Charmed like a cherub in the Cinque Terre

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May 9th 2010
Published: May 12th 2010
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We woke very early for our train departure to Levanto. It was a three hour trip involving two trains, and within no time at all we were on the Mediterranean coastline. We dropped our packs off at the hotel in Levanto and backtracked to the first village of the Cinque Terre. It was warm and overcast, and after walking a small distance along the first stage of the walk (lovers lane), we discovered to our dismay that the entire length of the Cinque Terre coast walk (blue track) was closed. For many in our travelling group it was the very reason they had come to Italy, and the mood nosedived for the first time. People had adjusted to the rain and cold mornings/nights, but this was beyond redemption. Nature had stopped our travel plans.

However, our fearless tour guide was not going to be beaten. For those of us fit and game enough (four in total), he suggested we accompany him on the green track of the Cinque Terre, a 500 metre ascent into the hills and then along the narrow muddy paths separating the vines and olive trees. We were exposed to dramatic drops into the ocean below, and many of us walked with a lean towards the hillside that resembled the leaning tower in Pisa. With my fear of heights almost entirely dissipated, I relished the fact that I could take this track. There were times I simply couldn’t look down, as the slope was incredibly steep and there was little to stop a tumbling traveller if they were to succumb to gravity and fall from the path. The views were staggering, and parts of the track resembled Tasmanian hikes. After five hours we descended into one of the villages and caught the train back to Levanto, arriving at 7pm. We quickly showered and headed out to dinner, which was a memorable night - we had worked up an incredible hunger during the hike, and our waitress not only served our meal but brought a plate of seconds (the remains of the cooking process) to the table. This not only allowed us to try everyone else’s meals, but also allowed us to satiate our immense hunger. It’s been a long time since I have eaten so much! We then headed out to a local bar where a band was playing (our guide had heard the drummer practicing in the afternoon and asked if they had any gigs coming up). Luckily they were playing that night. They were terrible, but it really didn’t matter - it had been a fantastic day, and dancing in a small street in Levanto was the perfect way to end it. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

We slept in for the first time, our bodies recovering from the day before. We breakfasted in the hotel, and I was able to have cereal and yoghurt for the first time since we left Australia. We headed out and walked around Levanto. We spent some time exploring the village, chancing upon an organ recital in Sant Andrea’s church. We ran into the lead singer from the band the night before, who owned the café he was performing in front of - it had been his birthday. Musicians - such tragic exhibitionists! He was the nicest guy, and had closed his bar for the day, but still let us in and turned the free wifi on for us. We then engaged in a short battle with washing machine number 1 in the launderette which we were never going to win, so eventually surrendered our €5 and tried washing machine number 2 with much better luck.

After pottering around the village a little longer, we caught a train at 5pm to one of the Cinque Terre villages for dinner. After climbing a few more towers and keeping my fear of heights at bay, we settled in for a few vino biancos in the late afternoon before heading up to a cliff-side restaurant looking out over the Mediterranean.

We have travelled north to the Liguria region. The train trip involving two trains from Lucca to Levanto was supremely picturesque - Tuscan villages giving way to a sea view with a rugged wall of mountains behind it, and blessed with sparkling Riviera weather. Well, normally blessed with Riviera weather... we got a mixture of drizzly, muggy warm weather and one brilliant sunny day. Levanto is a small coastal town with cute street-side cafés, parks and a lovely seafront promenade.

We are only in Levanto in order to visit the Cinque Terre, but this little town deserves a visit in its own right. It is places like Levanto that allow the inner workings of Italian communities to be seen, and you gain a real appreciation of cultural nuances that are often lost in bigger cities. We love Levanto and highly recommend a visit! We were supposed to walk the Cinque Terre ‘percorso azzuro’ coastal trail (blue trail) the next morning, but had to change plans because of thunderstorm warnings. However even when we got there on our first afternoon there, only the first walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola was opened, the other three walks were closed due to a landslide. The disappointment in the group was palpable and turned quite vocal when we got out of earshot of the other walkers. However our valiant group leader came up with a brilliant plan B which took us on an alternative path partly on farm paths and partly on the Cinque Terre ‘percorso verde’ (green trail) between Manarola and Corniglia.

Alvaro, David, Taryn, Andrew and I experienced a fantastic four hour walk that gave us breathtaking views of mountains, the Mediterranean and the delightful little villages nestled in-between. The villages are built into the folds of cliffs and the houses literally sit on top of each other. I really cannot believe that bare hands of farmers built these places, let alone the fact that they are still standing hundreds of years later. All the buildings are painted in similar pastel colours outside and most have green external window shutters, yet all five villages have unique identities and characteristics. The other amazing feature of this place is that the surrounding very steep hillsides are all terraced and are full of olive groves, lemon orchards and dry stonewalled vineyards that cover the mountainsides that plunge into the Ligurian Sea. Needless to say, the vistas here are magnificent and this is a truly stunning stretch of coastline. The other very eye catching thing is that there are bright red poppies growing absolutely anywhere they can gain even the smallest toehold. Very pretty. 😊

