unconventional, but al least we were dining by candlelight in a famous Italian seaside town and that is what mattered the most!
The following morning, after the 8am wake-up call from the bells, we were greeted by a (surprisingly) chilly and overcast day that didn’t really inject a lot of drive into our step! But after a lethal dose of Lavazza combined with an assortment of freshly baked, crispy local pastries, we set out to explore the first of these tiny towns before tackling the other four on the journey which lay ahead!
Quiet and subdued, the village of Riomaggiore was still in slumber mode that Sunday as we stalked around with the other early risers hoping to conquer one the villages by mid morning. The town centre itself is small, with only one main street and lots of little pathways veining off and up into the cliffs which were studded with tiny doorways highlighting the homes that surround and overlook the harbour. Not being religious or church minded folk, we didn’t visit the various chapels dotted around, but they were open for those who love the calmness, serenity and architectural beauty of these ancient buildings.
The usual run of tourist shops selling t-shirts, bags, sarongs and hand crafted kitchen utensils were the main attraction for those wanting a souvenir, but wine boutiques and a couple of delicatessens opened later for foodie types hoping to bag a bargain bottle of local limoncello or a slab of fromaggio cagliata to take home!
Determined to be ‘one with the masses’, we set off in the direction of the Sentiero Azzurro or “BLUE TRAIL” hiking path that connected Riomaggiore with the other four villages. Deciding to go towards the beach town of Monterosso al Mare (the furtherest away) and then visiting the other villages in between on the return journey, it was with great disappointment that when we reached the path entrance it was closed for maintenance! Damn…there goes our first day of glory and exercise!
Thankfully, most of the other tourists who were all standing around looking annoyed in their newly purchased hiking boots, trekking poles and general outdoorsy getup, appeared no more informed than us, so we trudged back to the apartment, got changed (as it was getting windy and colder) and decided to take the train!
There’s a local station in the heart of every one of the five towns, so if you are not a person who takes delight in a perilous and gravelly mountain trail slog, this option is perfect as it’s easy and only €5 per person regardless of the town to which you are travelling! The station that day was PACKED as it seemed like every man, woman, child and their dog were there for the ride to one of the villages and the line up for the tickets was lengthy. Enter plan C…
Fortunately for us, we have a motorbike which is parked on the hill and not being used, so we both looked at each other and silently agreed that this was the better option, as it’s a bit like hiking, but not. No painful blisters to nurture and dress when you get back to your accommodation, outside in the elements with (cold) wind in your hair, zero crowds and not a pair of cumbersome trekking poles in sight!
We had seen photos and been informed that THIS town with its famed Fegina Beach was the best seashore area of Cinque Terre, so we had packed our finest ritzy, glitzy swim and resort wear for the trip only to be faced with overcast skies, arctic winds and drizzle. Not. Happy. Jan!
Throwing aside all of our pre determined ideas of a cool dip in the Ligurian sea followed by a day spent lazing around on Fegina’s golden sand sipping chilled citrusy Vermentino, our 20 minute ride to Monterosso (now rugged up with scarves, jackets and gloves) was scenic, but chilly and spending the whole afternoon gorging on plates of fresh hot pasta seemed like a much better idea!
Monterosso al Mare is indeed very pretty, with a long promenade hugging the sand and wrapping around the cliff and ‘hole in the wall’ Gelateria’s and takeaway kiosks dotted alongside. A small tunnel links the old and new sides of the town and the train station is right there too, so when you alight you are smack bang opposite the beach!
All seaside villages look better drenched in sunlight, as the colours pop and the water sparkles, but a windy, dreary day staring at empty sun loungers and wrapped umbrellas lying forlornly against a stone wall is not what we had in mind. Some hard core tourists and locals had braved the elements and were lying on the wet sand, their goose pimpled flesh proving that this cold snap in early October was not a figment of the imagination!
