Touring Liguria’s Cinque Terre by foot, train and ferry
We were poised, ready to perform a somewhat undignified scramble across the tarmac, but a quick head count by Dario, our tour guide, revealed that someone was missing. We relaxed, and watched as the never-ending column of tourists descended purposefully from the 60-seater coach, now dwarfing our mini-coach, behind a grim-faced woman holding aloft a red umbrella. It was clear they would win the race to the top of the narrow stone steps leading to the coast.
Our missing member emerged from the car park’s sole WC and we ambled good-naturedly down the steep staircase and narrow pathways to the small fishing village of Manarola, the first of the tiny Cinque Terre villages we were visiting that day, passing brightly coloured buildings that hugged the rugged cliffs, adorned with washing billowing in the breeze; narrow gardens crammed with strangely shaped orange squash; vine-covered alleyways hung with black grapes, and fishing boats parked outside the pretty shops lining the narrow street to the quayside.
Ahead of us, the greater mass of tourists were being herded along narrow pathways leading to the dock, ready to board the ferry. We spent a pleasant half hour wandering around seeking the best vantage point from which to attempt to replicate the iconic photos seen in guide books, before boarding the later, less crowded ferry to the next of the Cinque Terre villages. How pleasant it was to be part of a small, select group of 13, on the “Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre” tour with Back-Roads Touring.
The ferry took us past the picturesque village of Corniglia, perched on a cape 100 meters above the sea and inaccessible by boat. We docked further up the coast at the attractive village of Vernazza where we would be lunching at Sandro’s Seafood Trattoria before, hopefully, walking the coastal path to Monterosso al Mare, the most northerly of the Cinque Terre villages. The weekend’s heavy rains had caused landslides which had closed many of the paths and I later learnt that the mayors of Monterosso and Vernazza had asked tourists to stay away from the villages until the previous day as they had feared repeats of flooding that had caused loss of life in the area in 2011.
Vernazza, the only one of the Cinque Terre villages with a proper harbour, also has a small beach, the 16th-century Belforte Tower with incredible views of the area, the 11th-century Doria Castle and the 14th-century Santa Margherita d’Antiochia church. With an hour spare before lunch, we wandered the narrow streets and climbed stepped alleyways filled with potted plants, discovering pretty views and interesting objects such as an ancient wine press and an open air book exchange. Lines of washing were strung from windows and I cringed in embarrassment as a pair of shameless photographers spent an inordinate amount of time photographing an enormous pair of holey, saggy greying knickers hanging below bright blue wooden shutters.
Shops displayed colourful china, fruit and veg, pots of cyclamen in vivid shades of pink, packs of herby-flavoured risotto rice and racks of unusual knitted clothing. Souvenir shops groaned with baskets of miniature bottles of limoncello in the shape of Italy’s “boot”, tea towels, fridge magnets, and ubiquitous Pinocchio memorabilia. Hoping to find a high enough vantage point to photograph the famous view of the village harbour, I inadvertently climbed up to the start of the coastal path walk and found it was, indeed, closed. This was disappointing but the safety of walkers was paramount.
Our lunch at Sandro’s was delicious: I chose freshly caught anchovies with slivers of lemon rind followed by a dish of layered slices of potato, onion, tomato and more anchovies. As a lengthy hike was no longer on the agenda, I threw caution to the wind and enjoyed a couple of glasses of crisp chilled white wine.
With the help of our wine we almost rolled down the steep path to the quay to board the ferry to our final destination of Monterosso al Mare – the largest of the Cinque Terre villages and blessed with a wide sandy beach. Some of our group shed their shoes to paddle in the sea whilst the rest of us enjoyed sitting in the sun, eating gelato and watching the world go by until it was time to catch the coastal train back to La Spezia where our mini-coach awaited.
I had not heard of this UNESCO world heritage region of Italy prior to taking the tour. The Cinque Terre, pronounced “Chinkway Terr”, is certainly somewhere I’d like to revisit to spend a couple of days meandering the full 11k coastal path between Riomaggiore and Monteroso. The trail is said to be challenging in places, but a lovely way to enjoy the villages with little likelihood of waiting in line behind between coachloads of tourists fresh from the Cruise ships docking in La Spezia!