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Italy’s Two Rivieras

Laughing heartily and feeling the joy of our newfound friendship, we refilled our glasses with the local vino di tavolo and toasted the night. Two hours before we had been complete strangers, wrestling with the language barriers. My wife and I were guests of the only hotel in coastal Vernazza, as were the two Italian women at the neighboring table. Introductory smiles and menu questions lead to drawing pictures on napkins, exchanging photos, and calling on words from four languages: their Italian, our English, and some Spanish and French. By the time we finished with espresso and gelato, we had swapped life stories and shared opinions on topics ranging from local produce to politics. My wife and I then strolled through the quiet village and past the harbor. We sat enthralled in the moonlight as the Mediterranean lapped peacefully on the rocks. Buona notte!

Five Isolated Coastal Villages

The warmth of the people is a highlight of any trip to Italy, and the beauty of the Cinque Terre region brings out the friendliness of those who live and visit here. Cinque Terre means "five lands," denoting the string of five villages which stretch in "pirate coves" along the rugged coastline between Pisa and Genoa. Foot paths connect the five villages and provide overpowering coastline views. The local train line also connects the villages with a schedule of frequent runs. Vernazza is our favorite village with pastel-colored buildings and winding paths climbing the hillsides. Fishermen tend their boats in the harbor as lively children play in the village square next to the 13th century church. The cobbled main street is lined with busy cafes and small shops.

The Thrill is in the Connection

The best way to experience the Cinque Terre is to stay in one of its five towns and utilize footpaths and trains to explore its wonders. You can explore the Cinque Terre well in two full days, but a longer period allows you to sop up more of the Italian sunshine and ambiance. A great one day exploration starts at southernmost Riomaggiore. Walk the one-mile path, Via dell’Amore, north to Manarola. Lunch in Manarola at a restaurant on a terrace overlooking the small inlet, or buy some picnic provisions at the open air stalls. Hike another mile farther north to the smooth-rock beach just before Corniglia. Picnic here and enjoy the wild Mediterranean. You will feel how totally isolated this rugged region was before the trains connected it to the rest of Italy. If you are still energetic after swimming and sunning, climb to Corniglia on the hillside above for the Cinque Terre’s most enthralling views and its best wine.

Another thrilling day of exploration starts at northernmost Monterossa. This is the largest Cinque Terre village (pop. 2,000). There is a fairly popular paying beach near the train station, and an interesting old town section reached via the hillside tunnel. The town square is full of activity, including the daily local men’s card game. The trail south to Vernazza is my favorite hike of the region. The path seems to cling to the hillside as it winds through vineyards and looks down steeply on wild, inaccessible coves. The three-mile path seems longer due to the ups and downs. On rounding a bend near trail’s end, the view of Vernazza is overwhelming.

North to the Riviera’s Santa Margherita and Portofino

Sixty minutes north by train are the delights of the more widely known Riviera. My wife and I met an American couple in Vernazza, and we decided to explore together the famous resort towns of Santa Margherita and Portofino. After some bargaining we found a good rate for a two-room suite at a four-star hotel on the beatch at Santa Margherita. This comfortably sized town has many good restaurants and a busy old-town market. Legendary Portofino connects to Santa Margherita via a five-mile road or 30-minute boat ride, recommended for its views. The picture-book harbor village deserves all the praise it receives. Meander around the small harbor, stroll the main street, and climb the streets around the harbor for unparalleled views of the village, harbor, and coastline. Feast on the great Italian food, wine, and Portofino ambiance.

Luckily, you do not need to choose between visits to the well-known Riviera or the more relatively unknown Cinque Terre region. You can easily experience both Rivieras in a few days on your next voyage to Italy. Enjoy the sunshine and consider it a vacation from your vacation. Molto bene!

Click her for details to plan your own trip to Italy’s Cinque Terra or Santa Margherita/Portofino.

                      Les Furnanz

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