Nevertheless, we made the most of our morning and walked the entire length of the promenade to the end where an enormous 14 meter high statue of Neptune brandishing his trident (Statua del Gigante) by sculptor Arrigo Minerbi had been carved into a rock face jutting out to sea! We also roamed Monterosso’s inner via’s and came upon a tiny boutique that sold vintage Italian leather jackets from Florence at bargain prices (yes OF COURSE I bought one), checked out a few of the tourist shops and then subsequently went on the hunt for il mangiare!
We wanted a meal with a view of the sea, so we disregarded the busy little bistros in the centre of town and made our way to a popular little place near the end of the promenade. Being a Sunday, many locals and their families (dressed in their best outfits) were already ensconced at long tables chatting animatedly to each other whilst sipping bucket sized glasses of orange Aperol Spritz, so we just joined the queue and waited for a tiny table for two!
The girl who showed us to our spot and served us obviously didn’t want to be there that day, as from her sour face and lacklustre attitude, it was obvious she was either a daughter of the owner or a casual that had been called in to work! Ah well, not our issue but it didn’t really make the experience memorable for the right reasons.
Deciding against the giant plates of pasta idea (as we still had to finish our beach holiday in Nice and are vain) we ordered a simple meal of flash fried calamari with lemon and a fresh Insalata Caprese made with vine ripened tomatoes to share. But, all around us, families ‘in the know’ were tucking into enormous clay pots of a local seafood stew delicacy called Ligurian Shellfish Amphora which we later found out had to be reserved days in advance and was only available for groups of four or more. It looked fantastic and we had severe order envy as we surreptitiously spied on our neighbours’ hot crustacean fuelled lunch whilst we miserably nibbled on basil leaves!
After a quick espresso at a cafe on the way back to the bike and observing that the weather was not about to improve anytime soon, we decided to just keep riding and check out the two small villages of Vernazza and Corniglia which were on the way back home to Riomaggiore.
The ride from Monterosso was magnificent! Sharing the twisting, winding roads with their death- defying cliff drops to the ocean with only a handful of other vehicles was a wonderful way to spend a crisp afternoon in the Ligurian countryside. The terroir between the villages is a working, terraced landscape (the little tractors crawling along the steep slopes at a snail’s pace) and flowering with citrus trees and various other produce, which is still an important and integral part of the area and its culture.
Putting into the carpark in Vernazza, we were directed to a space alongside some tour buses and then had to walk for about half a kilometre to the town centre. Small local homes with their own terraced and overgrown vegetable gardens featuring olive trees, grape vines and rangy tomato plants, were dotted here and there along the walkway and some neglected ancient buildings were for sale as well, if you had the time, money, energy or inclination to renovate!
The sun herself decided to grace us with her presence as we arrived into the main street, so we made our way to the small twinkling harbour to dip our toes into its cool and clear fish inhabited water. It was very busy here as well, as the majority of day trippers were mingling with each other taking photos or simply lounging around the water’s edge licking gigantic cones of creamy gelato!
Vernazza is a very pretty little town and exploring the inner streets of this colourful village with their quirky art and craft shops and dollhouse style homes, was a marvellous way to experience the real essence of its history and local life. We even met a couple of Australian girls (who were deliberating over some hand painted salad servers) and found out that they had come from La Spezia (the main city) for the day, but were on a three month European holiday and spending one night in every major city along the way. The whole scenario sounded exhausting, but hey, they were only about 23 years old, so good on them!
Major FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) soon caught up with us, as we had been quite boring with our ‘healthy lunch’ back in Monterosso, so we spontaneously joined a queue at one of the popular Gelateria’s we had come across in a back street and soon had our OWN gigantic cone of double dark chocolate and coffee gelato to gobble! A fresh pressed, frozen lemonade acted as a chaser to cut through the richness and we strode up and down every street and alleyway we could find whilst indulging in our afternoon delights before heading back along the hike to the bike to have a quick whip around Corniglia before sunset.
