The Wild Bunch
The Cinque Terre, including the town of Manarola (below), on the Italian Riviera is one of the prettiest coastal stretches in Italy. And it boasts some incredible wines too. Who knew?
With its rocky slopes, the Cinque Terre would not seem the best place for growing vines. Yet this corner of Italy not only boasts some fine vintages, but also some of its prettiest villages, says Tim Skelton. Photography by Giorgio Mesturini
Say Italian Riviera and what comes to mind? Exclusive resorts like Portofino where the rich and famous hang out under the warm Mediterranean sun? Bright red convertibles cruising along twisting roads clinging to unfeasibly precipitous hillsides? Both?
Or could it be five clusters of beautiful pastel-coloured houses, built upon rocky spurs and cliffs – a fertile, mountainous landscape behind and in front scenic blue sea stretching off into the distance. Villages home to hardy fishermen and farmers who, like their ancestors before them, live off the sea and cultivate vines on the steep, rocky terraces?
This is the Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands”, only an hour from Genoa, comprising the villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Stretching along the rugged west coast of Italy in the Liguria region, they have changed very little over the years. Until the last century they were virtually cut off from the rest of the world, accessible only by boat or tortuous donkey tracks.
Spend a few days in this Unesco World Heritage Site and protected National Park today though and the Sentiero Azzurro (“Blue Path”) will see you walking from Monterosso to Riomaggiore in five hours. That is, if you don’t stop to take in the views, enjoy the slow pace of life and the taste some of the finest wine and cuisine Liguria has to offer. The less active can always take the train, which stops at all the villages with just minutes between them.
Being one of Italy’s smallest wine-growing regions, it’s not surprising few have heard of the local vintages. In contrast to the full-bodied reds of neighbouring Tuscany and Piedmont, Liguria produces clean, zesty white wines that pair perfectly with its fresh seafood, aromatic herbs, walnuts, pasta, and mushrooms.
The banana-shaped region hugs a thin strip of coastline stretching 350km from the French border, down to Tuscany. The sea hems it in from the south, while mountains to the north cut it off from Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna – the benign climate enabling palm trees, citrus fruit trees, olive groves and vines to thrive.
In the Cinque Terre, if you journey from Monterosso along the 12km Sentiero Azzurro you’ll be able to witness all this up close. The path offers breathtaking views as it winds through the terraced slopes – vines and olive groves on one side, and the sea on the other. Enjoy first the old village of Monterosso and the sandy and more upmarket beach of Fegina next to it, the longest beach on the Cinque Terre coast. Continue on to Vernazza, perhaps the most genuine fishing village of the five, located on an inlet where the main square goes right up to the harbour. It’s a good spot to pause, visit the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, with its 40m belfry, enjoy lunch and watch the world go by.
The most famous culinary masterpiece around here is pesto, heavy on the basil and garlic and always served with pasta. But you should also try tegame alla Vernazzana, freshly
caught anchovies, cooked in the oven the local way with potatoes, cherry tomatoes and spices, olive oil and more garlic.
Continue on to Corniglia, a traditional agricultural hill village rather than fishing port, accessed by the steep 400-step lardarina (“staircase”) connecting the sea and the railway station to the town centre. It’s a good spot to really enjoy the Cinque Terre’s wines, which have been celebrated in Italy ever since the Greeks and Etruscans first brought vines to Liguria. When Pompeii was excavated, amphorae with “Cornelia” written on them were found.
Across Liguria are about 600 wineries, with vineyards covering 6,000ha, growing 100 different grape varietals, producing 280,000 hectolitres of wine per year, 75% of which is white. Just over 500 of the vineyards are classified as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – name and origin controlled), including eight Cinque Terre vineyards. The dry and sweet whites from here are legendary among Liguria’s vintages.
