Cinque Terre + Portofino See And Do
On a rainy day in January it may be difficult to see its charms, but come here on a weekend in August when there are pedestrian traffic jams down in Vernazza, and you realize why Cinque Terre aficionados have a soft spot for Corniglia. It is the least touristy of the five villages, so it's a good place to sip a glass of wine, loosen the walking boots, and take stock. Perched on a rocky spur above the waves, Corniglia's tall houses seem to turn their backs on the sea. As, indeed, did the original inhabitants of the Cinque Terre: Even after they moved downhill from their mountain refuges in the Middle Ages, most locals continued to work the land. Once upon a time, the only way to get up to the village was to climb the winding road or the 377-step staircase from the station, but the Parco Nazionale now runs a minibus service between station and village, which is free for holders of the Cinque Terre Treno card, which gives you unlimited train travel on the line from La Spezia to Levanto. Below the station is a pebbly, boulder-strewn beachnot exactly Caribbean caliber, but fine for a quick dip.
Manarola is just as picturesque as Vernazza, but it feels a little more reserved and privatethough privacy is a relative concept in high season, when the ease of road access from La Spezia adds to the crush of walkers and train-hoppers. The village's houses follow the 'S' shape of a narrow valleypast the Museo della Sciacchetrà, with a small display dedicated to the celebrated Cinque Terre dessert winedown to the sea, where dwellings cluster out of range of the waves on a small headland. The fishing boats hauled up on the flagstones of the harborside piazza seem placed for maximum postcard potential, but come here on a stormy day in winter when the scirocco sends the breakers crashing against the rocks, and you'll understand why the locals like to keep them up here. The station is east of town, reached via a pedestrian tunnel that emerges around halfway up the main street. Punto Bonfiglio, the headland on the other side of the harbor from the main nest of houses, hosts the village cemetery; below it is a pretty park with a summer bar and children's play area. This is the place to come for views back over the town, and it's also the starting point for the short walk to . But easily the most famous stretch of the coast path is the 20-minute stroll east to Riomaggiore, known as the Via dell'Amore. Sections of the path tunnel beneath overhanging rocks; others brush past semitropical outbreaks of aloe, prickly pears, and mock orange.
Monterosso is the only one of the Cinque Terre villages that even begins to resemble a seaside resort. Significantly larger than the other four villages, and with the lion's share of the hotels, it also boasts two sandy beachesa rare commodity around these parts. The main beach faces the old town at the mouth of the Buranco River valley. From here, beyond the handsome 12th-century church of San Giovanni Battista, the main street winds uphill, lined with shops selling Sciacchetrà dessert wine and other local products. Back at the beach, a pedestrian tunnel leads to the seaside promenade, Via Fegina, which is also where you'll find the train station (note that this is the only one of the Cinque Terre train stations where you can buy long-distance train ticketsfor Rome, Venice, or Florence, for example). Fegina Beach, a safe (though crowded) option for families with children, is a long, narrow strand that ends at an odd rock-perched sculpted figure known as Il Gigante. Monterosso's once-flourishing fishing industry survives in the Centro di Salagione, a modern space dedicated to an ancient art: the salting of the prized "red anchovies" that are found in these waters. You can sample them for free and buy anchovy paste and other products here (2/4 Via Servano).
