A bit of backstory…
Steve and I first met back in 1985 when he was my teaching assistant for a biology class I was taking at UC Santa Barbara. I was a lowly undergrad and he was working on his PhD in molecular biology. (What a catch, huh?)
We connected over travel.
I’d just returned from an exchange year abroad in France. He’d just returned from a solo biking trip down the Italian Riviera, from Nice to Rome.
For years and years (and years), I listened to him tell a story about that trip where a local saved his ass. He was headed north on his bike from Rome, grinding up a monster grade after La Spezia towards a little village on his map that he thought looked kind of cool called Riomaggiore, with hopes of finding a great meal and a campsite on the other side.
But when he finally summited the top and looked down towards the town, it was empty. There wasn’t a soul in sight. He was exhausted and starving.
So he did the only thing he could think of and rode back up another monster grade—where he’d just come from— toward La Spezia. Where he met a local. Who allegedly saved him from starvation.
“There’s nothing there. It’s just a little shit town,” the guy said about Riomaggiore. “Better to just take the train directly to Genoa.”
And this good Samaritan then helped him to buy a train ticket and put his bike on the train. He told him where to find a good meal across from the Genoa train station when he arrived, how and when to retrieve his bike, and where he could stay.
What a nice guy, right? What a happy ending to a potential nightmare travel scenario.
Except fast forward 30 years later as I was researching our first trip together to Italy with a guidebook in bed one evening. I’d been eying the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera for years.
But wow. Soooo many tourists. Nightmare stories about cruise ships disgorging hordes of passengers in tiny Vernazza, Manarola, Corniglia, Monterosso… and Riomaggiore.
“Hon, what was the name of that little town that guy saved you from on your bike ride back in 1985?” I asked him.
“But that is the Cinque Terre! One of the most scenic and beautiful areas of the Italian Riviera! Completely unknown to travelers back in those days. And. You. Missed. It.”
Riomaggiore or Bust
So we set out to rectify this serious misstep the day after our cooking class in Tuscany. The first challenge was to find a way to avoid the crowds since we were traveling in high season. It can literally be elbow to elbow in these little villages during summer, which, in my experience, turns an otherwise idyllic experience into an exhausting, depressing one.
The first thing we did was check the cruise ship schedule to choose a day that no cruise ships would be docked there.
After that, we looked for somewhere to stay outside the CT so we could make a strategic strike. Which is how we discovered Fabio and Silvia’s incredible stone retreat, a private Airbnb apartment in Fornoli… an itsy bitsy village in the little known Lunigiana region of Northern Italy and just a 90 minute drive to the CT (or a half hour train ride from nearby Allua).
Silvia’s directions to their place said to park in the town square.
But the cobblestone street was so narrow we actually missed the square and ended up literally scraping the side mirrors of our little fiat against the buildings (even though we’d folded them in) as we tried to cruise down what was possibly a pedestrian street. (It’s hard to tell sometimes in Europe.)
Despite our big plans to see the CT, we almost didn’t want to leave our new digs. The apartment was beyond gorgeous, with our own private terrace looking into a lovely forest.
Fabio and Silvia, who live upstairs, were just a text away to help with dinner reservations at any of the incredible local spots listed in their amazing guide to the area (including a crisp, thin crust pizza with anchovies and prosciutto delivered directly to our door for 13 euros). It was like having a personal concierge.
They even invited us into their home and family for morning espresso and a late evening glass of wine.
Which is where I met their adorable son Jacopo.
Jacopo and I spent some serious time cooking together in his toy kitchen. With a little help from his dad, I asked if he could make me a pasta with “salsa picante, per favore.” He explained to me that we would need tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, and eggplant. (When is the last time you met an American toddler that knew how to say “eggplant”? Italians are amazing.)
A Sparkling Morning in Porto Venere
After strategizing with our hosts, who knew all about the CT crowds, we decided to head first to Porto Venere (15 minutes south of the CT) and then head into the CT late afternoon to avoid the masses. It was genius!
We parked in an easy underground parking lot on the outskirts of Porto Venere (thank you Fabio) and walked into town, visiting the ruins of the Church of St. Peter, a Roman Catholic Church dating from the 13th century, and checking out the sea caves where Lord Byron drew inspiration for his poetry, while a young Italian sung her heart out on a guitar.
Later, as we were relaxing with a lovely tomato, mozzarella, prosciutto panino and salad at a seaside café, we looked up to see a white Rolls Royce racing by, heavy on the horn.
Needless to say, everyone at the cafe stood to cheer and applaud the newlyweds.
At Long Last
Did I mention it was Steve’s birthday? Mine is two days later.
So it was kind of a full circle moment when we finally arrived here:
When we initially boarded the train around 3 pm in La Spezia to the CT, it emptied out almost completely. There were just a handful of us heading in so late in the day. So we had ample time to wander a few of the lovely villages.
After walking the spine of steep Riomaggiore, we hopped back on the train for a short ride to the stunning fishing town of Vernazza, crown jewel of the CT (and usually the most packed with people).
In Vernazza, the narrow cobblestone streets open out into a beautiful harbor with bobbing fishing boats, clear water, pastel washed shops, and bright umbrellas. Cinque Terre beaches are beautiful, here too!
An Amazing Manarola Restaurant: Ristorante Da Billy
After we hopped over to Manarola on the train, we wound our way up a steep hill with high hopes for a birthday dinner at Trattoria dal Billy. The tiny restaurant was stacked three stories high, perched at the edge of the sea.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t made reservations and the hostess told us they were booked up for the evening.
But then we experienced a birthday miracle. Just as we turned to go, a waiter came rushing out and said they actually had a table for two available in 10 minutes if we didn’t mind the wait.
And what a table it was!
Right there on the teensy tiny terrace on the top floor was a single table clearly intended for two celebrants like us. If it had been any closer to the water, I could’ve dropped the bottle of olive oil that clung to the edge of our table directly into the drink.
It was a magnificent dinner with a panoramic view of the sun setting over the Mediterranean.
If you go, be sure to try the mixed antipasto di mare. It included 12(!) courses—both hot and cold—of Ligurian seafood specialties…just one bite each. I’d recommend splitting an entrée after that. (Portions are huge here.)
It’s true that we didn’t have time to explore Corniglia or Monterosso on our abbreviated day in the Cinque Terre. The hiking here is legendary so we will be back to experience it.
In fact, there’s an incredible and scenic 20 minute stroll—Via dell’Amore (The Walk of Love)—between Riomaggiore and Manarola that’s on my list.
Unfortunately, it’s been closed since the Cinque Terre experienced devastating flooding and landslides (Fabio showed us photos) in 2012. Last I heard, it’s tentatively scheduled to be reopened in 2019.
We closed out this fabulous day with a surprise birthday cake from Silvia.
Grazie Cinque Terre.
If you go:
Stay: Fabio and Silvia’s Airbnb in Fornoli. Check prices and availability here.
Eat: Trattoria dal Billy
How to Get there: Taking the train
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