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Italian Riviera, Italy: The 5 gems & more
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
The Italian Riviera is the narrow coastal strip which lies between the Ligurian Sea and the mountain chain formed by the Maritime Alps and the Apennines. Longitudinally it extends from the border with France and the French Riviera near Ventimiglia to Capo Corvo which marks the Eastern end of the Gulf of La Spezia and is close to the border with Tuscany. The Italian Riviera thus includes nearly all of the coastline of Liguria.
Part of the Italian Riviera is Cinque Terre (Five Towns). It’s the name of a district that encompasses five glorious towns, where small houses are surrounded by lush nature. Visitors to this district will be fascinated by the beauty of these five small villages, namely: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. They appear in the described order when travelling from south to north.
We left Florence early morning and reached Santa Margherita Ligure at about 7PM. It took us more time, simply because we did a major detour visiting the medieval town of San Gimignano falling in the hills of Tuscany region.
We were booked at Hotel Metropole at Santa Margherita Ligure. The hotel sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. Thanks to my association with the travel industry, we got a room with an attached private balcony that faced the sea. Our package included breakfast and dinner. We would be here for 2 nights. The next day we would be exploring Cinque Terre and Portofino.
As luck would have it, the weather forecast was bad for us. It would be raining all day long. Coming to an area known for its sun and then having to face rains? Well there was no option… go we must.
After breakfast, we took our umbrellas and set for the railway station which was just a 5-minute walk from the hotel. There’s a special one-day pass that costs Euro 15 per person. It allows unlimited travels on trains in the Cinque Terre region.
We took the 11AM train and decided to alight at Riomaggiore – the extreme town (from where we were) of Cinque Terre cluster. And on the return journey to do a combination of walking and train to explore the other 4 towns. It was a 90 minute journey. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, but was heavily overcast.
The inhabitants of Cinque Terre benefit not only from its pristine waters, but from its natural environment, where wild nature is interspersed with vineyards, olive groves and citrus orchards, creating a precious bond between man, his traditions and this breathtaking stretch of coast.
Riomaggiore is Cinque Terre's most famous town, as well as the closest town to La Spezia. This is the start of the zone's famous trekking route, dug into the rock in the early 20th century, and leading to Manarola.
The origins of Riomaggiore date back to the 8th Century, when the inhabitants of the Vara valley, searching a milder climate to raise grapevines and olive-trees without the fear of pirate raids, moved towards the coast. The town climbs up along the ridges overlooking the sea and it is characterized from the typical stone houses with coloured facades and slate-roofs.
The town of Riomaggiore presents typical features reflecting its history and traditions. The town stretches along a vertical axe where steep staircases are the only means to move around the town. The typical houses have one or two-floor towers in order to use at best the place at disposal.
The first historical traces date back to 1239, when the inhabitants of the feudal district of Carpena entered in the Compagnia Genovese. Only in 1343 Riomaggiore became independent as municipality and administration, and during Napoleon’s age it absorbed also the town of Manarola, whose historical roots are even older than Riomaggiore itself.
Guardiola Tower, now a natural park, once was one of the most equipped fortresses in the area. The church of san Giovanni Battista dates back to 1341, and its facade was rebuilt in neogothic style in 1820. Also the parish church of San Lorenzo dating back to 1338 has a gothic facade. The castle of Riomaggiore (15th-16th Century) rises on a rocky crag dividing the most ancient part of the town from the one standing nearby the railway station.
After having explored Romaggiore we were back at the station. Our plan to walk to Manarola was foiled as it was raining. Else, it would have been a pleasant 30-minute trek along the coast on the cliff’s edge. Actually, Cinque Terre is best enjoyed by walking. There’s a trail from Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare that can take up to 6 hours. That was not our cup of tea, or not our glass of wine so to say.
Sadly, we missed the other towns and took a train straight to Monterosso al Mare. The rain was mild, but it was quite windy. Nonetheless, I did walk the town and the beach. And that was it. Here’s something that I gathered of the towns that we couldn’t visit.
Manarola is positioned at the top of a cliff that seems to tumble down into the sea; it is a fine example of human manipulation of a harsh environment that is now made up of generous soil, terraces and vineyards and orchards.
The town is a near-vertical cluster of tall houses piggyback up the hillside. Because it has no harbor, just a landing, its main drag becomes a parking lot of boats that are hauled up each day after the morning fishing's done. Alongside fishing and some glorious sunbathing opportunities, Manarola's claim to fame is housing the Cinque Terre wine cooperative.
