Today we were bound for Italy, after eight wonderful days in France to kick off our motorhome trip. We plan on getting back to France, so no need to mourn our departure for too long.
This morning I shall call “Tunnel” morning, having passed quite literally through hundreds of them. The entry into Italy from the French Riviera is extremely mountainous and the tunnels cut through all of them, making it easier to drive and more efficient on time and diesel.
My first memories of Italy are on this stretch of road, heading towards Genova. In particular, they are of the hothouses full of vegetables growing under the sun, and the steep terraces they sit on. Every mountainside is covered with the hand cut terraces of centuries ago, farmed then and still farmed now, using every metre of land possible.
I also know that I am in Italy once again by the changing face of the architecture. The stone coloured houses with slate roofs give way to more coloured buildings with terracotta tiled roofs.
Heading towards the Cinque Terre
But still we drive through tunnels and more tunnels, making our way towards our prize today of the Cinque Terre.
The pace has picked up considerably now that we are in Italy and also on the autostrada.
We see that many of the service stations on the autostradas on the French side of Genova have motorhome services. This is a good sign, although I think it’s because they are closer to the French border and feel the pressure to offer up a few services.
I am also reminded that there is always constant roadworks in Italy. It is completely understandable given the network of roads, motorways and tunnels in this country. People must work on them everyday just to keep them maintained, such is the breadth of their infrastructure.
After 140km of autostrada, and after starting our day in the mountains high above the French Riviera, we found ourselves in Santa Margherita.
Everything down this way is about the Cinque Terre. And, having visited there I completely understand why. But, to miss Santa Margherita and it’s friend Portofino, when they are oh so close to the Cinque Terre would be like going to France and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.
We didn’t quite get to see these two towns though on the way through. Again, because of their location and size, it was obvious early that we would not find anywhere to park. So, after a few rounds of the town, and then sighting a sign on the road to Portofino that said there was no entry for anything over 6m long or 2.3m wide, we called it quits and headed for our campground, noting that we would return under some other steam.
Closing in on the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is an area that is largely accessible by train or foot. Whilst there is some limited vehicle traffic, it’s best to leave that to the locals only. If you have a motorhome or caravan, the best locations for parking it up are either at the northern town of Levanto or the southern town of La Spezia and usually in a campground.
We chose to stay at Levanto, as it allowed us perfect access into the Cinque Terre, and also set us up well for our next stop once we were ready to leave. The campground, Acqua Dolce was excellent in terms of location to the train station for journeys into the Cinque Terre. It allowed us to come and go on our own timetable. The other campground that I had considered (La Sfinge) had a free shuttle, but your timings to and from the villages are dictated by them and their shuttle frequency.
We jumped on our bikes, rode into town, ate our first Italian pizza of the trip and knocked back a couple of Moretti’s. They make the pizza slightly differently here in Levanto, with a thicker crust, not at all like the crispy bases we are used to. It was a good one though, and will probably rate as one of the best ones we’ve had this time around.
Back on the bikes and off to the train station. The afternoon and evening were ours and it was time to get to know the Cinque Terre.
So what is the Cinque Terre ?
The Cinque Terre means “five lands” and refers to the villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. All are original fishing villages, connected only by trails, built a long time ago as a means of getting from one village to another. Here the buildings cling together with their bright colours. Some suggest it was so the fisherman could see which house was theirs when they were at sea. It’s also a pedestrian village. There are only a few vehicles owned by locals, making the vibe in these five villages completely different to most places you will visit. The buildings, whether on sea level or high up in the mountain, all hug the rugged edges of the cliffs they are built on. And in between it all, the residents still farm the land that has been cut and terraced and farmed for centuries.
It’s not the French Riviera
One of the loveliest aspects of the Cinque Terre is that it’s everything the French Riviera isn’t. It’s slow, casual, warm. It’s calm, relaxed and welcoming. It’s small and easy to get around. Despite it’s premier location on the Mediterranean, it’s not overpriced or overly touristy. It’s vehicle, moped (and therefore horn) free, so you can take your time dawdling up the street. There’s no glamourous people here, just those in hiking boots and wearing red, sweaty faces. No swanky restaurants or fancy cars. No perfect buildings, just authentic, brightly coloured stone houses clinging to their mountain’s edge. And, there’s not a museum, art galley, or list of “must-do” landmarks in sight.
