J&D's Travelog


Cinque Terre,

October 2-8, 2005

Tools of the trade.
Tools of the trade.


D had been working in the Savoie region of France for three months, and it was time for a break. He had been struggling with the decision of whether to go to Corsica or Liguria. A hike along part of the Italian Riviera and visiting the Cinque Terre villages sounded more appealing and finally won out. D collected J from the Lyon airport and were on the train to Italy the next morning. Shortly before the border crossing at Modane, D realized he had left his passport back at his apartment. Given that the Olympics were to take place in Turin within 4 months, this oversight was certainly going to spell trouble. As the garda inched through the train checking documentation, D started to break a sweat. When it was his turn, he rummaged through his backpack and feigned surprise at not finding his passport. D was made to wait in the diner car with a Muslim guy while the garda swept the remainder of the train. D explained the situation and produced his Massachusetts driver’s license as his only form of identification. The officer looked on suspiciously as he took it all in. J was brought in to the act, and after some deliberation on beginning a new life with some fine Italian man, she corroborated D's story to ensure his freedom.

Our first glimpse of the tower
Our first glimpse of the tower.

The Pisa Duomo
The Pisa Duomo.

One of the best angles to see the lean
One of the best angles to see the lean.


Since it’s only about 45 min south of the Cinque Terre, we decided to officially begin our journey in Pisa. J had never been, and D had not been there in 20 years, and even then it was just long enough to dash across town and see the tower during a 2am train layover. We had spent the whole day in transit coming from France, thus Priority #1 upon arrival was to find a place to crash. Unfortunately it was raining buckets, so we were limited to finding something near the central train station, which we did for 89 euros a night. After freshening up, the rain subsided to a drizzle, and we scampered across the river to see the tower at night. It is a spectacular sight when illuminated. It is also free and accessible. To be permitted to walk right up to the base of Pisa’s primary moneymaker at night in this day and age is amazing.

The famed tower is actually the bell tower which corresponds to the adjoining Pisa Duomo (Cathedral of Pisa). The Piazza di Maracoli (Square of Miracles) is also known as Campo di Miracoli (Field of Miracles) because it was a one time estuary which explains the soft ground on which it was built. Other buildings in the complex include the domed Battistero (baptistery) and the massive Camposanto (cemetery). The area is partially surrounded by the old city walls. However, it is very difficult to not spend your whole visit gazing at and photographing the tower. Construction of La Torre di Pisa was begun in 1173 and finally finished 200 years later. The eight-story tower is believed to have begun leaning after the completion of the third story. A 100 year pause in construction ensued allowing the soil to settle and most likely enabling further construction of the tower. Still the tower continued to lean to the south at an increasing rate which was exacerbated by the installation of the tower’s seven bells. Over the centuries, there has been an international effort to prevent the tower from falling including cementing the foundation, using weights, and attaching cables. Only recently has the tower been stabilized for the long-term when a team exercised the brilliantly simple idea of removing soil from the north side of the tower. Galileo, who attended the nearby University of Pisa in the 1580s, reputedly used the tower to stage his experiment to disprove the Aristotelian theory that objects fall at the same rate.

Just outside the Piazza di Miracoli is a hotel with stunning views of the tower from its rooms. On a whim, D inquired about their rates – 70 euros a night. Already, our trip was off to a great start. We strolled back to our overpriced shoebox but ducked into a nearby café for some sustenance – a wood-fired pizza and some out-of-this-world focaccia with prosciutto and mozzarella. This would literally be a taste of things to come.

Using a nun for scale
Using a nun for scale.


One of several sculptured capitals decorating the tower
One of several sculptured capitals decorating the tower.


Under the lean
Under the lean.

Old Roman baths near the Tower
Old Roman baths near the Tower.

The wall protecting the Campo di Maracoli
The wall protecting the Campo di Maracoli.

The impressive Battistero in the foreground
The impressive Battistero in the foreground.

School kids sketching on a fieldtrip
School kids sketching on a fieldtrip.

There was much discussion and some blatant copying going on
There was much discussion and some blatant copying going on.

Michelangelo in the making
Michelangelo in the making.


