The week before we were to head to Cinque Terre from Nice, the weather forecast said it would be raining the whole time we’d be there. And the day before we left it did, indeed, rain. But then the skies opened up, the weather Gods looked fondly upon us, and we ended up with clear blue skies during our whole trip, until we returned and the clouds started rolling back in. Lucky again.
We drove over, stopping for lunch in the seaside town of Alassio. The drive should have been about 2 1/2 hours, but with the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, traffic was so bad that it added 40 minutes to our trip. We could see the bridge as we drove through, and also see the effect it is having on the city. It is making life terrible for the residents of the town. Unfortunately there is no good alternative route, so everyone that’s traveling on the coast freeway has to detour and drive through the middle of the town. It’s a mess and it will be for awhile.
Cinque Terre is situated on the eastern shore of the Ligurian Sea, a sea which has Italy for its northern and eastern borders, France for its western, and Corsica for its southern border. We had thought it would work out best for us if we had a hotel in the middle of Cinque Terre so it would be easier to access all the villages we wanted to see. We felt somewhere up high, near the village of San Bernardino would work best, and found a wonderful B&B called Ca de Ventu just above the village. And because of the clear skies that we had, we could see basically all of the Ligurian Sea from there.
Looking southeasterly we could see the lights of Livorno and Pisa at sunset, while during the day we could see the mountains of Corsica and nearly all the way to Nice in the west. Sunsets were spectacular each night when we dined with a few of the other guests of the six-room B&B. There’s also a jacuzzi that faces south, overlooking the village of Corniglia that offers amazing. If you went to Cinque Terre and only stayed and visited Ca de Ventu, you’d get all that, plus you’d see the villages of Manarola, Corniglia, San Bernardino and Monterosso below. I don’t think it gets much better anywhere else on this coast for views.
We took our eBikes with us but ended up not using them much except on our way over visiting Alassio and on our last day in Levanto. Cinque Terre is not the best place for bikes because to get from village to village you have to ascend to the top of the mountain behind the villages, traverse it, and then descend again, making for a lot of vertical biking for destinations that are only a few kilometers apart. A car works well, and a motorcycle, even better. The roads are made for motorbikes. If you don’t care or need independent transportation then by train is by far the best. Make your base at one end and then spend your days visiting the villages. The track is right along the coast, mostly through tunnels, and makes access to Cinque Terre extremely easy. Another option is by boat as there are a number of ferries servicing the region.
Where you would want a bike is in Levanto, and there are plenty of places that rent bikes there. And of course there is hiking, which is amazing and what most people come here to do. The trails are numerous, hugging the steep mountainsides, passing through vineyards and olive groves, connecting the villages. They can be challenging, but there’s lots of ways to do it; with a guide, on your own, or mixing it up with train, bus or boat travel at times.
Cinque Terre is extremely popular, perhaps too popular in some ways as the villages and train stations are packed with people. Most of the people you see in the villages are riding the trains but you’ll see lots along the trails as well. It had us wondering how the locals put up with it; having people walking through their towns, snapping photos, day after day. So we tried to get to places early or late in the day, to avoid the crowds. And we were sure happy to make it back to our hotel each night, with just a few people around and an amazing view greeting us.
There are five villages that make up the core of Cinque Terre; Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. But you want to add Levanto as a place to visit as well, even though it is outside of the park.
What you are getting at each of these villages is about the same – narrow streets that lead to steep stairways that climb up the hill slopes to homes built on the sides of a ravine. The ravine opens up below as it reaches the Mediterranean, offering enough room for a plaza and then usually a small marina that’s protected by an L-shaped breakwater. For most of the villages elevated train tracks run through the middle of them near the oceanfront. The shops in the center core cater primarily to tourists passing through, so there’s many gift shops, cafes and restaurants. Corniglia is a little different in that it is situated on a hilltop, so there’s a climb to get to it and instead of a ravine you have central narrow street with buildings on either side that look out over steep cliffs on either side of the town.
After the crowds of Cinque Terre, arriving in Levanto was a very welcome change. It is situated in a small bay just north of the CT national park, that opens to a valley surrounded by mountains dotted with small perched villages – I counted six church steepled towns as we descended into Levanto from Monterosso. The bay provides the largest sand beach in the region, and the downtown area is completely flat, making it very bike-friendly. Matter of fact there are so many bikes one would think they were in Holland. Everyone is on one and the are hundred littered around the town, chained to fences and bike stands. There are plenty of interesting looking shops and restaurants and it was remarkably quite empty of tourists compared to the Cinque Terre villages. When we went to Piedmonte someone told us it was like “Tuscany without the Tourists,” and it was. Levanto is Cinque Terre without the tourists. It’s definitely a family town with lots of kids out with their parents in the parks in the evening.
We stayed at Villa Novo, a large family estate home just a few kilometers outside of Levanto that had been converted into a small hotel. The entrance was a private gate with a narrow roadway that wound up to the hotel through the property’s vineyards. It is all very nicely maintained by the owners who also live on the property, and who were very helpful with providing us with ideas for things to do. We wanted to bike so they suggested we take the SP332 highway, which runs through Levanto and then up the mountain going north, following the sea, to the village of Framura. From Framura one of the tracks for the trains had been converted into a bike path, which led back to Levanto along the shoreline. We enjoyed panoramic views from high up the mountain, on a road with very little traffic, and that passed through small villages along the way.
From Framura we made our way back along the coast, passing through the lovely town of Bonnasola. We stopped here for lunch and a swim at the lovely beach that fronts the equally charming town behind. Again, few tourists, or at least nothing like the numbers in Cinque Terre.
Finding non-touristic-driven restaurants can be difficult in Cinque Terre. We were lucky in Corniglia, finding Terra Rossa just outside the old village, which had wonderful fresh food and excellent wines. In Levanto we had dinner at Pizza Picea, which was an experience. The father and son team pride themselves on the many awards they’ve won over the years for their pizza, and their walls are adorned with diplomas, certificates and trophies. And the pizza is very good and reasonably priced. But it is popular. Even though other restaurants were nearly empty, Picea has a line-up as soon as it opens at 6:30PM. But they do take reservations. Our other dinners were at our hotel Ca de Ventu because of the view, and also because the food was quite good.