Friday, October 1, 2010

Italian Riviera and Cinque Terre

Almost everyone I talked to in America about coming to Italy suggested I see Cinque Terre, a series of five hilltop villages located just east of Genoa (above) on the Italian Riviera.

So, on Sunday, September 12, I booked passage on a boat ride along the eastern coast of the province of Liguria to check it out. The cruise, which departed Genoa Harbor at 9 a.m., cost 35 euros and may well have been the highlight of my trip to Italy.

Cinque Terre -- which includes the towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia (above), Manarola and Riomaggiore -- is now a national park, which has spared the area from the tacky t-shirt stands and souvenier shops common in other places along the Italian Riviera.

I met two people -- among the 75 or so aboard for the cruise -- who spoke English, one was an Italian woman from Pegli, just west of Genoa, and the other was a man from The Netherlands. I bonded with "Anne" (pronounced Ah-nee), the Dutch retiree from Amsterdam, who filled me in on many interesting aspects of Cinque Terre.

The cruise sailed along the coastline at a brisk pace, about 45 knots or 51 miles per hour, only slowing to watch the dolphins jump in the boat's wake. The first stop was Vernazza (above), where my Dutch friend disembarked with many others to explore the area until the boat returned later in the afternoon.

The boat then continued on alongside the other villages of Cinque Terre to its destination, the resort village of Portovenere (below), before departing for the return trip to Genoa.

A Roman port established as a base for trips to far-flung outposts in France and Spain, Portovenere is most definitely a tourist town where sunbathers -- both young and old -- were bagging the rays from what was left of summer.

Perched on the western promontory of the Gulf of Poets separating Liguria from Tuscany, Portovenere is a maze of little lanes, packed with cars and "motorini," and a small harbor. Very active in summer, the town slows to a crawl in the winter.

Along the waterfront approaching Portovenere is the Chiesa di San Lorenzo (above), built in 1130. In the church's shadow is Castello Doria, built in the 16th century, an impressive example of Genovese military architecture.

Had a beer and a slice of pizza (which in Italy is basically focaccia with a tad of sauce, a smidge of cheese, and a few mushrooms) at a local eatery. Compared to the massive amounts of cheese and toppings on pizza in America, the "pie" here is relatively spare.

On the trip back, our boat stopped at Portofino (above and below), perhaps the most exclusive seaside resort on the Ligurian coastline. A haven for writers and Hollywood types in the 50s and 60s, Portofino is picturesque but pricey. It was probably a good thing I stayed on the boat for our brief stop there.

Returning to Genoa about 8 p.m., I walked the six blocks to my hotel, hit the bed and crashed, exhausted from a full day of wind and sun.

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