Pietra Ligure (Liguria), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

Leaving Lago Le Tamerici we drove north; making for Camping dei Fiori, a campsite in Pietra Ligure which I think is part of the Pian dei Boschi hotel complex. We would stay in Pietra Ligure for just one night as we were due in the small French town of Monteux the following day. Vanya had booked us into Monteux’s Hotel Le Blason De Provence, a highly recommended boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras. We were going to spoil ourselves for two or three days but more about that later. First, let me write a little about Pietra Ligure. I really liked the place and will most certainly return.

Pietra Ligure is a popular seaside town, half way between Genoa and San Remo, on the Riviera Ponente (part of the Italian Riviera) and it is named after it’s castle perched up on an imposing limestone cliff known as La Pietra (which translates as the stone or the rock in English). There has been a castle on this rock since the time of the Roman Empire but the current structure dates from the 16th century.

It took just 10 minutes to walk from Camping dei Fiori to the beach and another 5 minutes to reach Pietra Ligure’s historic old town (the largely medieval Borgo Vecchio)… and what a little gem it is!

Hemmed in between the sandy beach and a series of low hills which form a backdrop along much of this coast, the old town is built mostly of a pastel coloured stone and comprises numerous narrow shaded alleys (known as ‘caruggi’ in this part of the world), many of which are topped with arches and lead through or to small squares or courtyards. Interspersed with shops and cafe-bars and almost entirely pedestrianised, the caruggi are brimming with character and lend the town a very local flavour and feeling. I love them.

At the centre of the Borgo Vecchio, on the town’s main square (the Piazza San Nicolo di Bari) is an elegant, cream coloured, Romanesque style church – the Basilica of San Nicolo di Bari. Inside its beautifully carved doors this church is sumptuously decorated with sculptures and stunning artwork. The inside of some churches that I have seen during these tours have been overelaborate, almost gaudy, but this is a jewel of a church and no photos I took can do it justice.

Pietra Ligure is not a large town (just 8,000 residents outside of summer) and it didn’t take long to explore the Borgo Vecchio. I knew too that I would be returning later in the day with Vanya and so, after tearing myself away from the Basilica, I made my way on the beach and then on to the Borgo Nuovo (the new town).

I was most impressed with the beach area. There’s a long sandy blue flag beach, a sizeable pier from which numerous anglers seemed to be enjoying themselves and a wide seafront promenade lined with palm trees. Most important, given Italy’s proclivity towards private beaches (regular readers of this blog will know that I abhor private beaches), Pietra Ligure has determined that a large central part of the beach should be open to the public. Moreover, the town has at least one and possibly two dog friendly beaches complete with dog showers. Respect!

The next day, we were moving on into France. Sadly, we didn’t have time before leaving to return just a few kilometres back down the coast to visit two of Italy’s most beautiful villages – the Borghi piu Belli d’Italia of Borgio Verezzi (with it’s Valdemino Caves) and Finalborgo (with it’s annual medieval festival) but, we’ll be back.

On to Monteux…

Sasso di Bordighera (Liguria), Italy August 2022 (Tour 6)

The dogs were suffering in this year’s very hot weather (for weeks, even in the foothills of the Alps, the temperatures have been up in the high thirties) and so we decided to make our way west from Italy to the north of Spain where they are currently in the mid twenties. Sasso di Bordighere was chosen by Vanya because it took us quite a way west (into Liguria and within a few miles of the French border) and because the campsite reads very well. My gosh, what happened to all those wild camps I used to do in the Balkans? We seem to be using campsites nearly all the time now.

I’m not complaining; leastways not about A Bunda which was the name of the campsite Vanya had chosen. It is a small, shaded, tranquil site carved out of an olive grove near the tiny hamlet of Sasso di Bordighera. It offers decent sized pitches and wonderful views across the valley and the guy who runs it with his family, Alessandro, is as friendly and helpful as they come. He’s particularly proud of his gardens (with good reason) and the scent of rosemary is everywhere.

As for Sasso di Bordighera itself, it is an ancient fortified village high up on a rocky ridge, overlooking (part of) the town of Bordighera some 4 kms away on the coast. Sasso is Italian for stone or rock; hence it’s name. The village is little more than a hamlet with just 200 inhabitants, surrounded by olive groves and orchards. There is a tiny shop, a church and, just at the edge of the village, a small restaurant.

The views from the village towards the coast are stunning; those from the restaurant, even more so. I reserved a table for us on the restaurant terrace for that very evening.

We enjoyed it very much.

Rapallo, St Margherita, Portofino (Liguria), Italy – Feb 2018

Today started somewhat inauspiciously but turned out well. I was to get a train from Sestri Levante to Camogli (at the northern end of the Portofino Peninsula) and then hike some 3+ hours across the peninsula to the San Fruttuoso Abbey (the Abbey can only be reached by foot or by sea) before getting a ferry back to Camogli and then the train to Sestri Levante.

