Port of Call: Navigating Italy’s Cinque Terre
When the ship docks, a crowd-dodging plan is key in these coastal Italian postcard villages.
Briny sea breezes carry the scent of sun-warmed lemons and fresh basil along the Riviera di Levante on Italy’s northwestern coast. A favorite holiday destination, this 80-mile stretch of the Italian Riviera begins east of Genoa and ends just beyond the Gulf of La Spezia, also known as the “Poets’ Gulf,” for the number of writers its beauty has inspired. This warm-weather paradise, which I’ve called home for more than a decade, is now a popular cruise destination due to its proximity to the Cinque Terre, five ancient fishing villages perched amid wave-battered cliffs on a rugged stretch of coastline. A UNESCO World Heritage site and fragile natural treasure, the Cinque Terre is largely car-free, but easily accessible by train or boat, and on foot. To avoid the tourist crowds and delve deeper into this fascinating region, arrive with a strategy and sturdy sneakers. An extensive network of hiking trails links the villages, while ferries ply the glittering coastal waters, making for an easy day of outdoor exploring from smaller Portovenere or La Spezia, where larger ships dock.
Whether you arrive by boat or train, make Vernazza your first Cinque Terre stop. Arguably the most beautiful of the five villages, it fills early with day-tripping visitors, so enjoy the morning calm on a stroll through the narrow lanes and arched porticoes, past the lemon-hued church, and along the tiny harbor, where bobbing turquoise-and-white dinghies line the stone quay. Sip a cappuccino on the seaside piazza, or join tanned retirees wading into the crystal-clear water for their first swim of the day. Then climb the narrow staircase up to Castello Doria, an ancient seaside fortification with spectacular coastal views.
Fill a water bottle before leaving the tourist masses behind for the two-mile hike from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost Cinque Terre town, along the popular Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail). The ascent is moderately strenuous along a dusty trail, but your effort will be rewarded with stunning bird’s-eye views of Vernazza. Continue through the lush landscape, past citrus groves and terraced vineyards equipped with rickety monorail cars that haul the handpicked harvest up vertiginously steep slopes. After a hike of about an hour and a half, Monterosso will come into view.
A promontory divides Monterosso, the Cinque Terre’s largest town, into two parts, old and new. Begin exploring the Old Town, nestled between green hills, with its multicolored houses, pebbled beach, and medieval carruggi (ultra-narrow alleys). Stop at Focacceria Il Frantoio for a snack of pan fritto (fried pizza dough stuffed with cheese), then admire a collection of artworks that include a van Dyck painting inside the bluff-top monastery. A tunnel leads to the newer part of town, known as Fegina, where rows of sun loungers and colorful parasols line the long sand-and- pebble beach. Cool off with a gelato or a dip in the Mediterranean, then join locals taking a relaxed passeggiata along the beach-side promenade.
The most pleasurable way to see the Cinque Terre is from the water. Whether aboard a private yacht or public ferry, the views are the same: stupendous. The easiest route is to hop on the hourly ferry departing from the quay beside Monterosso’s Old Town (look for signs for Consorzio Marittimo Turistico), and sail down the coast admiring the unparalleled panorama of postage-stamp-size villages tucked amid sheer cliffs. Along the way, spy hidden coves, lone hilltop chapels, acres of olive trees, and vineyards climbing the hillsides. Admire Vernazza from new angles, spotting the hilltop town of Corniglia (the only Cinque Terre town without a harbor), before arriving in Manarola.
Alight in Manarola for an afternoon aperitivo at Nessun Dorma, a clifftop café that serves spritzes in an outdoor garden overlooking the town harbor and its cluster of pastel houses perched above the turquoise sea. If you’re eager to tick off one more village, take the train a stop south to Riomaggiore and climb the steep steps above the station to A Pié de Ma, a wine bar situated on rocks jutting above the water, where you can sip rare natural wines from local producer Walter De Battè on the terrace as waves swirl and crash below.
As charming as any of its northern neighbors, Portovenere deserves a detour for its impressive historic sights, including the hilltop Castello Doria; the striped, twelfth-century Chiesa di San Pietro; and a wave-battered grotto dedicated to the English poet (and legendary swimmer) Lord Byron. Those returning to ships in La Spezia should head into the city center for farinata, a thin, pancakelike local specialty made from chickpeas. At La Pia Centenaria, a farinata specialist since 1887, giant copper pans pulled from the wood-fired oven yield pancakes that are sliced for take-away orders; try the savory version slathered with pesto or creamy stracchino cheese.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Virtuoso Life. Written by Ingrid K. Williams