Vernazza

The village of Vernazza was our first onshore experience of the Cinque Terre, arriving late morning with a plan for coffee and pastries.

1.Vernazza

Dating back to the early 11th century, the fortified military base defended the coast from Saracen pirates. In the middle ages, the water went right up to the buildings and the boats would tie up there, as they do in Venice.

2.Vernazza

These days, they remain on buoys in the harbour unless rough weather is forecast, then they can be found in the main piazza.

3.Piazza Guglielmo Marconi4.boats outside Albergo Barbara

Seated on a base of rocks at the entrance to the inlet, the parish church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia was built in 1318.

5.Chiesa di Santa Margherita d'Antiochia

The views would be spectacular from the tower, almost as rewarding as those from the cemetery on top of the hill where, rather than being buried in the ground, the coffin is slid into something like a drawer in a wall, known as a loculo.

6.Chiesa di Santa Margherita d'Antiochia

In October 2011, Vernazza was devastated when torrential rains, resulting in flooding and mudslides, buried her under four metres of mud and debris. For months the village was uninhabitable and years later, restoration work still continues. It is hard to imagine the peaceful harbour

7.harbour8.harbour

and beautiful pastel shades of Liguria under siege from nature.

9.Vernazza

We wandered up the main thoroughfare, Via Roma, my aversion to crowds and having people in my photographs meant my eye was drawn to the upper level of the streetscape.

10.Via Roma

Returning to the harbour, houses seemed to be suspended above a cave entrance

11.cliff houses

which, it turned out, led to another beach.

12.beach beyond

From this side of the harbour we could see the next town, Monterosso, in the distance.

13.view to Monterosso

The remains of Doria Castle and its lookout tower stand proudly on the rocky promontory

14.Doria Castle

while below, on the terraces of the medieval watchtower, Ristorante Belforte has been serving quintessential Ligurian cuisine for the past fifty years.

15.Doria Castle & restaurant16.Ristorante Belforte

We had time to admire the stunning rock formations

while waiting for the boat to take us to our next destination, Monterosso.

21.Monterosso

Cinque Terre

An overcast sky accompanied us on the morning of our Cinque Terre boat trip, with storms predicted for late afternoon. We passed Scoglio Ferale, the white cross on top is in memory of Luigi Garavaglio, a navy topographer who died when he fell from the rock while working in 1911.

1.Scoglio Ferale

The cliffs of Porto Venere and Palmaria Island faded in the sea mist as we moved further along the coast.

2.Scoglio Ferale

Farmhouses clung impossibly to cliffs

3.cliffside homes

threatening to crumble with the next deluge.

4.landslides

The first port of call was the village of Riomaggiore, we would come back here for aperitivo on the return journey (that’s another post).

5.Riomaggiore6.Riomaggiore

The five villages of the Cinque Terre are connected by a hiking trail, the 1km stretch between Riomaggiore and Manarola is known as Via dell’Amore or Lovers’ Lane. It dates back to the early 20th century when the railway was under construction and apparently was a place for lovers from the two villages to meet for romantic trysts. Unfortunately, this section has been closed since September 2012 when four women were injured in a rockslide and isn’t set to reopen until 2023.

7.Via dell'Amore

The stone walls and buildings of Manarola are fortress like, designed to deter pirates in ancient times.

8.Manarola

We had decided not to visit Manarola as time is limited on a one day cruise. Instead, we admired the village from the boat along with the stunning ‘zebra’ rocks as we left the harbour.

9.Manarola10.zebra rocks

It wasn’t long before another group of houses appeared in the distance.

11.Corniglia

Corniglia, the middle village of the Cinque Terre, is the only one without a port. Reliant on farming rather than fishing, the terraced hillsides certainly look challenging. Not to mention the 370 steps to the sea.

12.Corniglia13.Corniglia14.Corniglia

The residents of the next village, Vernazza, are no strangers to farming on the steep slopes, either.

15.Vernazza

It was time to replenish with coffee and cake, a perfect reason to explore this village….

Porto Venere

We had an early start for our day trip to Cinque Terre, catching the bus from Le Grazie for the 3km trip to Porto Venere. The winding, narrow road made for an interesting ride, one of the reasons we opted to leave the car behind. We alighted at the Grand Hotel, a majestic building from the 1600s that has seen many incarnations since. The original monastery became the Hospital of the Marine Military in the 1800s and then the headquarters of the Municipality of Porto Venere. A hotel was established in 1975 but closed in the 2000s before being refurbished and re-opened in 2014 as the luxury boutique hotel it is today.

