A Cinque Terre getaway

If I could describe the summer break we just had in the Cinque Terre in a handful of words, it’d be a list of some of my favourite things, especially when experienced together: saltwater, anchovies, lemons, sea breeze, pesto, winding coastal roads, chilled white wine and cheesy focaccia that leaves your hands deliciously greasy with olive oil.

It’s been over 10 years since my last trip to the Cinque Terre, and even then, we always visited in the off-season, in particular March or October. I’ve never jumped into the refreshing, crystalline waters of Liguria before — I have clearly been missing out, but the five pretty seaside villages that make up the Cinque Terre on a most delicate hillside nestled in a UNESCO World Heritage recognised national park are small and easily crowded. It’s often too hard to find a place to stay or it’s just too unpleasantly crowded on the train to get there and move around — and let’s face it, being packed like sardines on a hot train takes some of the magic away from this very special part of the world. Over the years, as tourism has grown, the Cinque Terre has become a very popular destination for day-trippers and cruise ship goers too, giving it a similar problem to Venice.

This unusual summer of covid-19, made all the more sweet after one of the world’s strictest three month lockdowns, means travel to Italy is still off for Americans, Australians and many more — which means it’s a unique time for those of us in Italy to actually visit relatively uncrowded sights we may normally avoid. We managed to book this trip to the Cinque Terre less than 24 hours before we set off, unheard of in August! There was no traffic getting there, a quiet drive, just under 2 hours from Florence. We had no trouble finding parking, or getting restaurant reservations on the day. We even lucked out and found a comfortable family room (with air conditioning) in a beautiful, secluded spot between Corniglia and Vernazza with a 180 degree view of the sea (see the photo above and the two photos directly below): Cadè Ventu. The photos on their website don’t even do it justice.

I know how lucky we were, I lapped up every second of this short, lovely trip, making memories with the family — I know we may never get to experience it this way again, which I have very mixed feelings about. My eldest asked if we can come back next weekend (and I just might be tempted!).

Although we didn’t visit in the order listed below but rather we skipped around, arriving in Manarola for lunch, then spending the rest of the day/evening in Monterosso, or leaving the car in Riomaggiore for a dip in the sea, then taking the ferry to Vernazza, the train back to Riomaggiore then driving to dinner in Corniglia, I thought I’d list our favourite experiences by order of town as I find that most useful. I would say, you could do this all easily without the car of course (car access to the towns is extremely limited so you are better off traveling by train which is very handy indeed) but if you are staying in the accommodation we stayed in, they recommend having a car to get there (I would too) as it is quite secluded, though not impossible to do by bus/shuttle.

RIOMAGGIORE:

The southernmost of the five villages is, like the northernmost village, Monterosso al Mare, one of the larger of the villages (population 1500). There is one main, very steep, street where you’ll find shops, minimarkets, plenty of places to eat and more, but life really revolves around the pretty marina where there are restaurants and bars with sea views and boats to take you around to private coves and beaches you can only reach by sea.

We grabbed a delicious fritto misto from Tutti Fritti (Via Colombo, 161), a tiny, takeaway spot where everything is fried to order, and took it down to the marina to eat with legs dangling towards the water. A five minute walk from the marina takes you up and around the rocks to the rocky beach with the most crystalline water — an absolute dream, though not for the faint of heart as the rocks make it quite a challenge to get in or out of the water and there is no shade — however, it is totally worth the effort. It is up there as one of my favourite swims, ever (and I’ve swum in some remarkable places around the world!).

Halfway between the marina and the beach, you’ll pass by the ferry stop — if you’ve been clever enough to buy a ferry ticket at the little booth at the top of the steps from the marina then you won’t have to come back this way so that after a swim you can just hop on the ferry to another town of your choice (it costs 11 euro one way, 20 return, children are free).

MANAROLA:

The second smallest of the town with a population of 350 people, this charming little pastel-toned village has a pretty view from the church piazza (which doubles as a soccer field as it’s the only flat, wide surface in town for the kids to play on!).

Climb a little further up and you’ll find Trattoria da Billy, a sweet, little restaurant with a tiny terrace that boasts a sea view from high up — we shared the anchovies marinated in lemon (a Cinque Terre specialty, I ate it everywhere I went!) as antipasto, followed by pasta: handrolled trofie with pesto (the region’s specialty; this one with a very good garlicky kick and the classic addition of potatoes and green beans), spaghetti with vongole and bottarga, tagliolini with scampi and a julienne of vegetables; fried calamari for the girls and then semifreddo for dessert. If I knew I was going to have room for it, the mixed house antipasto consisting of many little dishes looked so good, and so did the off-menu special of pasta with swordfish and summer truffle that I could smell from the table next to us.

CORNIGLIA:

The tiniest of Cinque Terre is also the only one that doesn’t have the sea lapping at its edges. Higher up means you have a few hundred steps to reach the village from the train station but it’s pedestrian-only medieval streets lead to a beautiful terrace where you can see all the other four villages. And there are also a couple of wonderful places to dine here — Cantina de Mananan, which I first heard about thanks to the Slow Food Guide about 12 years ago. I admit, it’s been about a decade since I’ve been back but it continues to be a mainstay of the recommended restaurants in the area by guides like Gambero Rosso too, for its dedication to typical Ligurian cuisine and absolutely fresh fish. It’s directly inside the medieval hamlet so is quite small and cosy and tavern-like.

