After enjoying our last breakfast on the balcony in Nice, it was time to pack the car and hit the road. We’ve been looking forward to this portion of the trip for a very long time; we love Italy.
The roads leading to the autostrada were terrific as we climbed away from the ocean. Twisty and narrow with breathtaking views off the right-hand side, including one of Monte Carlo bay and Monaco from above. It was interesting to see the city from the top of the cliffs because it looked so different from where we were just a few days prior.
The drive’s highlight was stopping for a snack at one of the road service stations. The food choices were unlike any truck stop or service station in the US; baked salmon with rice and vegetables, fresh salads, roasted potatoes, pizzas, focaccia bread, cakes, and pies. I went with a Caprese salad and wasn’t disappointed. It was also our first introduction to ordering coffee Italian style. Unbeknownst to us, you order and pay for your coffee from one counter, then bring your receipt to another, where the barista checks your order and then makes it for you. The process seems logical now, but at the time was very confusing. I went to the counter and got my Americano (mistake) with my food which further confused the locals. As I would learn, ordering an Americano coffee can be hit or miss; the correct espresso-to-water ratio is required, and some places know how to make a good one. Others pour espresso and add boiling water to fill the cup. My order was the latter; it was scalding hot and lacking in flavor.
Arrival in La Spezia was pretty standard; we found the apartment building and met our Airbnb host. She spoke very little English, but we got the basics covered and checked in. The apartment was excellent, with a lot of space, and appeared to have everything we required. We tried the free parking lot by the bus terminal, but there were no open spots. That meant we had to park in the train station parking garage, which cost 30 euros per day, not the best.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Cinque Terre, it is a collection of five villages that were isolated from the rest of the region for years due to the rugged terrain. They are small fishing villages along the rocky and gorgeous coastline of north-western Italy. Even now that they are a top tourist destination rivaling the well-established locations in Italy, it is still challenging to get to them by car, but trains are great. It only takes 30 minutes to reach the farthest village from the station in La Spezia, and trains run frequently until after 10 PM. The entire area is also part of a national park with legendary hiking trails connecting each village; making the area a top destination for backpackers.
The next morning, we caught a train to the northernmost village of Monterosso al Mare to begin our exploration. The town is beautiful with picturesque beaches complete with rows of umbrellas and chairs, lidos as the Italians call them. It is simply gorgeous, and I feel the need for a beach day soon.
We walked the village but not after first stopping at the focaccia place we saw on a YouTube travel video, Focacceria Il Frantoio. We had the regular with cheese and one with cheese, tomato, and pesto; both were outstanding. I think the lightness made this focaccia much better than others I’ve had. It wasn’t heavy or doughy and didn’t feel like it had tons of oil and fat. I’m sure it did, but it didn’t taste like it.
We then saw the black and white striped churches the village is known for and lots of shops. We climbed a staircase to reach the rocky clifftop to get the best harbor view. The vantage point was excellent. It was getting very, very hot, though.
The next stop was the village of Vernazza. The town was pretty cool but not as picturesque as Monterosso. There was a beach, but it was small, crowded, and not that great. The saving grace was a random discovery of the “smallest bar in Italy,“ the Monkey Art Pub. Crystal had a rum cocktail, and I had a beer; both tasted good against the heat of the day. We only found it because Crystal began a climbing spree to get to a castle overlook that ended up being a dud, but the bar was great.
On the way out, we discovered a little cave that led to a rocky beach. Some people were swimming, and others were sitting on the rocks and enjoying the water; it was a very cool spot. Then it was time to hit the train back to La Spezia for nap time.
After recharging, we caught the train to Manarola for a bite to eat and to watch the sunset. Dinner was okay as we got a little rushed, and the choices were not exactly overwhelming. I had another Caprese salad with pesto, which was excellent, and some fried calamari.
We walked to the point recommended on a YouTube travel video to get ready for the sunset, and it didn’t disappoint. The sunset colors perfectly highlight the pinks of the village buildings for a stunning view. I took a ridiculous number of photos, hoping four or five turn out great. Then it was on the train back to the apartment to do it all again tomorrow.
La Spezia and Cinque Terre
We took our time in the morning and strolled down the road next to our apartment to the La Spezia harbor. We decided to go to the villages later in the afternoon since we only had two left to explore, and one was Riomaggiore for sunset.
The walk took us through a permanent farmer’s market set up, with the typical spread of fruits, meats, and fish. The fruit and vegetable stands made no sense as there were dozens of them, and they all seemingly sold the same thing. I don’t know how they make it work. Unlike other markets where there is overlap and repetition, there is at least some separation between like vendors. Here, it was one after the other next to and across from each other.
We continued to the harbor, walked across a bridge designed to look like sailing masts, and then to the main marina. While there was a fair share of multi-million dollar yachts, most of the marina was filled with “normal people” boats, which was nice to see. We could also see many Italian Navy ships stationed here, as La Spezia is one of their main ports.
On the way back to the apartment, we walked down the palm tree-lined street for a bit before heading back. It’s a nice harbor area with some good size parks and a lot of activity. There were two massive cruise ships and several container cargo ships in the industrial port.
We stopped at an organic gelato place by the farmer’s market on the way home, and it was awesome. Everything they serve is edible, and they use no plastics; even the spoon was a cookie. What a great idea!
We finally boarded the train to Corniglia and prepped ourselves for the 385 steps we would climb to get from the train station to the town. It was sweltering, and I was not happy, but we did it. The town is the smallest of the Cinque Terre villages, and it shows. It is also the one that had no real sea access. It seems a popular spot for hikers as the middle town makes it a good base camp for exploring the miles of trails connecting the villages. We checked out a few vantage points and an old cathedral and then returned to the train.
Our destination for the evening was Riomaggiore. We arrived and scoped out the place, looking for a restaurant for dinner and the best spot for the sunset. The restaurant we wanted wasn’t open until 6 PM, so we had about 45 minutes to kill. We did so by checking out the sunset spots and figuring out our strategy.
Dinner was at the Il Grottino, and it was pretty damn good. We went full Italian with an antipasto (mozzarella with pesto, tomatoes, and an egg/pesto soufflé thing that was fabulous), main dish, and dessert. I had a La Fruttaria, fried seafood mixed with vegetables (more calamari!), and Crystal had gnocchi with salted cod. Desert was a fabulous chocolate mousse and fantastic vanilla ice cream with coffee and amaretto.
After the feast, we went down the rocky sea wall to find a spot for sunset photos. Crystal was a trooper and climbed the rocks with me to get the best vantage point to see the sun going down on the left and the colorful buildings to the right. Riomaggiore’s orientation is completely different than Manarola the night before but equally beautiful. Where the sunlight illuminates Manarola directly, terrain blocks some of the light at sunset in Riomaggiore. The beauty of the evening comes from the indirect lighting and color of the sky reflecting off the colorful buildings. There was also something about sitting on the sea wall surrounded by water that made the experience better than the night before. People argue which town is the better sunset location, but, for me, it’s’ difficult to compare them because they offer very different experiences. It would be best to see them both because everyone likes something different in a sunset.