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Exploring the Romantic Cinque Terre
Five medieval towns perched along Italy's Mediterranean coast
Jul. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
Hiking on centuries-old footpaths to remote villages, then returning to the comforts of a classic motoryacht provides a perfect holiday mix.
In the heart of a remote national park, five tiny medieval villages, almost untouched by time since Roman occupation, cling to the rocks overhanging the sea. But how do you visit these alluring towns, cut off from modern bustle and devoid of road access? The answer is simple: invest in a stout pair of walking shoes and charter a luxury yacht!
The Cinque Terre, or five lands, are found on Italy's Mediterranean coast just south of Genoa in the amphitheater-shaped Golfo di Spezia, more romantically referred to as the Gulf of Poets. To this day it remains an inspiration for the fertile mind and fleet of foot. There is a legend that a magical sea monster pursued by hunters fled into the sea where he scratched and clawed out the numerous coves and inlets that have seduced poets such as Shelley, Petrarch, and Byron into visiting, and has drawn us to visit the village of Portovenere.
Getting here has not been easy. The road is narrow and winding but we are rewarded with the sight of a large white yacht lying at anchor in the bay and are secure in the knowledge that she is to be our home for the next few days.
Istros was built in 1954 by the de Vries Lentsch shipyard in Holland and retains a quality that reflects the timeless spirit of a bygone age. It is easy to see why this classic motoryacht was the winner of the grand prize at the Monaco Yacht Club Prada Classic Yacht Show. Captain Rodger Bolton greets us by opening the door to our taxi with a beaming smile of welcome and we immediately feel at home. His efficient crew take care of our taxi driver and luggage as we are led to our waiting tender and whisked away toward the yacht to the envy of those watching wistfully on the dock.
Lunch beckons on deck and is consumed greedily from a buffet table stocked to the point that it almost groans with the effort of displaying such fare. After lunch we are shown to our cabin with its queen-sized bed, fitted mirrored wardrobes, and luxuriously appointed en suite bathroom. Debbie and Michelle, our stewardesses, have unpacked our suitcases and we have little else to do except organize our personal items to create our nest before we go ashore to visit the town.
Portovenere: the Kitty City
Back on board for dinner we discuss our exploration plans with our captain and plan our itinerary for the next few days. Rodger introduces us to Jonathan Archer, a quietly spoken Scot, who is the chief mate aboard Istros. It is his job to give us our safety briefing.
Manarola: Via the Lovers' Walk
We are here to trek to the village of Manarola and plan do so using footpath Via dell'Amore, or lovers' walk, carved into the living rock of the cliff overlooking the sea. It is not a difficult walk, mostly over a paved surface, and we enjoy the sea air as the path meanders over viaducts built in Roman times perched over perilous and sheer drops into the ocean far below. Along the way we stop and sit on lovers' seats set among the cloistered arches and admire the views, holding hands and whispering to each other.
We continue on and Manarola comes into view, its houses clinging to the mountainside. We are greeted cheerfully by villagers clutching homemade pastries and freshly baked breads. The sound of running water is all pervasive in this town as it cascades down the mountain. Now unharnessed, in years gone by it was the never-ending power source of green, renewable energy that powered machinery for milling flour, pressing olives, and making wine.
Istros has relocated and awaits us at anchor off the town, so we walk down to the jetty where our wonderful crew wait to speed us back to our floating citadel. We spend the afternoon on deck soaking up the sunshine and watch those on boats who have come to view our anchored craft. Our crew have not been idle in our absence and used the trip to good effect, deploying trolling lines from the fantail. So successful have they been, that Paula, our chef, has prepared sashimi for appetizers before supper, utilizing freshly caught tuna. This is followed by charred seven-spice tuna steak from the same fish, with horseradish and crème fraiche pomme puree, buttered wilted greens, parsnip crisps and a sensational ginger-infused oriental sauce vierge. We wash it down with locally produced wine.
We are up and at it next morning; we have two walks planned for today. From our anchorage last evening we had seen illuminated figures set into the hillside and are keen to find out what they are. In town we head toward the gothic parish church where well-dressed locals are assembling, each clutching bags of rice with which they will shower the bride when she emerges from within.
We leave town hiking toward the religious figures that make up the display of the crucifixion we witnessed last evening. Our trail takes us through citrus trees; fresh, strong with the scent of oranges and lemons. Local farmers still use the step cultivation system from Roman occupation and as we leave town, cultivation gives way to cactus trees and scrub. We are carrying our picnic lunch and climb higher and higher on a path that is more difficult than yesterday. Walkers are everywhere, all clutching bottled water, wearing sensible shoes, and carrying long stout sticks.
Corniglia: High Above the Sea
Outside the village, we select a suitable spot for our picnic lunch, ease the cork out of a bottle of Frizcarte, and enjoy our al fresco meal high above the sea. We are tempted by a full tummy and lethargy to stretch out and sample siesta - Italian fashion; after all why not?
Vernazza: A Welcome Sight
Clutching our enormous and well-deserved gelatos we make our way to the harbor where our uniformed crew wait with the tender, one of the world's most admired speedboats, a completely refurbished V8-powered Riva Olympic. As we approach we are aware of film-star treatment as first one tourist, then another takes a photograph. Word quickly spreads and more cameras begin to click and movie flash lights pop, cameras whir. Someone mentions Roger Moore and at first, I am thrilled and then I think; hang on, he is 20 years older than I am!
Monterosso: Lots of Action
On to Portofino
Castle Brown sits on top of a hill overlooking the harbor. A steep pathway winds its way to the crest, and once there, we are rewarded by one of the most spectacular and famous scenes in Italy. Montague Yeats Brown was the British consul to these parts in the late 1800s, and he rescued and renamed the castle that was originally built in 1432 to defend the port from piratical attacks from galleys crewed by Venetians. Over the years the castle developed and fortification was increased. Napoleon Bonaparte of France occupied the port and rechristened Portofino as Port Napoleon during the Campaign of Egypt. In 1867 the consul purchased what remained of the fort and began a long conversion into a private home. It remained in the hands of British families until 1965, when it was sold to the nation for the benefit of all. Its stunning beauty and history are secondary to the views it affords of the port and is a photograph not to miss.
The town of Portofino sleeps most of the day and begins to stir around 4pm, when the shops and boutiques open their doors for business. Not that we visited the interiors of Hermes, Gucci, and Georgio Armani, but we did enjoy window shopping and drinking in the heady atmosphere the port evokes. The town is so picturesque that it is full of tourists who threaten to drown and swamp it at times, but fortunately bars, bistros, and cafés are well represented and soak up the surplus throng long enough to enable you to walk the narrow streets and drink in the ambiance.
We dine ashore on crayfish cooked in lemoncella olive oil and white wine, and take a double espresso back on deck of our splendid craft. Tomorrow we sail for Genoa, but that's another story.
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