Initially I thought we’d split the driving responsibilities on Road Trip Europe 2014, but somewhere in France my favorite Dutchman envisioned himself in the driver’s seat for the entire 2600-mile journey. On the A8 / A10 from France to Italy, where the Alps meet the sea and the road winds through tunnel after tunnel blasted through the mountains, I realized some Italians drive like race car drivers and feared for my life. The higher we went, the faster my pulse raced, and when a local used the lane we were driving in to pass us, I think I cried.
As if the dizzying turns and mountain heights weren’t enough, I suddenly felt like something was crawling on me. Swatting at my neck, I smooshed a small ant between my fingers. Remember the ant problem I mentioned in Hyères? It seemed our little friends had followed us. Turning around I noticed an army of ants marching from my headrest, down the side of my seat, across to my Dutchman’s seat, and disappearing behind one of our bags. For the next few hours I used paper towels to kill hundreds of ants until their pheromones redirected their scent trails in another direction.
By the time we reached Hotel Garden Levanto I was beyond relieved. We knew the car that had been a necessity for camping in France would be a nuisance in Cinque Terre, so we chose this larger beach town just to the north as our home base for the next three days. And with these terrace views, we were glad we did!
A Word About The Train: Patience
The Cinque Terre train connects Levanto to the five “official” Cinque Terre towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore in that order. Everything we read indicated the Levanto to La Spezia line was an efficient way to see the old fishing towns where cars were mostly forbidden. Instead we found them to be crowded and constantly delayed. Bring your patience.
Tickets are cheap for close stops, but if you plan to visit several towns and want to avoid lines at the station, consider the Cinque Terre card. It includes unlimited stops from Levanto to La Spezia and access to all hiking paths for about €10/day. Just be sure to sign it before you get on the train (or expect a stern look and lecture from the conductor). To validate any ticket, insert it into one of the small yellow validation machines on the train platform and wait until you hear it stamp your ticket.
Riomaggiore and Vernazza
It poured our first night in Levanto making any hiking unsafe, so we decided to head into Cinque Terre the next morning to explore the towns. You can certainly explore on your own, but we found the walks in Rick Steve’s Snapshot Cinque Terre added a nice dose of history and focus to our time in the towns.
We started with an uphill stroll through Riomaggiore—passing colorful murals, stunning sea views, pastel houses, and a church rebuilt in 1870— then headed down the main street to check out the marina.
Before taking the train onto Vernazza, we stopped off for a drink at Bar & Vini A Pié de Mà and enjoyed breathtaking views of the sea below.
Thanks to a substantial train delay, we only had a couple hours of sunlight left to explore Vernazza. We made the most of it by heading away from the crowded marina and walking up the terraced hillside to admire the view of the town with its rustic castle jutting out into the sea.
Dinner at Pochi Intimi
Back in Levanto we passed Ristorante Pochi Intimi on the walk from the train station and were drawn in by its small terrace and intimate feel. We decided to treat ourselves to a slow-paced meal, made a reservation, got dolled up, and enjoyed one of the best dinners of Road Trip Europe 2014! From the impeccable service, to the fresh ingredients, to the lovely diners from Colorado at the next table who secretly paid for our wine, the meal was a fantastic end to our first full day in Cinque Terre.
Manarola and Corniglia
With only two full days in Cinque Terre we had to prioritize how to spend our time. Did we want to rush to see every town or did we want to spend a bit more time in a few? We decided that Monterosso, with its hotels and beach umbrellas, sounded a bit like Levanto so we’d skip stopping there and instead spend more time experiencing Manarola.
While its harbor is quite congested with tourists, Manarola’s vineyard-covered hillsides offer a great escape from the crowds. We followed Rick Steve’s self-guided walk from the harbor to the piazza, up the main street, and through the vineyards, stopping to smell the lemon groves and rosemary and to enjoy the views of the town below.
The walk continued to an impressive cemetery located on Punta Bonfiglio. As Rick Steve’s explains, “Ever since Napoleon…decreed that cemeteries were health risks, Cinque Terre’s burial spots have been located outside the towns. The result: the dearly departed generally get first-class sea views”.
We followed the stairs down to a park and playground and out to the furthest point to admire the views before walking back to the harbor and checking out the I-beam crane that launches boats and pulls them ashore in bad weather.
Something about the vineyards, the way the town filled the ravine, and the feeling of Manarola made it my favorite of the old towns we visited.
Our last stop for the day before heading back to Levanto was Corniglia, a tiny town with a population of only 240, but 385 steps and a steep walk up from the ravine to the town. Tourists can avoid the climb by waiting for a shuttle, but we figured the effort would allow us to stuff our faces later. However you get there, the view once you arrive is worth it. After exploring the vineyards that make wine Corniglia’s lifeblood, we rewarded ourselves with some cold beers, pesto with cheese, and melon with prosciutto.
Back in Levanto we topped off the day with a dip in the ocean, grabbed pizzas from La Picea, and enjoyed the view from our balcony. We could have spent many more days exploring the bike path through an old railroad tunnel from Levanto to Bonassola, soaking up the rays on the beaches in Levanto, or exploring more of the sleepy towns of the Cinque Terre, but it was time to pack up once again and head on to our last stop in Italy: Lake Como. (Post to follow)
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