From the Culinary Trail – Ciaoing Down in Italy Part 2

Cool Villages, Hot Hikes and Tasty Treats!

Cinque Terre Kake2Kale
As I stand on an exposed ridge, under a blazing Italian sun, enjoying the vistas of the Ligurian coast, I couldn’t help but conclude that life in Cinque Terre is pretty superb!  First, there are five charming villages, then there is the trail system that connects them, but best of all….wait for it…there is the food and wine!  In this part 2 of 3 posts about my adventures with superfoods in Italy, I am delighted to share my perspective/tips on the hikes and my culinary finds in each of the Cinque Terre villages, plus a few train fiascos along the way.

Thanks to Trenitalia, our trip got off to a bumpy start. I landed in Pisa and my girlfriends landed in Milan. The plan was to catch trains and meet up in Monterosso al Mare. But, wouldn’t you know it, there was a nation-wide train strike on the one day we had to rendezvous. Thankfully, my train was unaffected; but my friends in Milan had to endure a 4 hour taxi ride (the only option in the train chaos) to reach Monterosso al Mare.   Their train/taxi mishap was quickly forgotten when they arrived and were greeted with a sea breeze, coastal views and a bottle of Prosecco. Incidentally, it was not the only train debacle we had on this trip.  That comes later.

When planning a trip to Cinque Terre, there are three main decisions about a stay – length of stay, village(s) for an overnight, and trails to hike.  If you like small quaint villages, the seaside, rugged coastal terrain and hiking, then you should stay at least five nights.  The five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore (in order from West to East) and coastline are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were happy with our decision to stay three nights in Monterosso al Mare and two nights in Riomaggiore. It was the perfect blend of days, hikes and variety.  But we also agreed that staying five nights in Monterosso al Mare as a base is another great option, especially if you find good accommodation like our groovy beachfront apartment!

Monterosso apartment kake2kale
Lemons of Monterosso al Mare

Monterosso al Mare Kake2Kale
I thought Monterosso al Mare was the most hospitable of all five villages – great vibe, good dining options, quaint artisan shops, and interesting areas to explore in/around the village.  It is also the only Cinque Terre village with a long stretch of beach.  As if that wasn’t enough, it is the village of lemons! There are lemon soaps, a local lemon pie (torta al limone), lemon gelato, preserved lemons, limoncino and much more, but my favourite was lemons soaked in their own juice with a touch of sugar – super tasty and the rind practically melted in our mouths. Limoncino is a sweet liquor, like lemoncello, but made from Ligurian lemons. Lemons are superfoods. Like other citrus fruits, lemons contain vitamin C, folic acid and a range of phytochemicals (under the antioxidant family). These all support one another in anti-cancer activity, and strengthening cardiovascular health, along with other benefits.

Gelato from Vernazza

Vernazza Kake2Kale
I cannot imagine a day in Italy without gelato.  Based on a friend’s tip, we enjoyed possibly the best gelato in Cinque Terre, in Vernazza.  To walk to Vernazza from Monterosso al Mare, hikers would take the popular scenic coastal trail no. 2. It took us about 1.5 hours with photo stops for the 4 km stretch.  In the height of summer, the trail is pretty busy.  Although Vernazza is cute, we’re glad we didn’t stay overnight because it was unbearably crowded and touristy.   But, gelato at Gelateria Il Porticciolo (Piazza Marconi, 12) made the trip worthwhile.  The chocolate, lemon, coconut and pistachio choices were  phenomenal.

Basil in Corniglia

Corniglia Kake2Kale
From Vernazza to the next village, Corniglia, the coastal trail no.2 is about 3.5 km and we hiked it in 1.5 hours with photo stops.  Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre village higher up on the cliff and not by the water.  This small village is a basil haven.  There is even a basil festival! Pots of the herb hang or sit everywhere you look.  At first, I thought they were for decoration but I later found out that basil grown by front doors and windows help to repel mosquitoes and flies.

Corniglia Basil Kake2kale

Sciacchetrà near Manarola

Cinque Terre 2 kake2kale
If you’re an avid hiker, the two trails that I mentioned so far are not hard.  However, they are narrow, at times rocky and there are plenty of steeper climbs and descends.  You don’t need serious hiking boots; light weight hiking shoes worked well for us.  The Cinque Terre trail system is quite extensive and impressive.  We hiked between the villages on different days but I heard that some people hike all five in one day.  The coastal trail no. 2 is the most popular because of its proximity to the water and vistas; but, sections of this trail have been closed for years because of landslides.  When we were there, trail no. 2 was closed between Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Instead, we hiked alternate trails which are higher and in most cases, longer and harder than no. 2.  As an example, we hiked from Riomaggiore to Manarola on no. 531.  While it was not long (1.2 km), it was intense and challenging because of 32C temperatures with no shade, climbing up a steep mountain side and down into Manarola.  It took us about 1.5 hours with photo stops and panoramic views.  Manarola is as charming as the other villages but what stood out was the lovely harbour filled with sun bathers and swimmers.   While visiting Manarola, we discovered the Sciacchetra wine, a sweet wine produced in Cinque Terre from Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes.  There’s a Cooperativa Agricoltura outside of Manarola where you can taste variety of wines, liquors, olive oils, jams, and other food products made from local food artisans.  It’s a bit off the beaten track and worth a visit if you’re looking for a non-touristy spot.

Seafood Cones at Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore Kake2Kale
As previously mentioned, we stayed a couple of nights in Riomaggiore. It is the fifth and most easterly Cinque Terre village.  For me, the two memorable food experiences in this village are: i) our amazing dinner at Enoteca Dau Cila (located in the harbour), and ii)the fried seafood cones, filled with sardines, anchovies, calamari, shrimp and veggies, from Il Pescato Cucinato.  Sure, it is deep fried and take out food but it was unique and tasty!  And, in case you didn’t know, anchovies and sardines are superfoods.  They have similar nutritional value and are a good source of protein, calcium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, omega-3, vitamin B, and riboflavin.  These properties are good for neurological, cardiovascular, digestive, skin, bone, muscle, vision and blood health.  As sardines and anchovies are low on the ocean food chain, they also contain little mercury.

Seafood take out Riomaggiore

From Riomaggiore, I also recommend the epic hike to Portovenere (Unesco World Heritage listed) on trails no. 3 and no. 1 with a return boat ride to Riomaggiore.  This 13 km hike takes between 5-6 hours and the last 1/3 of the hike is along steep cliffs with stunning views.

For non-hikers, the Cinque Terre villages are accessible by car, boat and train. By train, each village is connected by a 5 minute train ride with the exception of Manarola-Riomaggiore which takes 2 minutes.  However, this brief 2 minute ride can turn into a 2 hour misadventure if you’re not careful.  We had no idea that the Riomaggiore station platform is shorter than the length of the trains.  There were no announcements.  So, while on the train we got stuck in the last car which was nowhere near the platform.  Because the trains were packed, we could not move to a car near the platform; hence, we couldn’t get off the train.  Worse yet, the next stop was Portovenere – a 15 minute ride away, plus an hour wait for a train back to Riomaggiore!  Luckily, we managed to jump on a train back without waiting but beware if you go!

If you haven’t been to Cinque Terre, then I hope you’ll get the chance one day.  The hikes, the villages and the food will not disappoint!

Travel Far, Explore More! – {Kale}