Walking Italy’s Cinque Terre — Without the Crowds
By Richard West
These days my first concern traveling: how to avoid the hordes of fellow travelers (Joyce’s ‘endlessnessnessness’) causing civic concerns in Venice, Barcelona, Prague, Amsterdam and other popular destinations. Solution: The Wayfarers Walking Vacations offered around the world, a week of moderate exercise on untraveled outback paths, meeting locals, then stops in towns along the way.
Which is why my wife and I were sitting on the Grand Hotel Portovenere’s sunny terrace, relaxing before a week’s hike along Italy’s Cinque Terra region, looking out at Porto Venere, the small fishing village’s yachted marina and promenade ribboned by shops, restaurants, and brightly painted five-story houses leading to the Ligurian Sea. Our biggest problem: is the water Prussian blue or cyan?
Sunday: At the preprandial drinks hour, our group of seven—three American ladies, a couple from South Africa, my wife and I from Amsterdam—gather to meet Marina Greco, our guide, the in-charge woman that in Japan is called ‘o-kami’, lady general, who explains practicalities and, generally, our route. Then to the dining room for a get-acquainted feast.
Monday: After breakfast, a two-minute boat ride to the triangular-shaped Palmaria Island, the largest along the Italian Riviera, for a morning hike in perfect weather. A well-worn path gradually climbing past old Fort Palmaria, no sign of the isle’s wild goats, greater (or lesser) horseshoe bats, just a few geckos sunning during our half-way refreshment stop at a lone picnic table. Pines, strawberry trees, oaks, and off to the south, the small islands Tino and Tinetto.
Back on the landing beach, our reward: a superb lunch of Ligurian specialties at the island’s celebrated Restaurant Locanda Lorena: antipasti and maestro Giuseppe Basso’s signature dish, spaghetti al Giuseppe (pasta-clams-San Marzano tomatoes, garlic) with local Pigato light white wine. The afternoon: a return to Porto Venere, Marina leading us up to St. Peter’s church overlooking the sea, next to Byron’s Grotto where the poet swam to meet Shelley, then up vaulted staircases to explore narrow streets.
Tuesday: From the small village Compiglia above Porto Venere, a morning walk among evergreen oaks, chestnuts, olive trees, myrtle. No poison ivy, Marina reports. Here a chance to enjoy that rarest of modern states, silence. Walking behind the group I think of other silences: libraries, fish tanks, cats, old portraits, Magritte’s Empire of Light painting. Past vineyards steeply slanting toward the ocean, then down into the daytripper masses in Cinque Terre’s Manarola, and quickly into our pizza restaurant. After lunch, we boarded a ferry up the coast to Sestri Lavante.
On a Wayfarers trip you never stay in a hotel that used Fawlty Towers as a training film. Always tasteful lodging with meals that do not bring to mind tribal initiations. This time the Grand Hotel dei Castelli, once an old castle, now 48 rooms on the tip of a peninsula overlooking two bays. Behind, a magnificent park with grass the color of a French Calville apple. In an Edward Learism, another ‘preterpluperfection’ meal at the hotel’s four-star restaurant.
Wednesday: Another in-excellcious-day-glo morning walk, moderate pace, passo d’uomo, overlooking Cinque Terre villages, a lovely pelagic landscape toward the open sea. Then, voila!, into the terraced Il Pellegrino restaurant under a canopy of linden trees looking down on Rapallo and surrounding hills. Italian spoken around us “sounds as if it should be writ on satin/with syllables which breathe of the sweet south” (Byron). Our host, Gianluca, murmuring feast suggestions—eggplant parmigiana, ravioli, ragu, blueberry torte. The highlight of our lunches. Later, a short walk to a funicular sliding us downhill to a famous church, then a walk into Rapallo where the van takes us to our final stop, the charming small fishing village, Camogli. And, of course, the perfect Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi with rooms looking out at the Gulf of Camogli and the busy promenade. So down to the private beach with a cocktail to rest the legs.
Thursday: From Camogli, the post-breakfast walk past thick-skinned, eternally patient trees, skirting tiny villages (Ruta, Gaixella-Pietre Strette), the 2,000-foot Monte di Portofino, fine homes and into Portofino nestled below hills around a small bay. The well-known town now lined with luxe shops offering objets du gout to its visiting yachters. Some of which from the marina’s large, blue yacht, “Skyfall”, perhaps James Bond himself. After lunch (Genovese-style spaghetti with pesto) on a side street eatery, we board a ferry back to Camogli.
Friday: Leaving Camogli a bit after nine we pootle along into foliage, trees curved like Scots pines or Klimt maidens, sunny intervals, a refreshment stop on a slanted hillside ending at the sea. At Punta Chiappa, we board a ferry for a short ride to the isolated (reached only by foot or boat) 10th-century San Fruttuoso Benedictine Abbey with its octagonal bell tower facing a small pebbly beach. And, a yes, we have no banalities lunch at Restaurant da Giovianni above the sunbather-swimmers.
Cinque Terre with The Wayfarers. Credit The Wayfarers.
Finally, the traditional Wayfarers farewell dinner at the Camogli hotel’s seaward restaurant. Comments, copies distributed of the traditional group photograph, and thanks to Marina for the thoughtful gift-reminders of our lovely trip. Our group, a last time, basking in the idyllic state, la dolce fa’ niente, to lose yourself in a place. Until the next Wayfarers walk, as they say in cookbooks, save some of the liquid.
For more information: The Wayfarers.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.