1.Grand Hotel

The tall, narrow houses seemed to defy gravity, as though they were being pushed toward the water by the cliffs behind.

2.Porto Venere

We followed the road along the harbour to the headland, spying a perfect spot for breakfast. Unfortunately, Le Bocche was closed and thoughts of food would have to wait.

3.end of the road, Porto Venere

Climbing the steps to investigate the church at the top of the cliff

4.Chiesa di San Pietro

we found much more to explore. Part of the ancient stone fortifications are still standing,

5.old stone wall

a plaque above a doorway announced Byron’s Grotto through which steep stone steps led to the bay below.

6.steps to Byron's Grotto

English poet, Lord Byron, would swim in these waters and even crossed the bay to visit his friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in Lerici. Hence, the stretch of water is known as Golfo dei Poeti, the Gulf of Poets. The legendary swim is commemorated each year with the Byron Cup swimming race across the 7.5km from Porto Venere to San Terenzo. We were content to remain on dry land and savour the spectacular scenery.

7.Byron's Grotto

High above the sea caves, the remains of Doria Castle dominate the ridge. Built by the Genoese in 1161 for the wealthy Doria family, the military stronghold has undergone major restoration and is now open to the public.

8.Doria Castle

On the opposite side of the cove, the remains of an ancient defensive post balance on a tumble of rocks

9.ancient defensive post

and the views across the gulf are mesmerising.

10.Gulf of Poets

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Just beyond the steps to the grotto, the serene figure of a rather buxom lady sits gazing out to sea. The bronze sculpture, Mater Naturae, is the work of Lello Scorzelli but there is no indication as to how long she has sat here. Her thoughts are summed up beautifully in a wonderful piece of prose, The custodian of Portovenere by Francesca Lavezzoli.

We spied the octagonal domes of the 11th century Chiesa di San Lorenzo, in the centre of the village, arising from the terraced hillside

16.Chiesa di San Lorenzo

before we retraced our steps to explore Chiesa di San Pietro.

17.Chiesa di San Pietro

Dating back to ancient Roman times, the town was called Portus Veneris and a pagan temple, dedicated to the goddess Venus, occupied this site. An early Christian basilica replaced the temple in the 5th century and was consecrated in 1198. The black and white bands were added in the 13th century by the Genoese, though the belltower retains the original stonework.

18.Chiesa di San Pietro

Sculptor Lello Scorzelli created the magnificent bronze portals depicting the handing over of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven by Jesus to St. Peter.

When the doors are closed Jesus, dressed in the robes of a poor man, offers the keys to Peter who reaches up to accept them

21.St. Peter

while intricate figures representing the apostles bear witness to the ceremony.

Morning light streamed into the central apse, the striking vaulted ceiling seemed impossibly supported by black and white marble.

25.central apse with altar

A small pipe organ fills an alcove and a statue of St. Peter resides in an adjacent niche.

We savoured yet more spectacular coastal views from the sheltered loggia

28.loggia, Chiesa di San Pietro

before returning to the town in search of breakfast. Via Giovanni Capellini is the main shopping thoroughfare, stone steps connecting it to the harbour.

31.steps to Via Giovanni Capellini

The street was quiet at this hour, shops were just opening

and thoughts of food amplified in our heads.

Replenished with coffee and pastries, we made our way to the harbour to meet up with friends, Deb & Jim, to board the boat for Cinque Terre.

37.Porto Venere harbour38.Porto Venere harbour

As we rounded the promontory, we could appreciate a different perspective of Chiesa di San Pietro and Doria Castle clinging precariously to their rocky foundations.

41.Chiesa di San Pietro42.Doria Castle

Duomo di San Cristoforo

At the highest point in the medieval hilltop town of Barga, the Duomo di San Cristoforo is well worth the climb.

1.Duomo di San Cristoforo

Built in the year 998, the white marble edifice was enlarged during the 12th and 13th centuries and has been modified further over the years.

2.Duomo di San Cristoforo

The arch above the main entrance is carved with acanthus leaf motifs, the bas relief above the door depicts scenes of a grape harvest. The two lions at the top of the columns symbolise the strength of faith.

3.Duomo di San Cristoforo

The castle-like belltower houses three bells that are still played manually.

