La Spezia: Gateway to Cinque Terre and So Much More

I’m sitting outside, in glorious sunshine, on a 50 metre long iron bench at the La Spezia Centrale station on the Ligurian coast. La Spezia is known as the Gulf of Poets, because back in the gloomy 18th century English poets like Byron, Shelley and Dickenson traveled south to get away from rainy England and swim a bit. I can see why they came. It wasn’t raining much in Paris, and it’s not like I’ll ever feel the need to “get away” from Paris, but still. It sure wasn’t warm and sunny and blue like this.

We didn’t come straight here. Instead, from Paris we went south to Nice on the French Riviera. Beautiful city and you really should go if you have the chance. But since Nice is the big city near Cannes, St. Tropez, Cap Ferrat and Monaco, it’s a little glitzy and glamourous. Which is all good, but a little awkward when you’ve been wearing the same clothes for six weeks in a row.

What Nice has going for it is fabulous architecture, a narrow and twisty old town, a cool tram system that cuts silently through town, two amazing outdoor markets and outstanding gelato (go to Fennochio’s in the old town.)

We spent a few days chilling out in Nice, walking to a market to get strawberries, oranges, fresh peas, a baguette and some cheese for lunch before wandering around the city for the day.

Before long we’d be down at the beach, wandering along the miles long promenade, checking out the people roasting themselves on the beach and trying to stay calm among men in tiny speedos and women sunbathing topless. Sure, the tiniest speedos were worn by old hairy grandpas, and the topless sunbathers were grannies for the most part, but we were in France, on the Riviera! Just go with it, man. Time to get over the years of body image conditioning we grow up with in North America and live like a local! Well I would’ve stripped right down to my gitch for the cultural exchange, you know, if it weren’t that I sunburn easily. So I took off my socks and rolled up my pant legs to just below the knee, and strolled along the water for a bit, averting my eyes all the while.

Now here’s a marketing lesson for you all. For all the glamour you’ve seen, read, or heard about the marvellous French Riviera, has it ever come up that the long, glorious beaches are all rocks? Well they are. Miles and miles of what we’d call river rock back at home. I couldn’t believe what I was uncomfortably sitting on.

The lesson here, of course, is to Accentuate The Positive. Decades of starlets and royalty sunning themselves along the Promenade des Anglais has glossed over the complete lack of sand. And hey, even now, a few days later, I’ve forgotten it too.

On our last evening in Nice we decided to hike up one of the hills surrounding the bay for a better view of things. But I misread the map and instead of a 2km loop I went to a further hill, 3.5km away and much taller. We walked forever, up and up. At one point we counted a run of 285 steps when the road got too steep for cars. But the views from the top, both of the teenagers making out and the surrounding hills, coast, villas and yachts, were worth it. And we already had a wood fired pizza restaurant at the bottom of the hill picked out for dinner. Pizza, salad and a half litre of the local grape and we’d forgotten all about the climb up. All that was left was the amazing view.

And so, on to Italy. Our train to La Spezia required two changes, and we were late for both of them. But Italian trains are more relaxed on Sunday, it seems, so the trains were both waiting for us. One of my minor stresses with AirBnb apartments is keeping our host waiting for the check-in, so I was glad to get there close to our planned time.

(And a big highlight was sitting amongst some very, very posh folks on the train between Nice and Monte Carlo. The fellow across from me was either a Swiss banker or Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Our first impression of Italy is one of relaxed joy. First off, it’s beautiful here. La Spezia is nestled in the centre of a U shaped bay, with small mountains all around. The dark green of the trees behind, the bright, azure blue of the water in front, with colourful pink, yellow and cream buildings in the middle. Wow.

And the food is everything we’d imagined. Simple, fresh and cheap. In France, the food is excellent, but you pay a big premium for those perfect French peas or local strawberries that are placed oh so perfectly in the baskets. Here, the markets are still full to overflowing with tomatoes, peas, strawberries and the cutest baby zucchini, but you just grab a bag and dig in. And the price is at least 30% cheaper than just around the bay in France.

We stayed in a modern apartment on the other side of the train station from downtown. It was lovely, because we got a tiny chance to live like a local. The block around our apartment had everything we needed, really. A two person, hole in the wall, wood fired pizza place that sold so much of the local specialty, farinata (a thin omelette made of chickpea flour,) that they could hardly fit pizzas in the oven. A gelato shop that sold trays of ice cream to take home. A butcher/deli, a bakery/coffee shop, a specialty food shop, a fruit stand, a florist, a pharmacy and a Coop. We could pull together a picnic lunch, go adventuring, and come back for pizza for supper. It took us two days before we thought to look for a central market; they have one, and it’s glorious too.

