4-6 May 2022
My second stop along Italy’s Cinque Terre is small Manarola, a collection of pastel buildings tumbling down a ravine to the sea. Trains depart Riomaggiore three times an hour and the ride takes 2 minutes. For a flat rate of 5€, that’s a hefty fee when I have energy to spare – a real bargain after hiking one of the high mountain trails along this coastline.
Manarola may be one of the prettiest villages on the Cinque Terre. My entry yesterday came from above where I could look out over the expanse of vineyards and hills all the way to Volastra and Corniglia. Today, coming up from the train station, Manarola seems to be perched on a steep promontory with its small port to the left and rows of colorful houses above and to the right.
Everything seems to be above me with the requisite steps to get there. The clue to survival is finding the path with the least number of stairs. I check into my lovely flat, marvel at my view of those cliffs from my balcony, and head out for the sights of Manarola.
The village is crowded. Essentially there is one main street lined with shops and restaurants. The rest is comprised of steps to Chiesa di San Lorenzo whose bell tolls the hour from above, steps to scenic viewpoints over the marina and Liguria Sea, and steps to the Manarola Cemetery. While enjoying my late morning coffee and bruschetta, I watch a solemn procession on its way to said cemetery, coffin tucked into a small car just able to pass in the streets. I decided to follow.
I looked for the grave of one Gaetano Andreani Castagneto. Signore Castagneto died here in 1932. As a young man, he fought in the American Civil War in 1862 on the side of the Union Army. I gave him honor points for that service. Unfortunately, upon his return to Italy, he eventually became a Squad Captain for the Voluntary Militia for National Security, commonly called Blackshirts. The Blackshirts were established in 1919 and consisted of many unhappy former soldiers who opposed their bitter enemies – the Socialists. This group eventually evolved after 1923 into the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party loyal to Mussolini. Castagneto would have been a member and probable participant in Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922. He lost a whole lot of points for this service. I could not find his grave, perhaps a “woke” community removed his stone.
Just below the cemetery is the viewpoint over the marina and village, quite beautiful and very crowded. There is a long waiting line for Nessun Dorma, a popular cafe with wonderful views. I choose one of the other restaurants in town for my afternoon Prosecco.
I have become a regular at La Cantina dello Zio Bramante. I enjoy the hospitality and warmth of “mama” who serves me the usual: coffee Americano and Bruschetta e olio d’oliva. Italians know how to use simple ingredients like bread, tomatoes, salt and olive oil to create a delicious masterpiece. I probably shouldn’t refer to her as mama as I am probably older than she is. But when I was trying to reset the screw in my sunglasses she came to my rescue with a switchblade. My kind of woman!
The street, the only one, is clogged with those devoted to the passeggiata. Problem is most everyone is a tourist and don’t tend to know how to properly do it. As evening comes, it sort of reminds me of the scene in “City of Angels” when all the angels were drawn to the beach to watch the sunset. Like lemmings, they flow toward the marina, gather on the terraces, sit above the promenades waiting for the sun to set. Sometimes the wait is worth it as the pastel buildings above are bathed in a gorgeous warm glow. Sometimes, it is just an excuse to enjoy another drink before night falls.
Much of the Cinque Terre wine is white, and one of the best-known is a sweet wine called sciacchetra that’s often an afternoon cordial. I had to try it and admit to disappointment. Served in a glorified shot glass, its taste is very similar to Tuaca. However, the local white wine is really good and I have enjoyed both Prosecco and “un bicchiere di vino bianco” in the afternoons!
A consistent drizzle falls in Manarola this afternoon. No large groups of tourists led by a guide holding up a flag clog the streets. I can hear the trains. That is a unique aspect of these villages – the trains. Because they are numerous and literally pass within tunnels of rock beneath the villages, their rumbling presence can be felt when all is quiet. The lemmings have disappeared. I would say it is pretty ideal as I sit at Bar Enrica, enjoy a Prosecco, and contemplate the sea.
6 May 2022
Even amidst drizzle it is impossible to dampen my enthusiasm for the Cinque Terre. In fact, it tends to clear the streets out. The sea is relatively calm, the views remain clear and the temperature is close to 60. My plan to ride a ferry to Portovenere is not thwarted.
On my initial ferry ride from La Spezia to Riomaggiore, I was disappointed I had not planned a stay in Portovenere. The harbor, church, and especially the fortress were enticing. I had the time so this morning I boarded a ferry from Manarola for the 50 minute ride to Portovenere.
Portovenere is not as inundated with tourist, though there is a big cruise ship docked out at sea, because it lacks a train station—you have to take a bus from La Spezia or come by ferry. Fine as there is no better approach than by ferry.
Portovenere overlooks the Gulf of La Spezia, more romantically known as the Golfo dei Poeti for all the literary figures who came here, and is sometimes referred to as the sixth Cinque Terre village. Like the Cinque Terre, Portovenere, along with its nearby archipelago and the islands, have Unesco World Heritage status.
As with all cities of the Cinque Terre, the port and pastel housing is a beautiful sight. Hovering over town are the Castle Doria, San Lorenzo, and on a promontory above Lord Byron Grotto is the Chiesa di San Pietro. All assessable by lots of steps and climbing. The payoff is spectacular views of the surrounding bay and sea.
The castle’s stone ramparts are open though there is little else to explore. The castle was mentioned for the first time in 1139, when Genoa took control of the area. The current castle was built around 1161. Again, I climb for the view. To really get a feel for a village, one must get into the narrow streets and passages. And that usually means stairs. That is what you get when you build your town next to the sea with the mountains to your back.
Just below the castle is the town’s cemetery which is good for a stroll to see how the locals spend their eternities. And below that is San Lorenzo, a Romanesque church built in the early 12th century by the Genoese.
Perched on a rocky promontory at the edge of town is the medieval Chiesa di San Pietro built around 1198. Below is Lord Byron Grotto where the genius poet swam. I did not descend the steps to see if he left his graffiti etched on the rocks as he tended to do in other places he visited.
A leisurely coffee and pastry at the harbor and too soon the ferry is returning to Manarola. The seas are a little choppier but the view of the coastline remains clear and impressive with the occasional church, stone battery walls, beautiful red cliffs, and somewhere up there is a trail if one should want to hike Portovenere to Riomaggiore. No thanks.
Dinner tonight is at Trattoria dal Billy. Don’t let the name fool you. The views over the harbor are the best in Manarola and the food is equally as good. My dinner consists of Insalata di Polpo, Taglierini Neri with cuttlefish ink and seafood, topped off with tiramisu and refreshing white wine. Excellent dinner, service and views. And before me is a calm, dark blue sea.
La dolce vita, indeed.