This tiny harbor, circled by the gaily painted facades of what were once fishermen's houses but have since become millionaire's retreats, is excessively pretty. The high water mark of the Portofino legend came in the '50s, when a procession of film stars came to stay (many of them friends of Rex Harrison, who owned a villa here). By 1954, the picturesque fishing port was so well known that it became a film location itself, in Joseph Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa. This is where you'll find the Splendido, a former monastery, then a patrician villa, and now one of Europe's most exclusive, and expensive, hotels. Though cruise ships and bus tour parties have since democratized the Portofino experience, the place still retains an aura of exclusivitypartly thanks to stringent local planning regulations. There's not much to do here except sip an aperitivo down by the port (try La Gritta, at 20 Calata Marconi, with its floating pontoon terrace), browse the luxury brand boutiques, or wander up to the Castello Brown, the castle that dominates the harbor and that takes its name from the English consul who turned it into a private residence in 1870. You could also try for lunch at Puny, the most celebrated of Portofino's waterside restaurants. There's another side to Portofino, though, that has more to do with nature and hiking boots than dry martinis. The rocky, densely wooded promontory behind the town has long been a regional park, and several marked footpaths traverse it. One of the best is the two-hour trek via Pietre Strette to San Fruttuoso, a 10th-century Benedictine abbey that stands in a tiny inlet. You can continue across to San Rocco on the other side of the promontory. This stone village offers extraordinary views down the coast toward Genoa, and a fine end-of-trek trattoria, La Cucina di Nonna Nina. San Fruttuoso can also be reached by boat, from Portofino or Camogli.
Though it's not strictly one of the Cinque Terre villages, it would be a shame to miss out on a visit to historic Portovenere. The town lies just around the headland of San Pietro, which separates the Cinque Terre from the Gulf of La Spezia, and is best approached by sea, on one of the regular ferries that ply the coast. The houses that front the quay look as if they've been squeezed together by an angry giant: Each is one room wide but five or six stories tall, and they're all painted different pastel shades. On the hill above town is a 12th-century Genoese castle (the town was the Genoa Republic's southern bulwark against its rival Pisa), while to the south, on the rocky headland, stands the ancient church of San Pietro, a 12th-century Gothic structure in stripes of black and white marble erected on the remains of a sixth-century Paleochristian chapel. Via Cappellini, Portovenere's main street, heads uphill from the town gate; if lunch is on the agenda, the Antica Osteria del Caruggio at number 66 is a good traditional trattoria where you can sample local dishes like mesciua, a chickpea and pearl barley soup (39-01-8779-0617). Small ferries cross the narrow channel between the port and the island of Palmaria, where you'll find a more up-market lunch stop, Locanda Lorena (39-08-779-2370). Another much smaller island, Tino, belongs to the Italian military and is open to the public only on September 13, the feast day of one of its early inhabitants, seventh-century hermit San Venerio.
Riomaggiore is the closest of the five villages to the urban sprawl and naval dockyards of La Speziawhich provide employment for a number of localsbut the proximity has not ruined its charms. Quite the opposite, in fact: Riomaggiore comes across as one of the most confidently self-contained of the Cinque Terre villages. Tourists are welcome, but they don't stop the Riomaggioresi from getting on with their lives. The village centers on the usual main street, snaking inland and uphill; in this case, though, the tiny harbor is off to one side, almost like a separate village (and considered such by people here). It's a great place to watch the sun set over a glass of white Cinque Terre wine. Note that the cluster of houses outside the station is not downtown Riomaggiore. To get there, you can either walk through the long, well-lit foot tunnel (decorated with murals by a local artist), or if not loaded down with luggage, take the pretty scenic path that branches off from the end of Platform 3. For the Via dell'Amore footpath, see Manarola.
With its ripple of bright houses on a rocky promontory and its main piazza chock-full of fishing boats above a pocket-sized harbor, it's easy to see why many visitors consider Vernazza the archetypal Cinque Terre village. It's also easy to understand why it's best avoided on Sundays in July and August. Like most of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza was founded in the early Middle Ages. When the Cinque Terre fell under the influence of Genoa toward the end of the 13th century, it was Vernazza that was considered the real prize, as it was the only one of the five villages to have a true harbor (its strategic importance was reflected in the fact that Vernazza had its own seat in the Genoese parliament). From the train stationcentrally located, for onceVia Roma snakes down to harbor-front Piazza Marconi, with its cluster of tempting bars and restaurants, framed by the bell tower of Santa Margherita di Antiochia and the tall keep of the Doria Castle.