4.Belltower

The first thing I noticed about the interior was the absence of seating. The second thing was the ancient faded fresco of Santa Lucia above an elegant marble font.

The stunning wooden ceiling replaced the old one, in the same style, in 1862.

7.interior

The nave is divided into two parts by a large barrier made from red marble slabs framed with decorated white marble.

8.marble pluteus

The 13th century marble pulpit is a spectacular work of art. The front section has an intricately carved depiction of the Annunciation and the Birth of Christ, a Latin inscription explains the symbolism.

12.pulpit,The Annunciation and the Birth of Christ

The other side represents the Adoration of the Magi, the three kings bearing their gifts for baby Jesus. Partially blocking them is a group of figures portraying the four Evangelists; Mathew as the human, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox and John as the eagle. The human figure on the left is thought to be Joseph.

13.pulpit, The Four Evangelists

Four columns support the pulpit, each with a unique carved capital at the top.

There are two lions at the base of the front columns symbolising the triumph of Christianity over evil and heresy. The left one has a serpent (evil) between its legs and the one on the right is standing over a man (heresy) who is stroking the lion with one hand while stabbing it with the other.

One of the rear columns rests on the back of a midget (the pagan world) and the fourth rests on the floor (the Christian world).

20.midget, pulpit

The long, narrow stained glass windows have many more stories to tell.

A 9th century wooden statue of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of Barga, stands within a niche behind the main altar.

23.St. Christopher

Leaving the church

24.view from door

we lingered a while to appreciate the breathtaking vista across the rooftops to the mountains beyond.

26.view from cathedral25.view from cathedral

Le Grazie

When we first travelled to Italy, we didn’t get the chance to see Cinque Terre so this time we were determined not to miss out. When I started planning, I soon realised that staying in the coastal villages was nigh on impossible with a car to park. Instead, I found a B&B in Le Grazie that suited our needs, or so I thought. After driving around for an hour trying to find the place, it turned out to be virtually inaccessible to anyone with more than hand luggage, down fifty or so very steep stone steps. With no Plan B, we were very lucky to find Hotel Le Grazie had a room available for two nights, a very nice room at that.

1.Hotel Le Grazie

In need of solace after our ordeal, a short stroll around the corner rewarded us with the tranquil vista of Le Grazie harbour.

2.Le Grazie harbour3.Le Grazie harbour

Nestled in a sheltered inlet between La Spezia and Porto Venere, this gorgeous village seems to have escaped the teeming tourist numbers of the neighbouring towns. The inhabitants have a reputation for being proficient divers and have thrived for centuries on boat building and fishing. Adjacent to the boat construction yard, the pine wood offers a shady meeting place for locals. A war memorial honouring  partisans, civilians and military personnel and an old cannon remind us of a less peaceful time.

4.pine wood

The roundabout, marked by a solitary cycad, seemed somewhat superfluous on a straight road.

6a.roundabout Le Grazie

After a restorative Prosecco we wandered further, past colourful buildings

7.Le Grazie8.Le Grazie

and beautiful boats moored in the marina.

9.yachts, Le Grazie harbour10.yachts, Le Grazie harbour

The village takes its name from the Santuario Nostra Signora delle Grazie (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace). The church dates back to the 11th century when a group of Benedictine monks came from the island of Tino. The present church and monastery were built in the 15th century, though the monks were driven out in 1798 and the church became a parish church. The ancient convent is now a private residence and I am lost for words.

11.Santuario Nostra Signora delle Grazie

It seemed a good time to rest for aperitivo

15.aperitivo, Le Grazie

while soaking up the atmosphere and sunshine.

20.Le Grazie harbour

We continued along the promenade until we could go no further.

21.walkway

The Varignano Fortress, built in 1724, dominates the headland. Originally used as a storage facility and quarantine station, it then became a hospital before being taken over by the defence forces. Since World War II, it has been the headquarters of the Navy Divers and Raiders Group, named after Major Teseo Tesei who invented the human torpedo. No prizes for guessing how he died.

22.Varignano Fortress

With the descending sun glistening on the water, we ambled back to seek sustenance.

23.Le Grazie harbour

Ristorante Il Gambero was the perfect setting

to observe life in the village and harbour

27.Le Grazie30.Le Grazie harbour

31.Le Grazie harbour

while enjoying delicious fresh seafood.

There is only one way to end a perfect day.

35.crème brûlée