Italy’s Liguria – The Cinque Terre, how to get there and what to eat and drink
We are stationed on the Tuscan coast, within a short drive of most sites in Tuscany and close to the gorgeous Ligurian coast with its five charming villages known as the Cinque Terre (chin-que-te-rrre). This is where we are headed today.
The Cinque Terre are five picture perfect coastal villages, lined one after the other in ravines along a 6 mile stretch of rugged coast. The colourful homes cling to each other and to the rocky cliffs in a vertical arrangement between the pristine blue sea below and the terraced vineyards above.
Steep, narrow pedestrian only alleys cut through each town leading from the sea to the top of the town. They are lined with restaurants, bars and shops that cater to the thousands of tourists that descend on the area in season.
The towns are inaccessible by car and connected by the Cinque Terre train that runs back and forth several times a day stopping at every village. You can also reach the villages on foot by hiking the 6 mile trail that runs through the villages. The trail has some challenging sections and others that are easy so you can combine hiking parts of the trail with train ride between villages to experience this beautiful destination.
But first you have to get there.
Coming from the south we drove through La Spezia where the train station to Cinque Terre is located but thought we would continue driving to Riomaggiore, the first village on the south end, and board the train from there. It didn’t work out as well as we expected.
First, once you have reached the top and begin your descend to Riomaggiore a section of the road is absolutely scary. The road becomes narrow and winding with hairpin turns and barely an inch to spare between you and the rocky shore far below. Hummm, no. Just the thought of having to drive (or worse yet, be a passenger) back on this road possibly after sundown in the dark was out of the question for me. I don’t think so.
Second, once we arrived at the top of the village parking was not to be found and we annoyed a number of locals trying to get into a parkade that we thought was public but evidently was intended only for locals. Apparently there is parking somewhere in the village above the train station, you go ahead and find it if you wish. We were at the top of the village looking straight down to the sea below and there was no way we were driving or walking down that steep road not knowing if we could ever come back up again. That’s what they have the train for. Since we were driving back the same day and probably in the dark, we decided to drive the 15 minutes back to La Spezia and take the train from there. This way we were not limited to daylight and since I have been there before, it was fine with me. Why fight the system?
The train station in La Spezia is very convenient with underground parking available right there. We parked the car, had enough time for coffee and a pastry and boarded the train to the Cinque Terre in short order. At the station you need to buy a Cinque Terre pass that lets you board the train as many time as you need and also gives you access to the hiking trail that connects the villages. When you buy your ticket be sure to get the train schedule for the period of your visit so you can plan your stops and the return trip accordingly (it’s printed on a small sheet of paper, very convenient). Not all the trains run as listed on the schedule so ask when you buy the pass. They can cross off the ones that are not available. From there it’s a short, pleasant ride to the first village, Riomaggiore.
Our plan initially was to hike part of the trail called Via dell Amore, an easy and gorgeous walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola. Last time we hiked it I saw an inscription on a bench along the trail that said “The Italian boys are very good“. I was wondering if it is still there today. Just curious.
For our visit in November most of the hiking trail was closed for repairs so we gave up the idea of hiking and decided to move between villages by train alone which makes more sense for a day visit. Instead of getting off at Riomaggiore we stayed on the train until the last of the Cinque Terre villages, Monterosso, and thought we’d work our way back.
As you can imagine, I was partly (big part) there for the food. Liguria in general and Cinque Terre in particular are known for a few food items that give the place its character.
Pesto as we know it originated in Genoa just up the coast from here, and it is special. Pesto alla Genovese has a DOP status and I have seen it made in a mortar and pestle by Ligurian chefs at Expo in Milan just a few weeks before. Genovese basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts and local DOP olive oil are ground together to a bright green paste that is then tossed with trofie, special pasta noodles of Liguria that are rolled into short thin stands tapered at each end and then twisted. Legend has it that fishermen’s wives use to roll the pasta on their knees while watching the rugged sea, waiting for their fishermen husbands to return.
Anchovies are the sine qua non of Cinque Terre food and is not to be missed. I prefer to eat vegetarian but when I travel there are some things I must try. Caught at night by local fishermen whose boats are bobbing in the port during the day, anchovies appear on every menu and are sold like French fries on the street in paper cones. They can be fried, marinated, stuffed, cured in salt or combined with other ingredients.Tegame alla vernazzana or Pan Vernazza (casserole Vernazza style) is a layered dish made with anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and onions and flavoured with white wine, oil, parsley and rosemary. As the name suggests, it is a specialty of the small village of Vernazzia.
Salsa di noci or nut sauce is another specialty not to be missed. It has a luxurious, rich flavour and used to top hand made pansotti stuffed with ricotta and spinach and topped with the sauce. Pansoti is a stuffed pasta larger than ravioli and shaped into a triangle. Salsa di Noci is made with walnuts, pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil, milk and bread crumbs.