The place we chose to have dinner this recent trip is a spot my husband Marco used to take hikers to when he did tours of the Cinque Terre over a decade ago, Ristorante da Cecio. He was pleasantly surprised to find all the same staff still there, who still remembered him. We had a memorable meal here watching the sunset over the sea from the hydrangea and lemon tree-lined terrace: more lemon-marinated anchovies (these ones with the addition of diced fresh tomato), more handmade trofie with pesto (I could not resist), spaghetti alle vongole for the girls, pansotti (Ligurian ravioli) filled with black lobster in a creamy tomato sauce and perfectly cooked whole grilled sea bream with a chilled bottle of Cinque Terre DOC. We finished with lemon sorbet and a custard and pine nut tart. It is a romantic spot with its view over Corniglia and the sea behind it, but it’s perfect too for a larger gathering of family or friends as it has two large terraces for outdoor eating so everyone gets a spot with a view. We had such a lovely night here, dinner was well-paced, so fresh and delicious, the warm evening was breezy, the view was incredibly special, even the girls were well behaved! If you’re looking for a place to stay they also have rooms above the restaurant.

VERNAZZA:

Gianni Franzi menu

With its natural port and it’s colourful houses that look as if they’re almost tumbling into the sea, Vernazza is irresistibly pretty – 10 years ago it was by my favourite of the villages but on this recent trip I felt that it had lost a little of the authenticity that you can still find in the other villages, perhaps it was also because it also felt like the most crowded of all the villages, possibly because of its narrow streets and smaller size.

We popped in on the ferry from Riomaggiore that arrives right in the marina and spent the afternoon wandering, having a spritz and eating gelato (Gelateria Stalìn had a very good selection of quality gelato, I had basil-infused fior di latte and ‘stracciamenta’, or mint chocolate chip, the girls had a mousse-like nutella and lemon sorbetto that they ate right down to the tip of the cone — sounds obvious but actually my girls normally tend to abandon gelato halfway through, the fact that they didn’t this time was testament to how good it was!).

There is also a small sandy beach right where the port meets the piazza, where many people were relaxing and sun bathing more than swimming. Being right inside the port, the water didn’t look as clean as the other beaches we visited but it’s definitely an accessible option and the kids playing in the water seemed to be having a blast.

If we had decided to stay here for dinner the place I had my eye on was Gianni Franzi, where you can eat out in the open right in Piazza Marconi overlooking the marina. Look at the appealing “off menu” items above – tagliatelle with mantis shrimp, soup with vongole and venus clams, linguine with lobster, roast fish with potatoes. After I read about their stuffed anchovies and the “tegame Vernazza” — a panful layered with Monterosso anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes and herbs — I think I may come back just to try it.

Our accommodation was halfway between Vernazza and Corniglia, 350 metres above sea level in the lush green national park, Cadè Ventu. If you don’t have a car, you can reach it by bus from Vernazza.

MONTEROSSO AL MARE:

Without a doubt Monterosso was the whole family’s favourite village. We arrived in the late afternoon and had a long wander through the centre of town, browsing shops — Lanapo for artisan-made sandals, hats and handbags inspired by the Cinque Terre, and Fabbrica d’Arte for artisan ceramics (I love anchovies of all kinds, even their ceramic ones, what a perfect souvenir of the Cinque Terre), stopping for snacks of cheesy focaccia and heavenly fried stracchino-filled focaccia at Il Frantoio (Via Gioberti, 1 – they mainly function as takeaway and sell by the slice) and lemon granita and gelato, before arriving at the beach.

Here there is a portion of the beach that is “free” (this part gets covered by shade first) and the rest is private (and has a longer time in the sun), accessible by renting an umbrella and lounge chairs at one of the bagni such as Bar Bagno Alga, where you also find showers, kayaks for rent and a bar for drinks, snacks or light meals  — we were able to snap up a spot since it was late in the day but in August you’ll usually find it full. The water was glorious, crystal clear, the sand here is very fine and kept beautifully clean by the bagni. We were the last ones to leave when they closed at 7pm and the water turned silver as the shade drew across the beach, it was that hard to drag ourselves away!

We had booked a table for a light meal at a long standing favourite wine bar, Enoteca Internazionale, when we stopped at Il Frantoio for focaccia (it’s next door), and I’m glad we did as its outdoor wooden tables fill up quickly. It’s the perfect spot for tasting wine, with plenty of local wines by the glass (many natural options) and if you feel like a nibble, there’s a big selection of things such as platters of salumi, cheese or long boards of bruschette topped with anchovies (what else? This is Monterosso’s specialty after all), pesto, mozzarella and tomato, tuna carpaccio and creamy local cheese, but you can also just pop in to buy bottles of wine or other local specialties (pesto, honey, salted anchovies, Ligurian olive oil, traditional candies and biscuits, all the best kind of souvenirs!) to take home. Some other good places to eat that were recommended to me are Miky (perhaps to visit minus kids) and Ristorante Ciak, a favourite local restaurant that has been going strong for the past 50 years. We didn’t have time to eat there this time but they were high on my list after reading about them on Gambero Rosso and getting some personal recommendations too.

Admittedly the highlight for the girls (who are 7 and 2) was the playground and the beach, which are just steps away from each other. The playground is fenced so it keep the kids contained and parents can rest easy. Like most Italian families in the summer, we visited after dinner in the dark, when it’s no longer hot and the well-lit playground was crawling with kids until late!

Thinking about it, maybe we will just pop back next weekend.

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Comments

  1. Lynn says:

    So lovely. Thank you for sharing these photos. I visited the Cinque Terre years ago with my brother, and your post took me right back there.

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