The weather had vastly improved by the time we reached this village, which is very tiny but again picturesque in all its pastel coloured simplicity. Again, with only the one main street through the centre, it was awash with hordes of weary looking out of towners, so we moseyed around the village square and hiked the steep narrow streets into the surrounding suburban area, peering into the gardens and miniature homes of the locals. I kept saying to MB that these poor farming folk must abhor all of us traipsing through their (once) serene and private lives every day! No wonder there were more scowling than smiling faces to be seen (even in the retail shops) and we found that quite sad and disappointing.
A section of the Blue Trail was open here too (which we discovered by accident) so you could hike your way back to just before Riomaggiore if you felt the urge! To walk the track cost €10, was rugged and crumbly with lots of spiky plants to avoid and not the best for those with weak knees, ankles or acrophobia!
Seeing a crowd of people all heading in the direction of the ocean, we followed along in the hope of maybe discovering something amazing. Indeed we did, as it lead to the train station which was down about a million steps! The brick, zigzagging path appeared to go on forever and into the sea, so due to the guilt of being lazy and not hiking the trail, we walked the entire way to the bottom and then back up again, burning all those naughty gelato injected calories along the way. It was a hard slog, even if you’re fit and we passed many red faced and sweating people swearing a lot under their breath. We were later informed that it is 400 steps, so that’s about 1000 steps in total if you include the walk around the station once you arrive. Not bad for an afternoons efforts!
By this time we were spent and it was time to go as we were also quite red faced and sweaty by now and a cooling ride on the bike would hopefully blow all our aches and pains away. We reached home about 20 minutes later, parking right on sunset and decided that an array of Italian take out delights on our terrace was the order of the evening as hunting around for a restaurant after such a mammoth day was just too exhausting to contemplate OR enjoy!
We hunted down and bought a pizza margarita from a busy wood fired oven place and also a portion of the ever popular fast-food of the region, Fritto Misto. Served in a paper cone with a healthy wedge of lemon and picking skewers, this cleverly packaged takeaway meal of fried seafood and vegetables comes in various sizes and versions, but we opted for a mixture of calamari and whitebait. All around us, couples and families were tucking into these cones, stabbing at the chunks of greasy pleasure, whilst walking around or sitting on the stone walls of the port. A bottle of local vino purchased from the wine boutique in the main street finished off our dinner shopping and we eventually sat down on our spacious terrace and breathed a sigh of relief as we put up our tired feet and toasted our neighbours across way. Saluté and Buon Appetito to all!
With only one village left to inspect, we decided to spend the morning in Manarola and then ride to La Spezia afterwards to spend the afternoon there to explore this large city. Touted to be the ‘prettiest town in Cinque Terre’, when we arrived in Manarola we were certainly not disappointed!
Gorgeous in its sprawling areas of neat little coloured houses again surrounding the main harbour, we had to compete with all the tour bus travellers (even in October) to find a spot for a great photo opportunity! It was well worth it though, as even MB and I (who don’t particularly like crowds) didn’t feel too cramped or suffocated here thanks to large patches of luscious green space and shady gardens to relax in and many other interesting areas to leisurely wander around.
We also secretly observed a private Italian cooking class, the intimate group with their mortars on the tables, pestles poised at the ready, being coached in the ancient culinary art of pesto making! It looked and sounded like quite an intense workshop too as the teacher was extremely passionate about the correct way to handle the pestle. “NEVER punch down on the basil leaves!” he cried whilst dramatically demonstrating the move, “always pound and scrape to the SIDE of the mortar!” he repeated to his captive audience about a thousand times. We both learned something new as well (for free) and I hope that they at least enjoyed the experience AND got to keep the apron!
We loved Manarola, as the port area was gorgeous and there were many stunning little bistro’s that were already filling up prior to the lunch period with excited and ravenous tourists. Wanting to spend sometime in La Spezia (as it was our final day) we quickly roamed around the streets and peeked into some of the boutiques, patted a very old and forlorn looking cat and then headed straight for the bike for the ride to the big smoke.