La Spezia is the gateway to the five villages of the Cinque Terre, made famous in North America by Rick Steves and his travel shows. There’s stress on these former fishing villages due the crush of tourism, but that’s how we heard of the Cinque Terre so I’m not going to over think this. It’s beautiful, we’re in the area, and we’ll try to tread lightly. So we hopped a train to the third village of Corniglia.

Back before modern tourism hit the Cinque Terre, the villages were quite isolated. They were only accessible from the sea or via a narrow and winding trail that connected all five villages. And the villages are close enough to each other that a hiker can walk to all five villages in one day.

That’s what we wanted to do, but the first two trails between Riamaggiore — Manarola and Manarola — Corniglia were closed due to mudslides. But that still left us half the trails to walk. Once we got up to Corniglia, that is. From the train station at sea level there was a huge set of steps up to the village. Forgoing the shuttle bus, we walked the 310 steps to the village. It’s getting easier and easier to climb like this, I must say.

When we reached the cliff top and strolled into Corniglia I didn’t want to leave. Ever. In a trip where we’ve seen over a dozen of picturesque little towns, this was the new #1. The village square was full of little shops selling fruit, general store type supplies and postal services. Across the square were bars, coffee shops and restaurants tempting me inside. Narrow side streets house artisans selling wine, leather goods and paintings. There was even a gelato shop with a framed picture of Rick Steves himself.

After an hour of wandering around the village, Cindy reminded me we were there to hike, so we set off northeast toward Vernazza. It wasn’t long before we started to climb, and boy did we ever climb! The path turned into steps, then the steps turned into bare rocks. I really had to focus on each step while we scrambled up and up.

That’s another thing the guidebooks don’t really mention. This is a proper hike, not a gentle stroll through the countryside. While the trail is well marked with red and white blazes, it’s not a groomed trail as such. The path is strewn with rocks and loose gravel and can get really narrow at points, so hikers travelling in opposite directions need to take turns on the trail. But every time I’d feel like the hike was getting too hard, we’d come up to a viewpoint that took my breath away. We were perched on the ridge like eagles, high above the villages, so we could see Corniglia and Manarola behind us, and Monterosso far off in the distance ahead. And if we looked down, we’d see fishing boats and ferries out on the water. It was magnificent and completely worth the hard work of hiking up to these viewpoints.

After an hour of hard hiking, we came across a cluster of buildings, including a small bar. Heaven! I thought we had made it to Vernazza early but a sign tempered my spirits. This was the half way point! Ah well. We savoured two amply priced glasses of cold, fresh fruit juice at a tiny black bistro table at the edge of a cliff, enjoyed the huge views and warm sunshine, then continued on our way.

Vernazza is right down on the water, so we descended down, down, down to the village. While we were still well above the castle at the end of town, we encountered more and more hikers, but they seemed to go just high enough to get a selfie above the castle, before joining us on the trail into town.

We didn’t linger too long in Vernazza. It was now 1:00, and the village square was filling up with tourists who came on the train or via bus tours. I can’t imagine what it’s like here in July and August; it was crowded enough for me in mid-April. Quite the change from morning in Corniglia. We ate our picnic lunch beside the marina, climbed to the top of the castle overlooking the harbour, and found the trail to Monterosso.

Now, Vernazza is on the water. Monterosso is also on the water. So you’d think a trail between the two villages would also be along the water, right? But oh no. The trail is high, high, up on a ridgeline along the mountain that sits between the two villages. So up we climbed. Up, up, up until my heart was pounding and the afternoon sun was baking my eyebrows. It was a real lung buster, but worth it. The views were amazing once again.

This leg of the trail is much narrower than Cornigla — Vernazza leg, and the trail was more crowded too, so it was a stop/start hike as we paused to let southbound traffic pass. It took us two full hours to get to Monterosso, but we were lucky in a way. The descent into Monterosso is via the longest staircase I’ve ever seen. It was like the steps in the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. They just went on and on. But at least they were steps! The southbound hikers had to deal with the rock ledges we climbed to get out of Vernazza. I don’t think I could descend on them with the rubber legs I had now.

We congratulated ourselves on our hiking prowess by soaking our feet at the beach (what a treat!) and some extra fine gelato. Then we toodled through the village for a while before catching the train back to La Spezia, tired, sore and very, very happy.

The next day we decided to check out La Spezia a little closer. We found a nice little coffee shop where I could get a real Italian cappuccino and, further up the block, a real Italian macchiato. We found a phone store to get an Italian SIM card for the phone, then headed to the central market.