I had bought the train tickets and was en route to Camogli when a local, bless him, explained that the ferries don’t operate in the winter and that my only alternative would be to charter a boat (very expensive). Immediate change of plan. I thanked the man, got off the train at Rapallo (which is located at the southern end of the Portofino Peninsula) and elected instead to check out Rapallo and then the two other small towns on the southern end of the Peninsula, Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure, before taking the train back to Sestri Levante.  Camogli and the Abbey will have wait. Shame, Camogli sounds special and there’s an interesting dive off San Fruttuoso:

… the above photo (not mine) is of Christ of the Abyss, made in bronze and submerged off San Fruttuoso near where Dario Gonzatti drowned (the first Italian to use SCUBA). Could be a good dive.  A second statue, cast from the same mold, is off St George’s, Grenada (a gift of the Italian Navy for help in rescuing the crew of a stricken vessel) and a third bought by the US in 1965 was placed off Key Largo, Florida

… Sod’s Law. To date, everywhere I have been, the dive schools have been closed. Today I learn about Christ of the Abyss and I come across two schools operating out of Rapallo, one leaving to dive the Abyss as I arrive and the other preparing for a wreck dive

Rapallo seems a lively place and would probably have made a better base to explore the area from than Sestri Levante.  There was far more activity on the seafront than you would normally expect of a Sunday morning and the place seemed to be gearing up for a carnival of sorts (large families and every woman and her dog was out – it seems to be the women who walk the dogs here) but I didn’t have time to wait. I estimated it would take up to 3 hours to walk to Portofino and back and if I allowed myself half an hour in Santa Margherita Ligure and another 2 hours (including lunch) in Portofino, I would be back in Rapallo by mid afternoon to catch whatever has been planned and, in any event, have a proper look around.

… most of the way, first to Santa Margherita Ligure and then Portofino, there’s an easy footpath that hugs the coast. Even where there is no path, the road (especially the part after Santa Margherita) is virtually deserted because only local traffic may park in Portofino

I reached Santa Margherita within 25 minutes of leaving Rapallo:

… Santa Margherita Ligure (SML)

SML and Rapallo are alike in some respects, although Rapallo is larger. Both have a small castle. Both are long established fishing ports (although the fishing fleets of each now form a very small proportion of the boats in the increasingly large marinas) and the crystal clear bay of each is lined with palms and old fashioned hotels with stunning architecture. There’s a definite increase in the number of designer shops in both towns and prices are spiralling but they have a long way to go before they catch Portofino. Also, I didn’t hear much English spoken in either town. It was all Italian. You cannot say that about Portofino.

… Rapallo and Santa Margherita each has a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus (see above). He was actually born in Genoa but it seems all the towns in this area lay claim to him

… the views open up as you approach Portofino and some of the properties en route (and their views) are to die for

Just over an hour after leaving Rapallo I entered Portofino and; my first impressions? Put simply, it is striking.

I was all set to hate the place. It is described by Lonely Planet as “perfectly coiffured” and “even the trees are handsome”. That sounds so pretentious and plastic. Before I even knew I was going to visit this place today I had formed the view that it as an expensive, artificial tourist resort, attractive only to celebrities, would be celebrities and celebrity seekers. Portofino is expensive and it is a bit of a playground for celebrities (but they have to go somewhere) and there are a ridiculous number of designer shops given the small size of the place and it’s remote location but, otherwise, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The place is gorgeous. The pretty Piazzetta on the small harbour exudes tranquility and is great place to sit and relax with glass of wine or a coffee. I sat people watching for an hour, simply revelling in the atmosphere.

… In no time I had homed in on where I wanted to be and was sitting people watching with a perfectly fine glass of wine

As you look up from the harbour you will see Castello Brown on the left and the Church of St George on the right. There is a short flight of stairs to the right of the harbour that leads up to the church of St George. Beyond that is the Castello Brown. Entrance to the church is free but there is a 5 euros entrance fee into the Castello. I think it’s worth 5 euros of anyone’s money for the views alone.

… the first photo is the Church of St George photographed from the Castello Brown and the second is the Castello photographed from the Church

… Inside it is not so much a castle as a private dwelling which, I understand is what Montague Yeats-Brown (British Consul in Genoa) intended it to be when he bought and renovated it in 1867

… the views from the windows are stunning

It was a slower walk back to Rapallo. I attribute that to the wine and the sunshine but, I arrived in time to watch the tail end of the carnival (quite what they were celebrating, I do not know) and to have a little look around the town:

… If I didn’t know better I would have sworn I saw Will and Ro in amongst the “Onesies”

… Rapallo Marina and the Castello

Cinque Terre Villages (Liguria), Italy – Feb 2018

Today is different. Today is about walking the Cinque Terre from one magical village to another and experiencing the journey, the villages and the experience as a whole. I refuse at least for today to enter any castle, any monastery, any church.