It was high time that of one of us indulged in some pasta, (we were in Italy) so I accepted the challenge and ordered the local dish of the region, Pasta alle Trofie. An oblong shaped, hand rolled Ligurian pasta tossed through (correctly hand pummelled) vibrant green pesto, potatoes and green beans with a sprinkling of pecorino, sung to my tastebuds as it was surprisingly light and made from all of my favourite ingredients! MB ordered the charred and caramelised, oven baked octopus and we washed it all down with two glasses of a rich, plum coloured local red that tasted of wild berries. It was SO DAMN GOOD, that we ended up buying a bottle from the restaurant to take home!
FINAL NIGHT FUN
Going all out for our last hoorah, we dressed to impress in all our newly purchased regalia and found a table at one go the small aperitivo bars nestled into the side of the cliff. A chopping board of delectable Italian nibbles accompanied a couple of blood red Negroni’s that were delivered to us by cool, striped t-shirted staff and a funky mix of Italian dance songs provided upbeat background music. We felt so young and hip!
Bar Centrale was our restaurant of choice that night (no booking of course) but we only waited about ten minutes for a table and the service was rapid, efficient, knowledgeable and friendly! I promised myself that I wasn’t leaving this region without scoffing down a delicious plate of my all time favourite dish Spaghetti alle Vongole, so when I saw this on the menu I was ecstatic!
Slurping down ribbons of this oily, white wine and lemon infused concoction of al dente pasta and clams, injected a mouth sensation so filled with joy, that I didn’t even care when I was given a cheeky reprimand by the waiter for politely demanding a side of shaved Parmesan to feather all over it (a complete no-no in Italy)!
Our final evening ended on a high with some limoncellos on our terrace whilst rugged up in shawls to defend the wind, listening to the sounds of revellers enjoying the delights of Riomaggiore and all she had to offer on a nippy Monday night. Our long ride back to Nice the following morning eventually beckoned us to our slumber along with a rude 7am wake up call in preparation for the gruelling day ahead!
At last, a magnificent sunny and warm day welcomed us the next morning and after squashing all our belongings into the tiny bike bags (which were now bulbous thanks to our Italian shopping spree), we rode the entire coast road in the direction of Monterosso stopping only by chance to embrace the beauty of a gorgeous and lesser known little town called Lavanto.
As pretty as a summer holiday postcard circa 1938, had we known this magical place existed, we would have definitely made a day trip here or even stayed overnight so that we could fully appreciate her Romanesque beauty and the rocky coves and secluded beaches dotted along the waters edge.
*NB: We would highly recommend you make a stop here if you’re considering visiting Cinque Terre and MB and I both decided on the spot that we would make the trip back for a gay seaside holiday stay one day!*
Our mini vacation was nearly over as we paused for one last relaxing lunch in the provincial coastal town of Imperia. Yet another extraordinary but unknown spot not far from the ever popular and bustling city of San Remo, it is only about two and a half hours from Nice when taking the highway.
Cinque Terre was as lovely as we had imagined and well worth the effort to get there and if churches, hiking, exploring and indulging is your thing, then this gracious land of the five villages is definitely for you! I think October was a perfect time to go too, as it was cool and the crowds were less invasive then in spring or summer.
I realise that MB and I were only there for a short weekend getaway and did not see everything in every village and didn’t dine in all the popular and recommended places, but we certainly filled our time doing what only we do best: walking and riding around observing the locals and how they live; laughing, touching, tasting, smelling and drinking in our surrounds and pounding the same smooth and well worn cobblestone paths of the millions who have come before us. Oh, and of course, EAT!
So for now it’s ciao to Cinque Terre and that is another tick off our never-ending bucket list!
…”Life is a combination of magic and pasta!”…Federico Fellini