The new area of Monterosso al Mare

Tucked along the mountainous coast between Levanto and Portovenere, the remote villages of the Cinque Terre lie within a beautiful national park with steep terraces, pretty harbours and cliff-side hiking trails that offer sweeping views of the Ligurian Sea.

After four marvellous days in Milan, we (me, Gail and friends Barry and Toni) headed west by train to the gorgeous Cinque Terre region on the Italian Riviera where we arrived three hours later in the village of Monterosso al Mare.

Chiseled into the sides of rugged hills overlooking the Ligurian Sea, the five ancient villages that make up the Cinque Terre feature colourful cottages, imposing stone castles, and quaint harbours filled with small fishing boats. These remote villages, which date back to the Middle Ages, are linked by passenger ferries and trains, as well as a series of cliff-side hiking paths that provide sweeping vistas of the sea below. In fact, until the Genoa-La Spezia railway was built in the 1870s, the region was almost inaccessible except by foot or boat.

Gail on our balcony overlooking the sea

We had chosen Monterosso as our base for the next three days because it’s ideally located at the northern end of the Cinque Terre with convenient access to the region’s four other villages of Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. It also has some of the best hotels, restaurants, and shops in the area.

After checking in to our room at the Hotel Baia which overlooks a sandy beach and offers lovely views of the sea, we relaxed with cocktails on our small balcony. Later that evening, we walked up a small hill to L’Ancora della Tortuga, a restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff with stunning views of the harbour below and that offers wonderful Ligurian-style pastas, grilled fish and roast meat dishes.

The next morning we caught the 10:00 am ferry and headed some 10 km to Riomaggiore, the most southerly of the Cinque Terre. We had thought about hiking between villages along a trail known as the Sentiero Azzurro, but most of this waterfront path has been closed since a major flood in 2011, and the remaining paths were far too steep and long for us to attempt.

Village of Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is perched on a pretty hillside overlooking a small harbour filled with fishing boats and surrounded with pastel-coloured houses.  The medieval Castello di Riomaggiore, originally built to protect townsfolk from pirate attacks, sits high above and provides stunning views of the sea and the village below.  We strolled along the main street of Via Colombo for about an hour, popping into artisan shops that were selling a variety of goods including hand-made shawls and local art.

It was now time to move on to another village, so we boarded a ferry and headed north to Vernazza, which has been called one of the prettiest towns in Italy.

Nestled around a small harbour overlooked by a 15th-century castle and a 14th-century church, this charming village is surrounded by colourful homes, tiny shops and street-side restaurants. The Castello Doria features an original watch tower built to protect villagers from Saracen pirates, and the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, named for the town’s patron saint, boasts a 40-meter high octagonal tower crowned with a dome that looks over the Piazza Marconi.

Vernazza, one of Italy’s prettiest villages

We began our tour at the water’s edge in the Piazza, and worked our way up the main road to Via Roma where we stopped near the Chapel of Santa Marta to have lunch on the terrace of a lovely restaurant called Antica Osteria il Baretto. Some great grilled fish and white wine followed, before we made our way back to Monterosso for a late afternoon nap.

A pretty village of brightly coloured houses, Monterosso is divided into new and old sections. The new section has a busy seafront promenade with a sandy beach, while the old town features the 13th-century Church of St. John the Baptist, and the 17th-century Capuchin Monastery. The village’s pretty seaside bars and restaurants offer a cool respite to those who have been sunning on the beach or hiking through the Cinque Terre National Park.

It’s only a short walk between the two sections so we decided to stroll over to the old town for dinner at Ristorante Il Moretto, a wonderful Italian eatery which we had visited 20 years ago during a day trip. We were delighted that little had changed – our meals of rocket salad, grilled squid, and tagliatelle with a whole lobster were fabulous. And for dessert, we bought gelatos at a nearby gelateria to give us stamina for the walk back to the hotel!

Old section of Monterosso

The next morning we decided to take a rest and enjoy a day at the beach, something that was desperately needed having just spent the last 10 days sightseeing in Switzerland, France and Italy. So we rented beach lounges from our hotel, had lunch on the promenade, and sipped refreshing Aperol spritzes (prosecco, Aperol, and soda water) on the beach while gazing out at the azure sea.

Having worked up a fierce appetite by doing nothing all day, we made our way 20 yards along the promenade to Miky Ristorante, where the Defina family has been dishing up locally sourced, traditional Ligurian cuisine since 1980. Every day most of the seafood comes off local fishing boats right to the restaurant, including the renowned Monterosso anchovies, calamari and sea bass.

In addition to seafood, Miky makes outstanding pasta dishes including a dish that is cooked in special earthenware crockery covered with thin bread dough, and finished in a wood-fired oven. The dish is then brought to the table where it is topped with a dash of alcohol and set aflame. We shared one of them, a seafood risotto, washed down with a wonderful local white wine called Sassarini, which pairs perfectly with fish.

Flambéing seafood risotto at Miky

I think Rick Steves summed up nicely what eating at Miky’s is like when he wrote in his travel guide: “For elegantly presented, top-quality food that celebrates local ingredients and traditions, this is my Cinque Terre favorite.”

Not only that; it was also a memorable way to end our visit to the gorgeous seaside villages of the Cinque Terre.

Feature image – Vernazza as seen from a hiking trail

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