Cinque Terre translates as the Five Lands and it comprises five small fishing villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) strung along the rocky coast of Liguria between Levanto and La Spezia. Until quite recently they were linked by mule tracks and otherwise accessible only by rail or water. This is a beautiful part of Italy; so much so that the Cinque Terre is recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco and is now a National Park and Protected Marine Area. The really good news is that the mule tracks have been developed into an excellent trail and it is possible now to walk the route between all five villages and explore them all in the one day (although, if you have longer, why not take two or even three days?).

I started by taking a half hour train journey from Sestri Levante to the largest and most northerly of the five villages, Monterosso, and began my walk from there. North to South is recognised as the best approach in terms of views.

Monterosso is more of a small town than a village and it is dominated by the ruins of a castle and Churches of San Giovanni Battista and San Francesco. I promised to ignore castles and churches today and so restricted myself to a walk along the beach and a morning coffee in the sunshine. Monterosso has arguably the best beach in the area (large and sandy and, more to the point, free. So many beaches in Italy are privately owned and closed to the public – you’d never get away with that in Britain).

… the exit from Monterosso station brings you out almost directly onto the beach.

The trail to the second of the five villages, Vernazza, starts from just behind Monterosso Town Hall. There’s a charge of a few euros to use the trail (to pay for it’s upkeep) but this is waived in winter. It’s a well signposted route and, to start with, an easy walk up a stone staircase. Well it would have been easy had I not started on a second bottle of Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano last night.

… the start is easily recognised and the steps make for rapid height gain. The trail is good throughout with absolutely no exposure. If anything, there is too much fencing

The views soon begin to open up…

… that’s the first sight of Vernazza from the trail.

The small fishing village of Vernazza (population of just over 1,000) is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, although you wouldn’t think so if you came in from the back of the village as I did (see photos below).

… the trail brings you into the village at the back of the houses and even more washing is hung out at the back than the front. A lady was hanging out her washing as I took the first photo above. Look carefully or enlarge the photo and you’ll see her hanging out the window. Walk under her dripping wet washing and down an even narrower alley and you arrive at the pebbled cove that passes for a harbour and doubles as the village square…

… it’s a very small harbour and in winter or when a red flag indicates bad seas, the harbour restaurants have to remove their tables from the square so that the boats can be landed 

Vernazza is a fascinating and beautiful place with it’s pastel coloured buildings and narrow lanes. Oh, and it has a 15th Century castle (which is really just a watchtower built to provide early warning of pirates) and there is a church built on the rocks – the Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia. Enough said about those (although I really had to hold myself back from entering the church).

I stayed half an hour or so and then set off on the next stage towards Corniglia.

… that’s the view back over Vernazza and in the far distance you can see Monterosso

… an already good trail got even better over this second stage not least because it was generally wider. Don’t misunderstand me; the path was wide enough for me throughout but, in the Summer, when there will be hundreds of people walking the trail, I suspect that overtaking and/or passing people travelling in the opposite direction could be a real problem 

… and above but not that easy to see in the photo is my first sight of Corniglia. It sits on the top of that spur about 100 metres above the sea

… closer still. It took another hour to travel from Vernazza to Corniglia and again the walk was wonderful, not least because the weather was magnificent all day.

Corniglia is for my part probably the least interesting and attractive of the Cinque Terre but that could be because of the disappointment that ensued.

No mention was made of this at the outset but the trail from Corniglia to Manarola is completely closed and a small part of the trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore is blocked off because of landslides. These two stretches of the trail are the easiest, each being just 2 km long and mostly paved but I was really enjoying the walk and I wanted, especially, to see Riomaggiore. What a bummer but… all was not lost. There’s a railway station at Corniglia and I took the train to Riomaggiore.

… Simple, really. Train from Corniglia to Riomaggiore. I could have alighted at Manarola but it would have added the best part of 2 hours to my trip because of the poor connection times. Taxis are non starters around here. They simply don’t tolerate non-essential motor traffic in the villages

I would have liked to complete the walk but I don’t regret taking the train to Riomaggiore. It is the most southerly of the small fishing villages that form the Cinque Terre. Like Vernazza and Manarola, Rio consists mostly of old pastel coloured stone houses that are either cut into or cling barnacle-like to the sides of a steep rocky gorge:

I had lunch there (a bottle of the local white wine and Gnocchi with Shrimp and Spicy Sausage both at tourist prices), explored the place, walked almost all of the Riomaggiore to Manarola section from the other end of the Cinque Terre (until I reached the closed off part) and took the late afternoon train back to Sestri Levante. Except for having to pay silly money for lunch it was a great day and one I would repeat.

