Stop off for lunch in Riomaggiore.
But don’t. Feel. Sad.
Cuz three out of five ain’t bad.
Ok, Meatloaf I’m not, may he Rest In Peace.
Completing our long ovalish loop of central and southern Italy, where we started, in Liguria, we made a stop in La Spezia, gateway to Cinque Terre. I’m not even sure why we picked La Spezia and am embarrassed to say that we didn’t even know it was near Cinque Terre when we originally picked it. We must have liked the Airbnb or the look of the town or something and it must have been because it is close to our last stop, Lucca. A happy accident.
Plus Two #1: Porto Venere. Our final day with our Tuscany Tour rental car, we drove past La Spezia to Porto Venere on a tip from Pasquale from Osteria Da Pasquale in Lucca. Porto Venere doesn’t look like much when you first arrive, but park your car and it will reveal itself. The town is on the port with a colorful row of port-front buildings and several outdoor cafes to choose from. We selected Trattoria La Marina which turned out to be far more gourmet than it looked. It looks like a family run Italian seafood place on the harbor with black and white photos of Porto Venere and family members on the inside, simple tables out. We had an antipasta of mixed seafood, including a crudo shrimp, followed by a seared tuna and probably the best flayed, baked white fish with potatoes, tomatoes and olives I’ve ever had. And that’s saying something, this is a Portuguese specialty.
With an hour left on the parking meter, we set off to wander down the pier to check out, what we thought, was all that remained of this small town. We turned the corner and found a 13th century church on the point where the land meets water by the narrow channel between Porto Venere and the island of Palmaria. As you approach the church, to your right, is Byron’s Grotto, where Lord Byron used to meditate and from which he allegedly swam eight kilometers to visit a friend in Lerici. Above the grotto rests the old Doria castle high up the cliff side and to the northwest, the Cinque Terre. The town itself is much larger than it initially appears. We thought, without having seen any of the actual Cinque Terre villages or spending any time in La Spezia, yet, that it would be a good place to make as a headquarters for visiting the region if you wanted a small village. Water taxis run from here to Cinque Terre making that a possibility.
With our parking meter expiring, we headed back to La Spezia for our Airbnb check in. Our host, Giorgio, met us at our rental car agency and helped us transfer our bags back to the apartment. As a quick aside, we found this type of kindness and hospitality throughout our visit to Italy amongst our Airbnb hosts. They take their hosting responsibilities seriously, take pride in the accommodations they provide and are incredibly gracious and helpful.
The Three out of Five. Our first full day here, we spent exploring three of the five Cinque Terre villages. You can get to them by train, bus or car or you can get to four of them by water. The train option is less expensive and was less crowded (the queues to get on the boats stretched up the pier and the boats were packed full as they docked). At the train station, you can buy the Cinque Terre pass which includes hop-on/hop-off trains, busses (if you don’t want to walk to some of the ones further from the train station) and the hiking trails. The hikes between the first three towns were closed, so we opted to train to visit them instead: starting with Riomaggiore, then Manarola and finally Corniglia.
Riomaggiore is popular and busy. It seemed larger than the other two we visited and it was our least favorite. It’s probably one of which you’ve seen pictures. Light pastel colored buildings perched on cliff sides in a U formation falling down to the small port below through a central artery of shops and restaurants. It was touristy and overpriced. We did have a good (and overpriced) lunch at the small port with excellent service at Enoteca Dau Cila but the town above didn’t do much for us. So, off to town 2 we went….
Upon arrival in Manarola we immediately liked it. It has far more charm than Riomaggiore, at least to us. It has the same cafe/bar/restaurant-lined Main Street with a central town square and a path that crawls up the cliffside overlooking the port where boats and bathers mix in the pools of seawater below. It felt far more laid back and like a place we’d stay. But we didn’t, we had one more town to see on our agenda. To Corniglia we ride!
Back on the train, it’s a quick hop to Corniglia. You get off and walk. And you walk. And you walk. Whereas the first two have a quick pedestrian tunnel into town, you walk quite a distance along the flat track-side path to a hillside climb up winding steps to reach Corniglia. The boats don’t stop here so it was far more low key than the previous two, but that could have been the later hour of the day. From Corniglia, you can walk to Vernazza, the next one. That wasn’t in the cards for us however. What do we say to Vernazza? Not today.
Plus Two #2: La Spezia. La Spezia is larger than we expected. It’s a big shipping, cruise ship and navy port. We rode through the industrial port on our way to Porto Venere and were underwhelmed, initially, but as you exit the industrial and military center and move towards the actual town you find a metropolitan center that’s quite lively with a yacht-filled marina to your left and parks and pedestrian streets to your right.
As we wandered around our neighborhood, which sat next to the open air market of stalls filled with fresh fruits and vegetables on one side and rows of fresh fish and seafood to the other, it felt like a small town.
Everyone seemed to know each other and stopped to laugh, catch up and socialize. The pedestrian streets are, actually, pedestrian streets, without cars, delivery trucks and motorcycles sneaking up behind you every few minutes. There’s a long park which stretches along the waterfront with fountains and statues and a promenade. Above town, sits a hilltop neighborhood with spectacular views and an old castle with equivalent views and a museum filled with artifacts excavated across northern Italy from the Copper Age through the Roman era.
La Spezia may be used more as a gateway to other spots beyond but we quite liked it. For dinner, we ate in two nights (much needed rest from eating out both for wallets and waistlines) but did go out our last night to All’Inferno dal 1905, recommended by Giorgio (our host). Ample portions, inexpensive, more Italian patrons than foreign. It was really fantastic. We ordered two primis (penne with small shrimps and spaghetti neri with mussels) and a secondi (cod with potatoes, olives and tomatoes) plus an antipasti (sardines, 6 or 7 ways) and it was way too much food and it was the least expensive dinner we’ve had in a while, and all were delicious.
So, while we only visited three of the five towns, we feel like we got a good sense of the region and some variety with the three we did visit. Plus, we got the two bonus towns of Porto Venere and surprisingly nice La Spezia. For us, if we were to come back, we’d probably opt to stay in either Porto Venere or Manarola, if we were looking for the seaside village experience. They felt more authentic with relatively easy access and are beautiful. But don’t overlook La Spezia as an option if you want convenience to the villages with a larger city experience. So I guess we arm wrestle for where to stay next time: city vs village, village vs city.
Final tip: below is the train schedule and boat map and schedule from when we visited. Our host provided both and the train timetable was super handy for figuring out when we needed to be back to each station to train to the next stop. Strongly recommend having one along.