No, the Cinque Terre is all about simplicity. It’s about sitting back in the towns, eating and drinking the local fare, and exploring the winding, steep, cobbled stairs and alleyways. And, it’s all about the trails. Whether you take the more experienced trails, or the everyday trails, you can’t come to the Cinque Terre and not walk at least one. After all, there’s no other place like it in the world. This is why they come. This is why people from all over the world make the journey here – to walk.
First…..Monterosso (al Mare)
The village of Monterosso is divided into two parts, the old and new towns. When you first arrive here at the train station, you come up into the street and are immediately facing the ocean, and the words of “wow” will no doubt be uttered. From here, the buildings line the foreshore, with only one street that goes up a little way to a few restaurants and some residential buildings.
Monterosso is the only village that is really accessible by cars, and a large car park sits down one end of the new town as well.
It is also here where you will find the only beach of the Cinque Terre. A pebbly, sandy beach completely covered with sun worshippers. Today it’s packed even though the water is quite cool now. The bright, warm sunshine still brings the people here to sunbake and while away the hours. The call of the brightly coloured umbrellas and sun lounges is still not enough to tempt me into this water.
Restaurants, bars and gelati shops line the waterfront, using up all available space on both sides of the road. You have to hand it to them. They put restaurant seating in places where the ordinary mind would not dare think possible.
The older part of Monterosso is down a little further, but to get there it’s important to get some sustenance by way of gelati. Well that’s my story anyway and I’m sticking to it. I plan to eat gelati every day while I am in Italy and if I need to do it twice a day to get through some of the artisanal flavours, then I will rise to the challenge. After all, no-one makes gelati like the italians.
Old town Monterosso is a little walk along the ocean and through a tunnel cut into the mountain, before coming to the main square where the couple of streets branch out. Monterosso is also one of the villages that has more than one street. It’s a “big” village.
As the afternoon wore on, there seemed like no other time to find a pew on the waterfront and have a couple of quiet drinks. Nuovo Bar Eden was just the place to sip on a cool prosecco and some beers. Here we watched the Cinque Terre world go by. People of all ages, wandering past. Those who had just arrived, moving with a zip in their step, whilst those who had been walking the trails slowly shuffling along, red faced, sweaty and sometimes struggling.
There are people of all ages and all nationalities here, although today, there seems to be a larger contingent of Americans, followed by Australians.
I also love watching people work their way through a menu. Not because I like to see people struggle, but just because this runs to the very core of why I love to travel. It’s about learning and experiencing new things. Sometimes they are simply struggling because they can’t understand the language and are trying to work out a fritto misto from a cipolle soup and whether any of that contains offal (!) whilst others are being challenged completely because the food is so unlike anything they eat at home.
Dinner tonight was at a reputable restaurant, La Cantina de Miky, on the waterfront, chosen simply because of where the table was located (see photo). It turned out that it also served mighty fine food and some excellent sparkling Vermentino as well.
I can’t think of any time where I have eaten dinner at a restaurant, caught a train, picked up my bike at the train station, and ridden through a town at night, using a lady with an Italian loaf of bread in her bicycle basket as my guide. Tonight I did exactly that, and it was awesome.
I think I’m going to like it here.
There can be only one – arriving at the Cinque Terre and visiting our first village of Monterosso
- Via Guido Semenza 5, Levanto, Italy
- A12 motorway (Genova to Livorno) exit at Carrodano. Co-ordinates will take you right to the campground, even though it might look as though it isn’t. 44°10’00”N 9°36’48” E
- Not open all year round
- Good amenities
- Very tight pitches especially for motorhomes
- Extremely safe. A 4m high steel fence is closed each night at 11pm. A code is needed to enter after this. It is re-opened at 7.30am
- Church nearby rings it’s bells constantly all through the night
- Free wifi available but it won’t work everywhere on site/in motorhome. Best coverage is in front of reception which can be annoying
- Pizzeria on site which is packed every night so it must be good
- Easy walking access (10-15 mins) or bikes (3-5mins) to train station which takes you directly to villages
- Cost 39 euro for two people. motorhome and electricity