Just before La Spezia, considered the gateway to the Cingue Terre and north of the famed Carrara marble quarries, lays the town of Sarzana. We had made good time and our guide book showed the town had both a castle and a fortress, so we decided to jump off of the train and have a look around. Sarzana sprouted up at the crossroads of two major Roman thoroughfares and was bounced around between the nearby city states of Pisa, Genoa, Florence, and Lucca before finally becoming part of the Savoie domain. Owing to its strategic location and desirability, Sarzana hosts both a 15th century citadel and a 14th century fortress. Near the center of the Via Mazzini which runs the length of town from the Porta Parma to the Porta Romana is a small house which once belonged to Buonaparte family. Napolean’s grandfather left Sarzana in 1529 to represent the Republic of Genoa as an envoy to Corsica.

The Carrara quarries were the favored marble suppliers to Michelangelo
The Carrara quarries were the favored marble suppliers to Michelangelo.

The Buonaparte residence in Sarzana
The Buonaparte residence in Sarzana.

Sarzana's citadel with the Fortress of Sarzanello on the hill in the background
Sarzana's citadel with the Fortress of Sarzanello on the hill in the background.


The castello above Riomaggiore
The castello above Riomaggiore.


When approaching it from the south, the Cinque Terre officially begins at Riomaggiore, a quaint fishing village that spills down the slope of a hill to the Mediterranean. The main street now covers the course of the Major River, the town’s namesake. As one of the larger Cinque Terre towns and being the southernmost, Riomaggiore is seething with tourists - Germans, Australians, and especially Americans. The disproportionate number of our fellow countrymen is likely attributed to the "Rick Steves effect" in that the area was prominently featured on his PBS travel show. What is clear is that trainloads of tourists arrive every 20 min or so clad in fleeces, cargo pants, hiking boots, backpacks and wielding walking poles - resembling an Eddie Bauer & LL Bean fashion show. Nevertheless, Riomaggiore, and the whole Cinque Terre for that matter, seems to subsist on tourists. Each new train brings another load looking for rooms, food, and charm.

We managed to find an apartment near the water, and after cleaning ourselves up a bit, began a tour of Riomaggiore. The only place to go from the water is up. The main street winds up through the terraced valley and leads to stairs in all directions meandering past houses and ultimately to panoramic views. After a few hours, our legs were burning, so we settled into an open-air café perched on the side of a cliff near the train station of all places. The view was spectacular. A few glasses of wine, and it was back to town for a meal of pesto, a Ligurian specialty, and mussels.

Riomaggiore lights up at sunset
Riomaggiore lights up at sunset.

The best place in town for a drink
The best place in town for a drink.

The 14th century church of San Giovanni Battista
The 14th century church of San Giovanni Battista.

Compliments of the Franklin Mint
Compliments of the Franklin Mint.

You're the man, Walter
You're the man, Walter.

On the Via dell'Amore
On the Via dell'Amore.

Landslides pose a constant danger
Landslides pose a constant danger.


The next morning brought more rain, so we whiled away the hours sipping cappuccinos and chocolate croissants. Riomaggiore is best known for the Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Walk) path to Manarola that is carved into the cliff-side. Once the rain let up about mid-morning, swarms of tourists started heading to Manarola via this path. The route is indeed breathtaking with benches carved into the rock at various points and named after characters in the Odyssey. Sadly, the ambience is ruined by not only the incessant flow of tourists, but by the pervasive graffiti that defaces the cliffs, benches, and flora. How desperate for attention does one have to be to carve their name into a cactus?

The walk only takes twenty minutes before you come to Manarola, which look very similar to Riomaggiore but with fewer restaurants and shops. We spent an hour or two walking around town and gorging ourselves on focaccia bread with cheese, rosemary, olives, mushrooms, and prosciutto. Our goal was to make it to the third Cinque Terre town of Corniglia, but we learned that the main path was closed due to a landslide – a common occurrence in this cliff-dominated region. Thus, the only route available to us was up and over the ridge that led to Corniglia. To make matters worse, the sun finally emerged for the first time just as we began our ascent, with full packs, of the thousand steps that wound through the olive groves to Volastra, our half-way point. It didn’t take long before we were regretting the focaccia bread. It could have easily been nicknamed the Stairway to Heaven – not because of the beautiful panoramic views, but because when we got to Volastra, the stores were all closed. We circled in vain around the village looking for the commestibli that a sign along the route promised. Just when we had given up and tried to find the trail to Corniligia, we happened across an official Cinque Terre Trail refuge with life-saving Birra Moretti on tap.

