Nestled amongst the rocky shores stretching out over the calm aqua waters of the Mediterranean Sea lies one of Italy’s most enchanting destinations, the Cinque Terre. This charming area is rich in more than just natural beauty. Its a place filled with history and traditions, a land beckoning to be discovered for more than just its picture perfect coastline – a place for travelers to listen to the far off echo of a past seeped in stories of long ago and of centuries of a tradition known as ‘la viticoltura eroica’ – or heroic viticulture – one that distinguishes the Cinque Terre and its unique culture of grape growing and wine making.
Set between the sea and the mountains, the countryside of the Cinque Terre is one of the most romantic and captivating areas of Italy. Its towns pop up along this narrow strip of wild and jagged land, tamed only by the man made ciàn which dot its landscape – terraces of earth held up by stone walls – interrupting the steep slopes and upon which for centuries local inhabitants have scattered the hillsides with gardens, staircases, farmhouses and vineyards. Here on these perilously placed vineyards work men known as ‘angeli matti’ or crazy angels, winegrowers whose passion for their land has led them to discovering and continuing the centuries long tradition of growing vines in some the most difficult of conditions. It is on the coast of the Cinque Terre that vines can be seen growing on the steep slopes of mountains in areas that seem almost inaccessible to mankind and where the only means for harvesting the grapes is by hand.
The morning sun rises as the first day of exploring this enchanting corner of Italy begins in the tiny village of Montemarcello, perched at the top of Mount Caprione. From here breathtaking views flow freely from the valley of Val di Magra, to the seas of the Golfo della Spezia and finally to the peaks of the Alpi Apuane. Immersed amongst the typical greenery of the Mediterranean is the Golfo dei Poeti, a boutique hotel whose enviable position makes it an ideal gateway to the Cinque Terre. After enjoying breakfast on the sunny terrace of the villa and taking in the captivating views of the gulf below, a quick ride by car leads away from the sea and towards Castelnuovo Magra, a village seemingly springing from the rocky face of mount Bastone standing above the world with unending vistas to the sea and the outlines of the far off islands of Capraia and Corsica which appear to almost float on the edge of the horizon where the clear sky meets the water of the Tirreno di Gorgona.
The hills surrounding Castelnuovo are known for their extremely fertile soils. Rich in minerals and warmed by the breezes from the sea, these areas have a long history of producing some of the finest wines in the land, and it is therefore of no surprise that they are home to several of the most well-noted wineries of Liguria, such as Azienda Agricola Giacomelli run by the Petacchi family. This historical winery produces many excellent wines including Colli di Luni Vermentino Boboli 2013 (95% Vermentino, 5% Malvasia di Candia) which won the highest honors from Italy’s Bibenda 2015 edition– a wine which is intrinsically connected to the philosophy and tradition of wine making of the local area. In fact, the Boboli vineyard which produces the grapes for this prize-winning wine is just over 100 years old and is one of the oldest vineyards of the area. First owned by a noble family, the grapes from the Boboli vineyard, situated directly below the medieval castle walls, were originally harvested to produce holy wine for the churches. Bought by the Petacchi family in 1997, the vineyard was replanted with clones of the original vines dating back to 1914.
A short distance away is the winery Cantina Ottaviano Lambruschi, founded by Ottaviano in the 1970’s and run today along with his son Fabio and the enologist Giorgio Bacciagalupi. This winery is especially known for its use of a technique called vendemmia a scalare or harvesting in phases. The grape harvest begins in mid September and continues on until the end of October. Their winning Colli di Luni Vermentino “Il Maggiore” (100% Vermentino) uses only grapes collected midharvest using a system known as Guyot capovolto. This wine with its notes of jasmine and peach is an ideal wine to pair with seafood dishes. Only about 5000 bottles of this wine are produced annually.
Continuing north, past Sarzana and La Spezia, with the winding road following the sinuous curves of the shoreline, you reach Riomaggiore, the first and furthest south of the towns that make up the Cinque Terre. Here, situated near the colorful houses perched on the rocks above the sea, is a winery which embodies the flavors and spirit of Ligurian wine production – Cantine 5 Terre. This winery is a cooperative of local winegrowers who have come together to promote their passion for the long held traditional techniques of grape growing along the peaks of this spectacular coastline, investing in both their time honored past and in the best of modern wine production technology. A visit to their winery is not to be missed as is a chance to try their Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà Riserva Doc, a white dessert wine with notes of candied orange, dried figs, apricot and hazelnut. This complex wine is the result of an attentive selection of grapes (80% Bosco, 15% Albarola, 5% Vermentino) which are left to naturally dry, or appassire, on straw mats called graticci for about two months.
