Cinque Terre – Home from Home
by David Parody
With school mid-term coming up I must admit, we had nothing planned to do with the family.
The prospect of long frontier queues put us off organising anything for a daily run across the frontier over the week and threats of airline strikes, lost baggage stories and general travel mayhem put us off anything further afield.
With a week to go we managed to get our act together and booked a last minute trip for a bucket-list destination, Cinque Terre in Italy.
Regular cruising readers will recognise this destination as one of the shore excursions on Italy’s northern coastline, where you are herded off to visit five towns in as short a time frame as possible.
We didn’t want to do this, we wanted a stress-free family week in Italy, living like the Italians (except on a budget). Ryanair flies direct from Malaga to Pisa (at reasonable times) and from Pisa we rented, what less, a Fiat500 for the week and drove for an hour and half to our base at La Spezia.
We based ourselves at La Spezia instead of one of the Cinque Terre towns as we had left it too late to find decent accommodation in any of those towns, which generally either have town houses, BnBs or outrageously priced hotels. La Spezia was a good choice and even though it is a port town and home to the Italian Navy’s largest base, it is extremely well located for our Italian week.
Cinque Terre is a collection of five picturesque towns that grace Instagram and magazine pages and are quintessentially Italian and is located between Genoa and Pisa. Our original plan was to spend a day at each of these locations: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. That’s until we realised how small these towns actually are.
Getting to each was a breeze, we scrapped the idea of driving to each and back as there is a train service that operates every 15 mins from La Spezia and costs 5 Euros per adult or 2.5 Euros for Children for a single trip. If you plan to use the train more than three times a day it might be worth getting the day pass for 16 Euros per adult.
Top tip, use the TrenItalia website to get your tickets online as the platforms and ticket booths get very busy and you may miss the train. Always move to the far end to the left on Platform 1 to avoid the masses of cruise passengers bunching up at the main entrance. Italian trains are modern, clean, offer plenty of seats and leave on time so it was the best option.
Monterosso was our first stop and this town is split into a new and old town with a lovely beach joining up the two. At the top of the walk to the old town and looking back, I couldn’t but help draw a comparison with la Mamela rock and Catalan Bay, they looked so much alike.
This was probably what struck us most about the trip, how much of the architecture, look and feel we brought over with us from towns like these on the Genoese coast into Gibraltar. Narrow streets, shutters which open half way to keep out the heat and let in fresh air.
A colour palette of houses so distinctive yet harmonious. Uneven stone pavements, archways, stairways, dilapidated doors and the smell of salt in the air.
Food is always a treat in Italy and Cinque Terre did not disappoint. Morning coffee with focaccia and an Osteria serving seafood (we always overordered, as usual, but never left any).
Day two and it was off to spend the day at Vernazza which for me was the highlight of the Cinque Terre with its very distinctive waterfront and church, the perfect picture postcard for the area. Fishing boats pulled up alongside the streets and restaurants so much like home that I was expecting to see my friends from Catalan Bay round the next corner.
We attempted to get to the next town via one of the famous hiking trails but the steep inclines and a two-hour walk with my wonky knees put an end to that, so we about turned and popped back to the train station for the shortest train ride ever (<2Mins) to Corniglia. Corniglia is the only town of Cinque Terre that does not have access by sea as it stands proudly at the top of the cliff face. This time I was sent back to Castle Street and the Upper Town. Next stops were Manarola and Riomaggiore. Manarola is a watercolour artist’s dream come true. When looked at from one of the walks to the side, each house is painted in a different shade and colour, looking like confusing jigsaw puzzle that’s put together so beautifully. I have no idea if there is some Italian law that requires all shutters to be painted green, irrespective of the colour of the wall but this is so effective at bringing the town into a cohesive looking structure. Luckily we left Riomaggiore to the last. Another of the poster boy towns of Cinque Terre with bright waterfront adorned by fishing boats pulled into the town square fighting for space with the hordes of tourists, even at off season. Being located on the western side of Italy, these towns are best visited after mid-day in order to catch the towns bathed in sunlight. This also avoids the early crowd from cruise ships and makes the most of stunning sunset views. Having exhausted Cinque Terre in less time than expected, we made the most of our additional days by catching the train to Portofino marina. The playground of the rich and famous in Italy. Actually, we had to catch the train to Santa Margarita de Ligure and from there a short bus ride to Portofino. Smaller than our Queensway Quay and Ocean Village, and with so few berths, the Italians pull this off in their customary flamboyant style. For a start, as we found out throughout our visit, wall façades are painted to look like 3D reliefs of architectural detailing. So an external wall looks as if it was built by the Romans, just some Disney-like trickery of painting makes the place look regal and very expensive. The render may be falling off, the paint is faded, but it all looks so grand. Portofino was a treat, even if the coffee sent us back a few Euros. We then noticed that there was a water bus to take us back to Santa Margarita and with flat calm seas, was an opportunity not to be missed. Our last stop was only a 30min drive from La Spezia, Porto Venere. A normally unheard off location unless your cruise ship bus stops here, but so worth it. Another impossibly beautiful marina with a more of a local feel to it, same shutters and colours, with restaurants all across the waterfront and a back street with local shops and souvenirs, well worth a walk around. Here the pizza base is made out of Pinsa, a specific dough of the region. When they use this same Pinsa for a Foccace sandwich, it tastes of heaven on earth. We came back feeling that Gibraltar undersells itself. We have so much to offer which is at a par with or even better. We have the same architecture but we lack being able to create the same emotion or even “Instagramness” of what we have. Even a tiny shop selling only focaccia bread was beautifully decorated and tastefully done up. We don’t make the best of offering small craft shops, petite cafeterias as alternates to electronics shops. We found the same feeling in Mykonos recently, their shops are tiny but so attractive and each has a unique offering, making the visitor wanting to go in and have look. Even in La Spezia, their main street was heaving with people into the evening as nearly every alternate retail space was a food/beverage outlet making the area a social as well we shopping area. There were no gimmicks of live music, entertainment laid on, people just want to spend time here with their friends and families. What sets these places apart was, their cleanliness. No bins laid out in the evening, no grime in the footpaths and even though the Italians love their dogs (they are allowed into shops and restaurants), no smell of dog pee or dog poo on the street. Have so loved this Italian adventure that I am looking forward to our next.