I had read that the Cinque Terre paths were steep and challenging walks but I went into it with the confidence that I could jump on a train between any of the villages should I find it too hard. Andrew thought this was silly talk and was determined that I see the walk through with him. The walk gave us the best taste of the villages and countryside, however when they said it was ‘challenging’ they didn’t lie. Some sections of the path were easy but other parts were quite difficult - we had to navigate narrow paths and flights of small steps that never seemed to end; and sheer uphill cliff stretches where we had to channel our inner mountain goats to stay on paths that frequently were on the very edge of the cliff dropping off to the sea! But before I scare you off, I should say that it’s not all hard and/or life threatening…when you are not climbing, you are meandering through terraced vineyards and olive groves which gives you a rare look-in at farm life. But the fact remains that none of the guides talk about the distance between the towns in kilometres because ascents and descents, and the gradient of each is much more significant than actual distance. I celebrated arriving at each town with a gelato. 😄

The Cinque Terre hike (south to north) breakdown of hike and villages -
~Riomaggiore to Manarola is easy and took 20 minutes on a paved path (the lovers lane);
~Manarola to Corniglia took about three and a half hours on paved steps and partly rocky and muddy paths...we walked up to Volastra high in the hills and then down to Corniglia;
~we caught the train to Vernazza and Monterosso and explored the towns but missed out on the walks between the towns.

On our first night in Levanto we went to Ristorante Moresco around the corner from our hotel (Hotel Europa), and this was the best restaurant of our trip so far. The farmers of the Cinque Terre are the guardians of the ‘real’ organic pesto, and so of course we had to try it! As with most dishes in Italy, the method of making pesto and even its ingredients vary (and is fiercely contested) by regions...but to be honest we couldn’t taste the subtle differences in variations. We started with a selection of local pastas for primo (entree)...pansoti with walnut sauce (pansoti is a roundish ravioli), foire with scampi (foire is hand rolled wormlike pasta) and gnocchi with pesto; and for secondo (main course) we had baked fish and cinghiale (wild boar) dishes. All of it, just absolutely delicious.

We crashed a party at a café/bar that night. Well strictly speaking we were invited to a private birthday party because we stumbled upon a band rehearsal and Alvaro’s friendliness solicited an invitation from the lead singer whose birthday it was. The music ranged from James Brown to Seal and also ranged from ‘ok’ to ‘oh my god how many notes could you miss in one song?’. 😊

The next morning we went to the internet café La Brigita in the next piazza from our hotel only to find it closed, but the owner who coincidently was the birthday boy from the night before opened up just for us while they cleaned up the evidence of the party around us. It was Ligurian friendless that has all but vanished from the main Cinque Terre villages but abounds aplenty outside the tourist trail.

We thought catching the train between towns would be a picturesque journey along the cliff faces, but unfortunately the trains run underground - they’ve tunnelled straight through the mountains to each town! Brilliant engineering, but hardly picturesque. Of the five main villages in the Cinque Terre, I thought Vernazza was the prettiest and had the best ambiance. We had dinner at a restaurant right on the water one night - Ristorante Belforte, and it is pretty special when you can have a gorgeous seafood meal sitting only metres away from the very sea that provided your meal. A sea into which an orange sun was messily melting as we ordered our meal - there is something so relaxing and happy-making about watching a good sunset! Back to the well as pesto, seafood is also part of the staple diet here and it was the freshest seafood we have had to date on this trip. We had an antipasto of the best octopus, calamari and mussels; for primo a very very fresh and delicious spaghetti alla pescatore (spaghetti with seafood); and for secondo fried fish with potatoes and vegetables. Andrew was in absolute heaven!

I love the fact that being a national park the Cinque Terre has no cars or motorbikes, so basically this means walking everywhere. This would normally be lovely in such gorgeous surrounds, however when you are faced with steep steps or a vertical street as the only means of access, you quickly realise why the locals have such well defined leg muscles...definitely not the place for anything other than sturdy walking shoes. There are electric buses too, but they seemed to be used mostly by tourists. 😊

We travel north-west to Asti in the Piedmont region next...


12th May 2010

Rain And Landslides
It would be tragic if it wasn't for the food and wine...
12th May 2010

Re: Rain And Landslides
Si, si, that is very true Keith :)
12th May 2010

We Said...
Andrew....Now that you have overcome your fear of heights - you could come to Great Keppel Island and climb our mast to install a new mast head light!! :)
12th May 2010

We Also Said...
As we would have imagined....You guys are milking every exciting experience and adventure from your fun filled journey. It's definately a long way from little Yarlington. Thinking of you both as we throw a line in off the back of the boat, from glassed out Leekes Beach sunny Great Keepel, on route to the Whitsundays!!
14th May 2010

Re: We Said
No problems Robbo, I'd be up there in a flash! Hope all is well on the waters.
14th May 2010

Re: We Also Said
Hope you caught some fish. We would love to sail with you sometime.
5th January 2019

Cinque Terre
Just came across this whilst browsing now. Great post, thanks - resonates strongly with our visit in 2015. We often commented to each other on the sheer drops below us, and that if this was in 'fun-policed' Australia there would be barricades everywhere, or else you wouldn't be allowed to use the paths at all. We also loved Vernazza, and thought it was the most picturesque of the villages. Lovers Walk was unfortunately closed, but we walked from Monterosso to Vernazza which was spectacular.
6th January 2019

Re: Cinque Terre
Thank you for your lovely comment. Very sadly, we missed the walk between Monterosso to Vernazza as we ran out of time, so we've promised ourselves that next time we'll start walking from Monterosso. Safe and happy travels! :)

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