While in Riomaggiore make a stop at the small and characteristic restaurant and wine bar Dau Cila. With its tables set on a tiny jetty in an inlet which forms a natural port, it’s the ideal spot to enjoy a typical lunch prepared with passion and care for every detail by owners Manuel Germani and Luca Giaccio. Must tries are the local favorite Trofie al pesto (fresh pasta with basil pesto), Accigiughe al limone con pera e parmigiano (sardines served with pear and parmigiano), and the Pesce spada marinato con pompelmo (swordfish marinated with grapefruit).
Just a little more than one kilometer past Riomaggiore is the Via dell’Amore – road of love- which leads travelers to the village of Manarola, seemingly hanging on the rocky coast with its multicolored houses connected by steep and uneven stairways made of slate. From here the Via dei Santuari – road of the sanctuaries – continues to the smallest of the towns in the Cinque Terre, Corniglia. A stop in Corniglia calls for a meal at La Posada and a chance to taste some of the exquisite dishes prepared by the chef Antonella Villa who creates flavors which blend traditional local cuisine with her passion for using products in season and her own personal creativity. While seated on the terrace looking out to the sea, taste the Paccheri alla Posada, pasta prepared with tomatoes, ham, onions and Ligurian pesto, followed by a mix of appetizers for a main – try the octopus soup and the calamari with pine nuts and taggiasche olives. Of course, don’t forget to end the meal with one of the sweet desserts such as the Tirami Su made by the pastry chef Christian.
The next stop is in the town of Vernazza, a town devastated by a flood in 2011 and painstakingly rebuilt by its inhabitants and volunteers. Visit the church Chiesa Santa Margherita di Antiochia located in the most western part of the town. This church dating back to the first decade of the 12th century springs up directly on the sea and was first cited in letters going all the way back to 1318. For a delightful culinary stop head to the restaurant Gambero Rosso in the historical center of the town with the delicious smell of food filling the air around its tables, straw chairs, brightly colored walls and stone arches. The menu runs like an ode to the sea: Crudité di Scampi Imperiali al Tegame di Vernazza – a potato torte prepared with sardines and tomatoes, Tagliatelle di Farro Biologico con Gamberi e Zucchine – a spelt pasta dish chosen for Expo 2015, and the Filetto di San Pietro alla Gambero Rosso – served with tomatoes, capers and olives. For dessert, tuck into Buccellato con vino passito, a typical Ligurian bundt cake.
A short drive leads to another gem of the Riviera di Levante, Monterosso al Mare, the last and most populated town of the Cinque Terre. After making a brief visit to the Chiesa di San Francesco to admire a tapestry attributed to the Flemish artist Antoon van Dyck depicting the crucifixion of Christ, walk over to the Statue of the Giant the work of architect Francesco Levacher and sculptor Arrigo Minerbi (1910) found on a rocky point jutting out over the green waters. As the sun sets, relax with a cocktail at Cantina di Miky, a cool and informal bar with creative cocktails like the refreshing Stinger made with brandy and white mint cream while listening to the lapping of the waves on the rocky shoreline.
As the orange hues of the sun dip down to the watery horizon, the tiny streets and paths of the seaside town of Moneglia, voted one of Italy’s most beautiful small towns, light up. Here, breathe in the cooling air and surrounding sense of calm at the Abbadia San Giorgio, an ex Franciscan monastery built in 1484 now an elegant hotel dedicated to relaxation and slow living run by the Schiaffino family. Each guest room is carefully appointed with unique antiques and Veronese red marble masterfully set alongside elements of modern design to create a tasteful and refined effect.
Nestled in the surrounding hills is another of the family’s hotels, the charming boutique hotel Villa Edera & La Torretta. The romantic details of the suite, built directly inside the ancient tower known as Torretta del Castello di Monleone originally erected in 1173, make for a sweet evening. The pergola covered terraces with their stone steps and French provincial style furnishings are immersed in the flowery scents of the gardens. Here, sit back and relax enveloped in nature with views of the ancient fortress, green gardens and the sea.
A trip to Italy’s Cinque Terre is a journey that speaks to both heart and soul. Sights are met with unparalleled views of rocky cliffs and twisting pathways reaching down to touch the sea while the air is filled with the sweet scent of grapes growing on the vines and fresh basil plants found on the many terraces of colorful towns. In villages the restaurants offer gastronomical delights of traditional dishes and seafood freshly caught from the waters below, while along this mountainous coast the local winegrowers work a land rich in the history and culture of some of Italy’s most interesting grape growing techniques to produce unique wines which are distinctive and vibrant like the people whose love for this place has been handed down from one generation to the next. It is truly a corner of Italy which offers the visitor much to explore and enjoy.
Photo credits: Golfo dei Poeti Relais, Azienda Agricola Giacomelli, Cantina Ottaviano Lambruschi, Cantina 5 Terre, Ristorante Dau Cila, Ristorante La Posada, Ristorante Gambero Rosso, La Cantina di Miky, Abbadia San Giorgio, Villa Edera & La Torretta