The La Spezia market is a big one. Two blocks square, with a large undulating roof over the entire complex. Everything you need is inside. Fruit stands, vegetable stands, cheese and dairy carts, butchers, florists, bakers and fishmongers. And as we’ve seen everywhere else, shops and bars and restaurants surrounding the market on all four sides. It was beautiful and once we found the market we went every day, even though it was a 30 minute walk from our apartment.

I love our Farmer’s Market at home (heck, I took bread to the market for two years at the same time I was trying to build Orange Boot), but compared to what we see in Europe, from the largest city to the smallest town, our market in Regina sucks. I already know I’m going to cry when I get home and try to shop again.

I know, I know, we live in the middle of nowhere, 1000km from BC fruit or 2000km from California veggies. But surely to God we can put a roof over our market so the food doesn’t get soaked in the rain. And put up a wind screen while we’re at it. And if I’m going to dream, run enough power that the butchers can bring raw meat and keep it cool, and the cheesemongers can do the same with their dairy products. I’ll set up my oven in the market too, I promise.

The La Spezia market is busy. Really busy. Busier than the number of people who live and work around it. I saw bus after bus drop off people with empty shopping bags and pick them up again, loaded up with produce for the next day (or maybe two, tops.) Nobody here asks “will it freeze”. They shop every day and eat fresh food and I love that.

Anyway, once we had our packs full of picnic fare, we got on the bus too and headed to the town of Lereci. If the Gulf of Poets is a U, and La Spezia is at the base of the U, then Lereci is at the end of the left arm. Our host Alice recommended the beach there, and after our massive hike yesterday I was in the mood for a mellow afternoon.

The bus ride out was a blast. We got the last two seats at the back of the bus, just before the bus was jam packed with university students. And I mean packed. They just kept getting on, handing their packs to four young ladies in the seat in front of us, then started hugging each other to save space. I’ve never seen such a crush. For the longest time, nobody got off the bus, but four more people got on at each stop. More students. An old lady with bags of shopping. Some construction workers. I have no idea how they fit or where they went. But one by one, over the next 20 minutes, the bus would stop, someone would hand over a backpack from the pile, and the bus slowly thinned out. Then it was our turn.

Lereci is beautiful. A lovely horseshoe cove with a castle at one end, a marina, and a long, curving, sandy beach that went all the way to San Terenzo, the next village on the way back to La Spezia.

We walked to the top of the castle (gotta climb a little!) and gazed out across the Gulf to La Spezia in the distance, and Porto Venere at the other end of the U. It was beautiful but also very windy. I wanted to sketch and paint up there but I couldn’t control my sketchbook in the wind, so we retreated down to the marina and checked out the shops lining the quay. Then we went for a sit at the beach and I tried not to compare the bronze sunbathers to the rotisserie chicken I saw at the market in La Spezia.

Oh, and Lereci has the best gelato I’ve had so far. The local flavour, called Lereci, of course, ticks all the boxes. Coffee, nuts, caramel, chocolate all swirled around in some basic crema gelato. Amazing. Until this point my favourite was pistachio (made with real pistachios of course) but now I’m ruined. Hopefully some other local flavour will win my heart down the road, but I’m not holding out much hope.

On our last day in La Spezia, we took the bus to the other end of the U, to Porto Venere. Another spectacular fishing village with a lovely marina, two churches and even a castle on the hill. Porto Venere is really tucked in there tight between the water and the cliffs, so that getting past the first row of houses required some serious climbing. But there were spectacular views around every corner, so we kept on climbing and being wowed.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but we weren’t ready to leave the Cinque Terre yet. Cindy had read about a big hike from Porto Venere to the first Cinque Terre village, Riamaggiore. 12km, 4 hours and listed as “moderate” difficulty. The same book said the hikes we did two days ago were “easy-moderate.” Hmmm. Well it was a nice day, we felt good and it was at least 5 hours till sunset, so we decided to go for it. We’d abandon our return bus tickets, do the hike and catch the train back to town from Riomaggiore.

Well it was the best hike I’ve ever done. Way harder than I imagined; we climbed 500m pretty much straight up, then followed the ridge line around two separate mountains, before descending through vineyards and farms to the village at Riomaggiore. As we twisted up the mountains, through forests, then out on bare rock ledges, then back into forests, we had these wild views of Porto Venere, then La Spezia and Lereci across the Gulf to our right, then the wider Mediterranean off our left shoulder, then finally Riamaggiore below us.

By the time we entered Riamaggiore we were sore, tired and grimy. But the tour buses were long gone, the village was beautiful and we saw the most amazing sunset from a brick lane above Riamaggiore’s tiny harbour. It was perfect.

I can’t imagine ever finding a place more beautiful than this. But I’ve said that every day so far on this trip and I’ve been wrong each time. I can’t wait to see what we find next.