You may not know this but the delicious focaccia also originated from Liguria. It is soft, chewy and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt and sold by the piece wrapped in parchment. Sometimes they top it with green or black olives or fresh herbs. I saw locals dunking salty focaccia into their coffee and later read they call it focaccia della matina (morning focaccia). I guess they don’t mind a little salt with their coffee. There is also a type of focaccia called farinata, a little dryer version made with chick pea flour and sold everywhere by the slice. Just my kind of food.
Of course being a fishing village seafood is a major part of what they offer and it is local and perfectly fresh. Selection depends on the season and what was caught that day. It’s that fresh. Frito misto, or fried mix seafood, is a typical appetizer in any of the villages and lobster, mussels and other shellfish are served on large platters with great flare.
The Cinque Terre also has its own wine production. The vineyards are terraced high above the towns on the steep mountainside and harvesting is done only by hand. They make two types of wine: the dry white Cinque Terre and the sweet Sciacchetrà (“pressed” wine), both with denomination of origin designation. They are hard to find outside of the area. The first is a delicate dry white, pale straw colour that goes well with local savoury dishes, especially seafood. The second and better known is a dessert wine made from fermented white grapes and produced in extremely limited quantities. The grapes are left to dry until the sugars are well concentrated.
All these products are available for sale in the small food stores on the narrow streets and of course I bought whatever I could and this included both types of focaccia style by the slice, pesto Genovese, salsa di noci, anchovies marinated in olive oil, and the Sciacchetra to take home. I will post recipes when I get a chance.
Monterosso is the largest of the five villages and the only one where limited car traffic is permitted. You can reach it by train from Genoa and other cities or drive there and pay the high parking fees to have your car nearby. Monterosso is composed of an old and new towns connected by a tunnel. It has a long promenade along the beach, lined on one side with restaurants and little shops. It is the only town with a wide enough beach where you could rent chairs and umbrellas in the summer and have a beach vacation in the traditional sense of the term. We walked the length of the promenade, had great pizza at Bar Lo Spuntino on the far end (go left from the train station) and peeked into a few shops and a couple of produce markets before boarding the train for the next village.
In a collection of five special villages, Vernazza is my favourite village. There is something so special about it. The town has a natural harbour dominated by the Doria castle whose tower rise above it, built as a lookout to protect the town from seafaring enemies. Above the town steeply terraced vineyards remind you of the wonderful Sciacchetrà dessert wines the area produces. Ready or not, we were having lunch in Vernazza at the popular Ristorante Gambero Rosso Bar in the small piazza by the port and we were having local fare, not likely to be vegetarian. When I travel I want to experience the local. The restaurant was packed in spite of it being off season. We started with one order of anchovies to share prepared four way: stuffed, fried, marinated and pickled, probably the best I have ever tasted. Then I had to try the pasta with Genovese pesto that was prepared al dente with the rich and creamy Genovese pesto. I wanted to try the Tegame alla Vernazza and theTrofie with Pesto Ligure but there was no way I could eat any more and we had to leave it for next time. My husband had white fish in tangy tomato sauce that was outstanding in the balance of flavours. I kept dipping bread into it. At the table next to us a group was having whole grilled fish and allowed me to snap a few shots for the record. They were a friendly group of food loving Israelis travelling together so we had a common language. Service was very slow and we had to catch the train to the next village so we left without ordering dessert. Next time.
The next village, Corniglia is the only village that does not cascade down to the sea. The homes are perched high on the cliff and you have to walk up the Lardarina, some 400 brick stairs from the train station to get there. Corniglia as well is nestled between terraced vineyards above and some 100 meters drop straight down to the Ligurian sea below. Since we had limited time we decided to skip Corniglia but it is a beautiful, remote village worth seeing and the wine they produce is wonderful to sip in the evening while watching the sun descending into the sea.
We took the train from Vernazza to Manarola skipping Corniglia along the way. The train drops you off on top and you walk down to the cliffs just above the port. You can settle at one of the restaurants and depending on the time of day have lunch or an aperitivo and watch the going on. Magnificent. There is a trail to the right of the port along the side of the cliff and it affords gorgeous views of the village from the direction of the sea. The restaurant was closed for the season but you can still hike there on the convenient, easy path. We sat at a cafe (or was it a bar?) in the port area with a glass of Sciacchetrà, a local dessert wine, trying to avoid the smokers on the other side of the restaurant. I often flee indoors but wasn’t going to in this place, blatantly waving any intruding smoke off with the menu. As they taught us on the first day in law school, your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins. The smoke was overstepping that boundary.
deally you would want to walk between Manarolla and Riomaggiore, I mentioned the Via dell Amore above, but it was closed for repairs. By that time it was getting dark and the next scheduled train did not stop at Riomaggiore so we ended our day and took the train back to La Spezia and to our waiting vehicle. One day, three villages, not rushing, sightseeing, eating wonderful food and sampling good wines, a wonderful experience not to be missed.