These wineries are mainly tiny artisanal producers who work the difficult terrain, growing vines on terraces carved into the rocky slopes – and some of the fragmented plots are only accessible by boat from the sea. There’s virtually no flat land, and in most areas the slopes are so vertiginous that no machinery can be used, so the land must be worked by hand. This makes it hard to manage on a large scale, and explains why output is low.
The character of the wines is shaped by both the land and the winemakers themselves. The soil of the Cinque Terre is stony but well drained – ideal for wine growing. And its high limestone content gives the grapes a mineral quality, while the steep-sided mountains protect the grapes from the worst of the winter weather.
The consequent aridity reduces the moisture content and increases the sugar content inside the grapes, perfect for sweet whites. Of the local wines some of the best known are the Cinque Terre dry white and the Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà sweet dessert wine. The former is made using Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino grapes, and you can almost taste the salty spray in your glass from the breaking waves that crash into the cliffs at the foot of the vines.
The latter comes as a fortified aged sweet red, as well as white, and is highly sought-after. Visiting the Sciacchetrà plantations near Corniglia and watching the people hard at work you get a further appreciation of this wonderful dessert and cheese wine. Over the centuries, poets have described it as the “drink of the gods”, and Pliny the Elder called it a “lunar wine”, emphasising its out-of-this-world taste. The name itself means “press it and forget about it for a long time”.
And where better to drink it than in situ further along the Sentiero Azzurro at the compact village of Manarola, clinging to a black rock on a cliff that was once enclosed within the walls of an ancient castle, now in ruins. Before continuing it’s worth taking in the views from the church of San Lorenzo and – depending on the time of day, as the water can be very cool – going for a swim down in the harbour.
Finally, be sure to ditch the train as the sun sets, pick up a bottle or two of Sciacchetrà, and take the Via dell’Amore (“Walk of Love”). This path carved out of the cliffs – part suspended above the sea – will take you to the fifth and final village of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, with its picturesque tall and narrow houses accessible at different levels. It’s a relatively short and easy walk and perfect for stopping off, raising a glass or two of Liguria’s finest, and toasting some of the most astonishing, beautiful and romantic views in all of Italy.
Green pesto sauce is so ubiquitous on supermarket shelves these days that it’s easy to forget it originated in Liguria. Pesto alla Genovese bases its culinary beauty on keeping it simple, with no more than five ingredients – basil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, parmesan and the finest olive oil (Ligurian, of course) – all mixed together to form the perfect accompaniment to pasta. The sauce is thought to date back to ancient times, to a cheese spread favoured by the Romans. In the Middle Ages the Ligurians around Genoa adapted this and added basil leaves to create the sauce we know today. Traditionally, it is prepared by pounding the ingredients to a creamy pulp with a little coarse salt, in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle. Pesto means “pounded”, and has the same origins as the word “pestle”. And if you really want to taste the difference from shop-bought pesto, either pay a visit to Liguria on Ryanair or try blending your own fresh ingredients – you’ll never reach for that ready made jar again!
The Cinque Terre villages are an hour from Genoa by train – the easiest way to get there – and an hour and a half by car. Buy the Cinque Terre Train Card (€19.50 for three days), giving you access to the Sentiero Azzurro, local minibuses and unlimited train use on the Levanto-La Spezia line. If you do come by car, Hertz (www.hertz.com), Ryanair’s exclusive rental partner, offers special rates to Ryanair passengers. Ryanair operates three routes to Genoa, from Bari, London (Stansted) and Trapani. Genoa airport is 6km from the city and a shuttle bus to the centre and main railway station runs every 40 minutes. It takes half an hour and costs €6. Taxis take 20 minutes and cost about €20. Timetables and other information can be found at www. aeroportodigenova.it
There are numerous good-value B&Bs and guesthouses in this part of Liguria, offering a family run atmosphere and clean and comfortable accommodation. Prices start at about €50 a night. For suggestions and reservations, visit www.cinqueterre hotels.com
FOR INFORMATION AND TIPS ON VISITING THE CINQUE TERRE, VISIT WWW.CINQUETERRE.IT