One of the Homeric benches
One of the Homeric benches.

A glimpse of Manarola on the climb to Volastra A glimpse of Manarola on the climb to Volastra.

Focaccia selections
Focaccia selections.

Searching for commestibili
Searching for commestibili.

Volastra comes from Vicus Oleastra (village of olives)
Volastra comes from Vicus Oleastra (village of olives).

A tribute to the wine harvest
A tribute to the wine harvest.

The terraces around Manarola
The terraces around Manarola.

The hilltop town of Corniglia
The hilltop town of Corniglia.

A room with a view and the offending homemade wine
A room with a view and the offending homemade wine.

We sipped some wine at Il Pirun, one of the few evening spots in Corniglia.
A fine example of an enoteca.

The place is crawling with felines.
Corniglia is famous for its cats - and its focaccia.

The narrow streets and lack of tourists made Corniglia one of the most charming of the Cinque Terre towns.
Downtown Corniglia.


Finding our legs once again, we descended from Volastra through the olive groves which soon turned to vineyards. Ambling down a combination of muddy paths and stairs, we finally caught our first glimpse of the day’s destination. Corniglia seems to be the forgotten town of the Cinque Terre. As the middle village of the five, it doesn’t see the same number of visitors as those at the ends of the trail. It’s also situated on a promontory some 300ft above the sea and has little to speak of in terms of a beach. Consequently, hotel rooms are scarce so we knew that we would have to find a camera somewhere and soon.

Strolling down the main thoroughfare with our backpacks in tow, we were approached by an elderly woman who appeared from behind a large green door. She inquired as to whether we needed a room and, after some clumsy negotiation in Italian, the deal was done. D poked his head through the green door ready to drop off the pack at the room but saw only a large concrete floored room filled with barrels and bottles. Corniglia’s main business is wine and has been for some two thousand years. Our new friend smiled proudly as she flung open the door to invite us into her enoteca that had a smell so pungent it nearly floored us. We were given the brief tour before she presented us with a bottle of her best vintage. After an awkward moment of silence passed, we quickly realized it was not a gift after all and graciously offered to pay. Later we sat in our quaint little room overlooking the vineyards and toasted another successful day with our homemade vino rosso – it was utterly undrinkable.

Vernazza by night
Vernazza harbor after dark.

Morning cappuccini
Morning cappuccini.

Vernazza from on high
Vernazza from on high.


It was a short walk to Vernazza the next morning but the initial view of this port city is spectacular. Vernazza is by far the most picturesque of the Cinque Terre villages with Genoan turrets rising above an azure lagoon. Colorful fishing boats line the town square and beach in the afternoon, and the pastel facades of the buildings brighten up the streets even on a dreary day like the one we had. As usual, our first order of business was to find a place to sleep for the night. After some doing, we found a wonderful room with a terrace overlooking the port. We unwound on the terrace with a bottle of local wine before venturing into town to wander the streets. Spoiled by the scarcity of tourists in Corniglia, we were right back in the thick of things. The streets and stores were packed with day hikers and those who were there for the long term.

As the only one of the Cinque Terre towns with a harbor, Vernazza has always been the richest of the community along this stretch. This fact is manifested by the majestic church Santa Margherita di Antiochia along the main piazzetta and the 16th century fortifications built to protect the town from Saracen pirates. We completed our brief sightseeing circuit and eventually ended up harbor-side watching the sunset over drinks and olives. A dinner of fresh pasta came early at a nearby trattoria. We elected to turn in early and rest from our grueling day of drinking wine and lounging. In truth, we were dreading the multitude of steps involved in the next day's march and wanted to make sure we were plenty rested.


Putting out to sea
Putting out to sea.

The modern side of Monterosso
The modern side of Monterosso.

The streets of Monterosso
The streets of Monterosso.

St. Francis and the wolf
St. Francis and the wolf.