This is where most of the area's 300 growers bring their grapes, laboriously collected from terraced vines up and down the coast, where they shuttle around on the world's tiniest elevated monorails and have them turned into the light Cinque Terre DOC white wine...or, even better, dried, pressed, and turned into the powerful, sweet dessert wine Sciacchetra. There's now a small museum in town devoted to Sciacchetra and to the winemaker's art in general.
Unlike the other localities of the Cinque Terre, Corniglia is not directly adjacent to the sea. Instead, it is on the top of a promontory about 100 metres high, surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces and the fourth side descends steeply to the sea. To reach Corniglia, it is necessary to climb the Lardarina, a long brick flight of steps composed of 33 flights with 382 steps or, otherwise follow a vehicular road that, from the station, leads to the village.
The village stretches along the main road, Fieschi Road, and the houses have one side facing this road and the other facing the sea. Corniglia is characterised by narrow roads and a terrace obtained in the rock from which all other four Cinque Terre's villages, two on one side and two on the other, can be seen.
Vernazza features a picturesque small port, evidence of its ancient maritime traditions. The old town bears defensive structures, elegant architecture, decorative portals and elaborate colonnades running between the narrow lanes converging on the main piazza, adjacent to the small port. The Parish House of Saint Mary of Antioch, the Doria Castle and the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Reggio are Vernazza's main tourist attractions.
Monterosso al Mare is in an ancient village located atop a hill, offering amazing panoramas to all who venture here. The main tourist attractions are the Old Castle, the Church of Saint John the Baptist and the Convent of the Capuchin. The modern town stands at the foot of the Fenigia Hill, and boasts ruggedly beautiful beaches and natural areas. Finally, the Statue of Neptune, called the Giant, majestically guards the coastline from on high.
We reached Santa Margherita Ligure at 5PM. We walked around the beach and the main square and took a city bus that took us to Portofino. It was a lovely 20-minute ride along the coast on a very narrow road. I admire the driving skills of the mini bus driver that we were on. Thankfully, the sun was out.
Portofino is an ancient and sophisticated village overlooking a sea of indescribable beauty. A place frequented by prominent personalities from the worlds of entertainment, culture and finance.
The brightly-colored houses are stacked one close to the other, as though they were the tiles in a precious mosaic; they rest at the foot of the promontory and plunged in lush vegetation. The famous "Piazzetta" nestles in a small nook along the coast: the heart of fashionable Portofino, it overlooks the picturesque harbour, populated by small fishing boats and luxurious yachts.
The sea surrounding the promontory is a marine protected area, established to protect the rarities and riches of the seabed, populated by sea fans, sponges, corals, seagrass meadows, and the precious red coral. The irregular shape of the seafloor is home to diverse microenvironments, each of them hiding away hundreds of animal and plant species.
A very pleasant walk heads up to the right as you face the harbour. Up a series of steps, you come to the Church of St. George, a church with a cool, plain interior, dramatically situated on the narrow neck of the Portofino headland. As a lookout point, and probably as a site of religious significance, the spot goes back thousands of years.
Continuing onwards, there's Castello Brown. This imposing building dominates the harbour; after its warlike purposes were over, it was purchased in 1867 by the British Consul, one Montague Yeats Brown, who made it into the charming dwelling. The terraced gardens have wonderful views; while the building contains interesting historical exhibits and architectural features, as well as housing art exhibitions. A lovely story is attached to the two pines on the terrace. Apparently the Consul planted them to celebrate his marriage; one for his bride and one for himself; today they are a striking feature of the Portofino skyline.
The evening was young. We planned to snack next to the waters in one of the restaurants at the piazzetta. It was all about the location. Don’t ask me the price. The cover charge killed us. If you are out there double check before occupying the table. The cover charge is not mentioned on the menu! But the bites were tasty!
By 9 we were at the hotel, ready for our dinner. Tomorrow we will leave for Melpensa airport, drop our car at Hertz and head home thereby ending our lovely 2-week holiday in northern Italy.
Riomaggiore Image Gallery Photo viewer
Monterosso Image Gallery Photo viewer
Santa Margherita Ligure Image Gallery Photo viewer
Portofino Image Gallery Photo viewer
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