June 6, 2013

Five Jewels on the Italian Coast

"I see my path, but I don't know where it leads.  Not knowing where I'm going is what inspires me to travel it."  Rosalia de Castro

Al writes:  After spending the day in the high Alps at Chamonix, it was time to head south to the sea and sun.  We followed Napolean's Route--the route he took after leaving Elba, landing on the French Riviera, and leading his newly formed army to its Waterloo.  We cut across the southern Alps into Italy and met the coast at Genoa. 

I have become a bit overconfident in my driving and thought it would be a great idea to follow the coast road to our destination of Cinque Terre.  Not a good decision.  Italy is a bit different for driving than on the German and French countryside.  You have to bring a little more emotion without hesitation into the driving.  Also, the streets get narrower and the Vespas attack from all directions.  I was already a little nervous after doing a U-turn before a tunnel that would have shaved off my air conditioner and awning.  Then, the streets got so narrow, I was not sure if I was on a pedestrian-only alley.  My eyeballs were rocking violently from my Garmin to all mirrors, signs, and pedestrians that did not hesitate to step in my path.  If they only knew how close they were to being unintentionally ignored by this crazy American.  After over an hour covering only 15 miles of terror with white knuckles, intense concentration, heart palpitations, and multiple closed-eyes maneuvers, I said the heck with this and programed my Garmin to get me to the freeway (autostrada).  Somehow, we made it to our basecamp at lovely Levanto from where we would explore the Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre is a small portion of the Italian Riviera (about 10 miles) that has 5 picturesque villages.  The entire area is popular for hiking and biking and just soaking up the local ambiance.  The area is a UNESCO site.  UNESCO sites fall in the categories of cultural, historical, and natural beauty and are so important to the world that they make the list to encourage protection for future generations.  I think of the list of sites as the ultimate bucket list.  It is interesting to look at the list of UNESCO sites in the U.S.   The Cinque Terre area was designated an Italian National Park in 1999, and the first park president, Franco Bonanini, had great plans to improve the infrastructure for the good of the communities and the tourists.  Unfortunately, he succumbed to corruption, and greed stopped most of the projects.  The lack of an overall preservation and improvement plan led to disastrous floods on October 25, 2011.  The area has almost recovered because of the hard work of the locals and is still a beautiful, easygoing place to visit.

Our arrival in Levanto was later than expected, so Carol and I decided to take a warm-up hike to Bonassola, which is not part of Cinque Terre.  The bike/hiking trail follows an old train route along the coast that is made up of tunnels and openings to see the ocean.  It was a different type of hike and the views of the coastline were very similar to what you would see in the Monterey area of California.


For the following two days, Carol and I visited all five of the villages.

The village flows down a ravine to the water's edge.  Space is very limited and the boats are stored in the Main Street on carts to be wheeled down to the very small harbor.  Every sunny day is a laundry day.



This village was my favorite.  It was similar to Riomaggiore, following a ravine to the sea and also along a small peninsula.  The buildings seemed to be built on top of each other and I had the impression that if one building was taken away, the whole village would slide into the sea.

Corniglia is different from the other villages in that it is above the water.  In fact, there are 388 steps to reach it from the train station.  At first, we were a little disappointed in arriving at the nondescript town square.  However, in searching for Alberto's Gelato, we followed a narrow alleyway filled with shops that lead us to the grandest view of the day. 

This village is considered the jewel of the area.  It has the biggest natural harbor (not very big) and is a favorite stopping place for the many tour boats showing off the Cinque Terre from the sea.  The breakwater was an excellent place to rest and watch the activity.


Monterosso is the largest of the five villages and is the place to shop.  We often took a short hike to a viewpoint above the various villages, and we were glad we did this in Monterosso.  This town had a cemetery at the highest point above the town in an area that used to be a convent and a castle.  The town was also preparing for a religious procession that evening celebrating the Corpus Domini festival.  The locals were in the process of making elaborate sidewalk art composed of common local materials such as flower petals, lemon slices, coffee grounds, leaves, popcorn etc.  The art work was very creative and unusual.




Our stay in the Cinque Terre was characterized by slowing down and smelling the roses or, in this case, the Margherita pizzas.  We had a leisurely lunch every day and strolled the streets and vineyards above the villages.  We had a most enjoyable stay on the Italian Riviera.
"Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe."  Anatole France



  1. You are probably going northwest and not southeast but two places I have been, both by sea, are La Spezia (in the 70's) and Lucca, a picturesque walled city (a few years ago). Both are well worth a visit.

  2. Yes, we headed to the French Riviera from Cinque Terre. Hated to leave Italy with such a short visit, but the next 2 months in France will be wonderful, I am sure.