Getting ready for lunch
Getting ready for lunch.

Neptune yearns for the sea
Neptune yearns for the sea.

Monterosso al Mare

Our worst fears were realized the following morning as we made our way out of Vernazza to the final Cinque Terre town. The path was narrow and muddy as it wound around the hillsides. We started out early to avoid traffic but apparently it was not an original idea. Shortly before noon, we began to encounter other day hikers coming the opposite way – first a trickle and then a stream. To compound matters, the trail became more narrow and slippery until we were forced to step aside and let others pass. Our progressed was slowed, but we pressed on when, near Monterosso, the trail began to descend sharply. Sure footing became more difficult, but D managed to lumber down the trail with the pack. On the other hand, J slipped while allowing a group of hikers to pass and landed square on her backside in front of them. J was struggling like a turtle on its back, so D pulled her to her feet. Only her pride was damaged as J dusted off her derriere and trudged ahead. The trail soon turned to steps – lots of steps – hundreds of steps. Our knees aching, we finally caught a glimpse of Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso has the appearance of a large town because it is dissected by a promontory into an old village and a newer town dominated by beach and hotels. In reality, it has fewer residents than Riomaggiore. Nevertheless, it serves as the launching point for many tourists making incursions into the Cinque Terre region. Hotel rooms and restaurants are plentiful but at the expense of the charm and quaintness of the other villages.


We had a day to kill before we needed to make our way back home. Since Monterosso had little to offer, we thought we would take a short boat ride to Portovenere. The ride would also give us a chance to recap our hike from the vantage point of the sea. We were both saddened by the fact that the distance covered by our grand trek of nearly four days took only 30 minutes by boat. Eventually, we chugged into the Gulf of Poets, named for the frequent literary visitors such as Lord Byron, and marveled at the striped marble church of San Pietro, patron saint of fishermen, which dominates the view. This same promontory was the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Venus, the namesake of Portovenere. Once docked, we spent a few hours roaming the backstreets of the port. We passed on the ascent to Andrea Doria castle perched atop the port having already climbed our share of hills this week. Instead, we did a little shopping and indulged in a gelato (or three).


Bronze figurines on the door to San Pietro
Bronze figurines on the door to San Pietro.

Church of San Pietro
Church of San Pietro.


With one full day left before we had to catch a train back to France, we decided to visit the famous seaside town of Portofino. Logistically, however, it didn’t make sense for us to spend the night there and then backtrack the next morning. So we opted to pamper ourselves with a luxury hotel in Camogli instead. After a week of hiking and small rooms, it was nice to spread out in a comfortable room with a view of the Golfo di Paradiso. We rested up and jumped a train to Santa Margherita where we could find a bus to take us to the bottom of the Portofino Peninsula.



Things are not as they appear
Things are not as they appear.

Chiesa di San Giorgio
Chiesa di San Giorgio.


The view of Portofino is surely one of the most photographed sites in Liguria. You can’t pass a postcard rack without seeing it. That said, it is indeed a truly stunning sight to see in person. In fact, legend has it that the German officer directed to destroy the town and its munitions depot couldn't bring himsself to do it and disobeyed the order. In keeping with our trip thus far, we got a chance to see the picturesque piazzetta and colorful harbor in a torrential downpour. Portofino has long been a favorite British tourist spot and a number of dignitaries and celebrities have built villas there. Richard Burton even proposed to Elizabeth Taylor there during one of their go-arounds.

Today this fishing village is full of high-end boutiques and art galleries. We spent much of our time waiting out the storm, but eventually we had an opportunity to look around. The shops didn’t have much to offer us, so we wound our way toward the headpoint and a glimpse of the lighthouse. Along the way, we peeked into the Chiesa di San Giorgio, a yellow-faced church dedicated to Portofino’s patron saint St. George. This could go a long way to explaining the appeal of the town to the British. As the sun began to set, we made our way back to Camogli to prepare for our early departure. Having successfully slipped into Italy with no passport, D now had to figure out how to sneak back into France without causing an international incident.

A Ligurian deluge
A Ligurian deluge.

Boutiques and galleries abound
Boutiques and galleries abound.

The classic view of Portofino
The classic view of Portofino.

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