… there’s a fine looking church on the left (the Church of San Giovanni Battista of Riomaggiore) and; the path I stood on to take this photo leads to Via dell’Amore – see second photo – which is the paved path that forms the last section of the Cinque Terre and goes all the way to Manarola. 

Sestri Levante (Liguria), Italy – Feb 2018

I came to the small seaside town of Sestri Levante as I need to keep moving north but also because, weather permitting, it is a reasonable starting point to walk the Cinque Terre. If the forecast is correct, the weather will improve over the next day or so and I am therefore leaving the Cinque Terre until tomorrow. Today was about Sestri Levante and a short coastal walk out to the Punta Manara and then on to Riva Trigoso.

It took me less than 15 minutes to walk to the heart of Sestri Levante. The town was originally built on an island but time, soil & sand and the ocean currents created the isthmus or promontory that is modern day Sestri Levante with the Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence) to the south and Baia delle Favole (the Bay of Fables) to the north. The latter was named in honour of Hans Christian Andersen who lived here for a period in 1883.

the Baia del Silenzio and the Baia delle Favole…

Until quite recently, Sestri Levante was little more than a fishing village and it is only now that tourism is starting to take a hold but even so, this town is unlike most of the other tourist spots on the Ligurian Riviera in that food and wine remains cheaper, there’s not a designer shop anywhere within the town precincts and it is almost entirely Northern Italians who holiday here.

Via Nazionale and the wholly pedestrianised Via XXV Aprile are the main shopping streets and while there are an increasing number of bars and restaurants opening, these two streets are still packed with small shops selling local produce (bread, wine, olive oil, cheese, salami and pasta and not forgetting ice cream – I tried the local cherry flavoured ice cream today; my first ice cream since arriving in Italy). There are also a number of (non designer) clothes boutiques but I can’t say I paid these particular shops any attention at all. Some of the shops looked very interesting and you could spend many hours here just window shopping and/or browsing.

…  first photo above was taken looking south down Via XXV Aprile towards the Church of Santa Maria di Nazareth and the second at the northern end of the same street looking towards Viale Dante (which is not wholly pedestrianised)

There weren’t too many tourist type sites to see (no castle, no monasteries nor convents and relatively few churches by local standards). It is a place to chill; to eat, drink and relax although, as intimated above, it is within easy reach of many interesting hiking trails both inland and along the coast and I dare say that all sorts of water sports are available in the summer. In this latter regard, I understand they run whale watching tours from here. I was unaware the Mediterranean had any whales.

… just two interesting churches so far as I was concerned. The first was the tiny Chiesa di San Nicolo which looks to have been boarded up at least for the winter. The second was the Santa Maria di Nazareth, with its impressive neo-classical portico. Inside, this latter church was somewhat special…

… the inside of the Santa Maria di Nazareth was magnificent. 

After exploring the town, spending most of my time taking photos down at the harbour and in the Santa Maria di Nazareth, I set off on my coastal walk which comprised three stages. Stage 1 was from Sestri Levante along the cliff tops to the Punta Manara headland. Stage 2 was a walk around and down the other side of the headland into the village of Riva Trigoso (for a late lunch). Stage 3 was a walk back to the Van from Riva Trigoso, taking in the Church of St Bartholomew on the way.

Branching off the Via XXV Aprile is a small lane (the Vico del Bottone) which leads to the Punta Manara trail. This trail is a short, easy, well marked coastal walk with no real exposure until you reach Punta Manare itself, where there is short rock staircase that leads to a narrow ridge at the end of which is a fine viewpoint. It took less than an hour to reach Punta Manara, passing just two people on the route (both going the other way) and there were some great views:

… a view back to Sestri Levante and…

… the view down to Riva Trigoso from Punta Manara and…

… the view south from Punta Manara and…

… the view down from Punta Manara

I pottered around for a while on the Punta Manara but within the next hour was sitting in a Riva Trigosa restaurant with a roast chicken dinner and the local white wine (just a half litre – I still had to get back to the Van) and capped it all off with an expresso. You order coffee here and an expresso is all you will get. It’s very Italian. I think the total cost was just over 10 euros and there was so much I couldn’t finish it – the food, not the wine.

The one hour walk back was mostly uneventful but I was impressed with St Bartholomew’s:

The weather improved throughout today. Here’s hoping it remains so for tomorrow.

I’ll leave you with a couple more photo’s taken in Sestri Levante but don’t ask me to explain them because I couldn’t but, they looked interesting: