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Monday, October 6, 2008

Cinque Terre - Liguria

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Liguria region of northern Italy, commonly known as the Italian Riviera. This thin strip of land lies on the Ligurian Sea, not far from Monaco and the French Riviera. While Liguria is by no means undiscovered, its crowds are much smaller than those next door. There are many little towns or villages, and one international port city almost smack dab in the center of the coast. This article explores Cinque Terre, five little seaside villages that just might steal your heart. Be sure to read the other articles in this series: eastern Liguria, western Liguria, and Genoa, the capital and largest city of Liguria.

As its name indicates, Cinque Terre are five coastal villages located in eastern Liguria. Collectively they form a UNESCO World Heritage site. Going from west to east their names are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. If you are going to hike across all five villages you probably should work your way in the opposite order because the easiest paths are in the west. You can always take the train from one village to another. Don’t be a hero and spoil your trip.

There are several trails, some of which evolved from mule paths. The most popular one is Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail) that runs along the water. It’s about 8 miles (13 kilometers) long and is said to take about five hours to complete. Don’t worry if it takes you longer. I said it before, and I’ll say it again; don’t be a hero and spoil your trip.

Monterosso al Mare, population about 1500, is the largest and busiest of these five villages. Stone steps take you from the village center to the port and seaside promenade. Monterosso al Mare is surrounded by hills bedecked in vineyards and olive groves. Thursday is market day and the market brims with local arts and crafts as well as food and wine. The Aurora bell tower separates the ancient and modern parts of the village. It is the only remaining tower of the thirteen that surrounded the village in the Sixteenth Century.

Be sure to see the Twelfth Century Chiesa di San Francesco (Church of St. Francis). This church was built in the Ligurian Gothic style and like so many others includes black and white marble. The church proudly displays a painting of the Crucifixion attributed to the English painter Van Dyck who lived for six years in Ligura. The village is home to festivals celebrating Lemons (Saturday just before Ascension Sunday), Flowers (second Sunday after Pentecost), and even Salted Anchovies and Olive Oil (second weekend of September).

Vernazza is the only natural port of the five villages and became wealthier than its neighbors. Consequently its architecture is more elaborate. Vernazza was a Roman installation and was strategically quite important during the age of the Maritime Republics in Genoa. It was also famous for its carpenters. Make sure to see the Castle of the Doria, the watchtowers, and the Romanesque sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Reggio (Our Lady of Reggio).

Corniglia, a farming village, is the most remote of the Cinque Terre villages and the only one not directly on the sea. There are plans to build an elevator from the railway; until this happens to get there you must conquer 337 steps in 33 flights of stairs. Once you’re there make sure to see the Fourteenth Century Church of San Pietro (St. Peter) built in the Gothic-Ligurian style. Corniglia was mentioned in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. While a local castle was mentioned way back in the late Thirteenth Century no one has found any such ruins. You’re welcome to look.

Manarola is the center of the local wine and olive oil industry. What a color feast: the houses are pastel, the water is turquoise, and the rock on which the town sits is black. Make sure to see theVia dell'Amore (Love Road) that joins Manarola with Riomaggiore, said to provide some of the most thrilling scenery in the world. This mile (one and a half kilometer) long path was cut from rock overlooking the sea. That’s what they call a labor of love.

Riomaggiore is the most accessible and therefore the least charming of the five villages. According to tradition this village dates back to the Eighth Century, when it was founded by group of Greek refugees who escaped the religious persecution of the Byzantine Emperor. The Fourteenth Century parish church of San Giovanni Battista (Saint John the Baptist) overlooks the village. Be sure to see the ruins of a Fifteenth-Sixteenth Century castle.

What about food? Liguria is most famous for its pesto, claimed to be the best in the world. It’s simple to make, take a mortar and pestle and combine basil, Ligurian basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Don’t break a true Ligurian heart; don’t make it in a blender. Serve with fresh pasta. And don’t forget the Ligurian wine.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Ciuppin (Fish Soup). Then try Coniglio Arrosto alla Ligure (Roast Rabbit) For dessert indulge yourself with Baci di Dami, literally Ladies’ Kisses (Almond and Dark Chocolate Cookies.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We’ll conclude with a quick look at Liguria wine. Liguria doesn’t have a lot of room for wine grapes. It ranks 19th among the 20 Italian regions in acreage devoted to wine grapes and total annual wine production. About 34% of its wine is red or rosé, leaving 66% white. The region produces eight DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. About 14% of Ligurian wine carries the DOC designation.

Cinque Terre/Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà (DOC) is the only DOC wine in the Cinque Terre area. It is a white, dry or sweet wine made from a variety of local grapes. The wines themselves are not nearly as spectacular as the vineyards carved out of rock thousands of years ago. You have to go to Liguria or perhaps neighboring regions of Italy to taste any of them. To tell the truth, there are many better reasons for visiting this lovely area.

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian, French, or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. His global wine website is and his Italian travel website is


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