It’s a hot sunny day in late July and we’re jumping in our trusty Fiat 500L for a short drive up the coast to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Cinque Terre. This will be one of five stops on our Italian Origins small-group journey, so we’re on our way to meet with hotel and activity partners in person. Over the years, we’ve gleaned two bits of wisdom - 1) reliable contacts that we know and trust are gold, and 2) the best way to ensure every travel detail is amazing is to experience it first-hand. We cross the green hills surrounding Lucca and head north, past Carrara and its mountains of glistening white marble, and into the terraced hillsides of Cinque Terre National Park.
The Cinque Terre - the five lands in Italian - is a collection of five small but wondrous towns that cascade down steep mountains to the sea in the crescent-shaped region of Liguria. These quaint little fishing villages date back nearly 1,000 years and while tourism has more than flourished in the past couple of decades, locals still hold onto centuries-old traditions. The region is where many of Italy’s most famous foods originated, including both focaccia and pesto. Basil, the most important ingredient in the sauce, thrives in Liguria’s coastal climate. Meanwhile, the steep hills that surround each of the villages are packed with beautiful terraced vineyards, lemon and olive groves. The DOC Cinque Terre white wine may not be as well known as other Italian varietals, but it’s fresh, crisp and pairs perfectly with the famous acciughe (anchovies) from Monterosso al Mare, the largest and northernmost town of the Cinque Terre. Nearly as famous as Monterosso’s anchovies are its lemons, which thrive in the coastal growing conditions and serve as the primary ingredient for Limoncino (Limencello’s northern cousin). In addition to the delicious local foods of the Cinque Terre, the National Park is full of scenic hiking trails that hug the mountainsides and descend into each of incredible towns on their way up the coast. The views from the trails are impossible to beat, as boats criss-cross the perfectly blue sea below.
After the hour and a half drive from Lucca, we check in to the adorable and welcoming Hotel Villa Steno, in the old town of Monterosso al Mare. We’re met in the lobby by the hotel’s owners, Matteo and Carla, who’ve owned and operated the hotel for 27 years and have graciously invited us to experience the property. Just a four minute walk from the beach, Hotel Villa Steno rests peacefully on the hillside at the edge of the town’s center. Surrounded by lemon groves and olive trees, with views of the sea from almost every angle, we quickly realize that it’s the ideal base for discovering the Cinque Terre. Matteo and Carla, whose kind and relaxed energy encapsulate the very best of Italian hospitality, share local insights and direct us to the town’s best eateries, gelaterias, and hidden spots.
After our conversation over Prosecco on the hotel’s panoramic terrace, we head into town to meet up with some old friends from Valencia who also happen to be in the area. We sit at a table just inside the cozy L’Osteria, next to the beautiful Gothic church, Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, only two minutes from the hotel and another two to the sea. We sip on local wine and indulge in tasty local dishes, like Trofie (a short, twisted pasta from the region) al Pesto and Ravioli in salsa di noci, before taking a late evening passeggiata (stroll) along the seaside.
The next morning we awake to breakfast being delivered to our room and watch as boats cruise along the sea while we drink cappuccini under an olive tree on our private patio. We set off south, on a one and a half hour hike along the coast to the picturesque village of Vernazza, possibly Cinque Terre’s most famous town. Climbing old stone pathways through steep vineyards, traversing up and down the trail, we arrive to an incredible image of this ancient town. It’s little fishing harbor meets the main town square, an old stone church set directly on the water. Hot and sweaty, we jump off the old sea wall into the clear blue waters that lap up against it.
In the afternoon we take the 12-minute train ride from Monterosso to Manarola, one of the smaller villages set between Riomaggiore (to the south) and Corniglia (to the north). Teenagers leap off cliffs into the water while vacationers sunbathe on the harbor’s smooth rocks. We check out Nessun Dorma, an uber popular cliffside bar, and it’s sister wine bar, Cantina, just up the hill. Sara, Cantina’s manager tells us all about the wine experiences they’ve recently started and the unique wines of the area. Back in Monterosso, we stroll the vineyards of Buranco Winery, a family-owned estate located in a hidden valley just a 5-minute walk from town. Among the vineyards, olive and lemon groves, Giovanni tells us about the history of the property and its wines.
The Cinque Terre has been a popular destination for travelers for decades, circulating through guidebooks and tagged all over social media. Our goal is to go beyond the beaches and the postcard perfect image of the five villages. We’re here to explore the unique traditions and wonderful local products that make this place so special. How its landscapes have shaped its people, and how those people have created such a rich cultural heritage that, in its essence, is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Travel with us as we uncover the unique food, culture and traditions of four distinct regions in Italy.
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