Anticipation filled the autumn air as we looked ahead to Italy’s Cinque Terre.
The Famous Five; a coastal stretch of Italy’s Riviera that is home to five quaint fishing villages, pastel coloured houses that perch precariously on the rock-face where residents live life on the edge, almost literally. How would our day fare? Would we be left disappointed or delighted?
Our Italian love/hate relationship
Our feelings about Italy over the last couple of years have been tinged with what can only be described as a love, hate relationship. Sometimes we adore its romantic canvas and then we take to the road and the love affair comes to an abrupt end as we navigate the highways and bi-ways with their crazy drivers.
Portovenere poster matches its claim
We had a similar connection with Cinque Terre (CT) when we visited last year, after stumbling upon Portovenere just along the peninsular from La Spezia. We loved this wonderful town and as a working port has somehow held onto its authentic roots despite growing tourism. And yet Portovenere is NOT on THE LIST, which perhaps accounts for its serene vibe and distinct lack of visitors. At the other end of the coast you find Monterosso; a surprisingly grey town cut in half, discourteously by the railway line, seemingly severing its once beautiful sanctuary. We were so disappointed by our initial introduction to CT that we decided to pass on by.
So this year, late September we were travelling with friends who had the Land of Five on their list and felt we wanted to give it a second chance. Travel is, after all about exploring beyond the magazine cover and seeking real life within the beating heart of the streets. Perhaps this trip would re-ignite the love we so wanted to feel for CT.
Our Cinque Terre adventure
Strangely, despite our previous experience, we woke with anticipation and excitement. With the sun reigning supreme, we set off on what felt like a proper adventure. A bus from Portovenere into La Spezia, a walk to the train station, purchase of an ‘All Day Cinque Terre Ticket’, a quick coffee from McDonalds and on the train within minutes. It felt like a scene out of an Enid Blyton novel, where four friends accompanied by their dog, a packed lunch and fully-charged cameras, set off in search of exploration.
Given that we had only one day and had already visited Monterosso, we decided to start our exploration at the next most westerly point, Vernazza; and within a twelve minute train ride, we had arrived. Yet within seconds of stepping off the platform, we were stripped of our excitement as we were met by a throng of Tour Groups and wall-to-wall tourists resembling something out of Piped Piper. We followed like sheep, assuming that they were all heading towards something spectacular. We passed by one souvenir shop after another and selfie-taking enthusiasts, and hoped that if we darted around them, we would find our slice of tranquility.
They say that ‘First Impressions Count’ and although I’m not a great believer in this quote, I have to say that today, it felt true. Above the shop facades, four storey buildings rise above your head, framed by uniform green shutters. Residents look down upon the bustling crowd below with a mixture of amusement and annoyance it seemed to me. Washing hangs from their lofty windows, despite the camera-clicking posse on the streets beneath them and houses, dearly in need of some love, line the streets blocking out the sun.
At the end of the main street you are presented with a plaza and harbour, which since the October 2011 floods has certainly regained its structure. Like bees to a honey pot, people are buzzing and flocking – to where, we were unsure, although the harbour seems to be the place to hang out. And for sure the sight looking back from the breakwater was pretty, although nothing that, at this point, made us go ‘wow’. Regular ferry boats pull up to the docking pier for yet more visitors to disembark and descend upon this tiny fishing village. Despite being one of those visitors, I felt sad for Venazza and the invasion of so many tourists. The bygone days of earning a crust from the sea is now replaced by souvenir shops selling pasta and scented lemon sacks.
Cinque Terre ferry
In our attempt to seek something special, we spied a lofty spot at the castle tower; here surely we would see the beauty? Steadily clambering up the steep steps, we arrive at the castle gates, only to be greeted by a €1.50 entrance fee that our Day Pass didn’t cover. So two of us climbed the tower, whilst on principle, the other two stayed below. The view was lovely although it just didn’t quite do it for me. Perhaps the next village would do this iconic region justice.
So our starter for 10 – Porto Venere 1, Cinque Terre 0.
383 steps to Corniglia
Back on the train we travel east towards Corniglia, which can only be visited by train or car as it is positioned high up on a rocky crag, making it impossible for ferry tourists to access. From the train station you have the opportunity, with your All Day ticket to take the Shuttle Bus to the village centre, although with hoards surrounding the bus as though a celebrity was inside, we decide that the hike up the zig-zag pathway would do us good. After climbing 383 steps to the top, we smile at the Pharmacy at the path’s entrance, inviting you to take something for your excessively beating heart?
Corniglia was village number two that left us speechless. After staggering up the steps, we dashed from one potential viewing spot to another desperately searching that x-factor. Yet scruffy buildings with broken windows, dark, narrow streets with people competing for air and a couple of vistas promising a view to die for and delivering something very underwhelming, was our prize. Were we missing something? Perhaps because of our travels we have just experienced too many wows in our memory bank that have to compete for our affections – is this is danger of our travelling lifestyle? And yet, not less than two days previously we found a ‘wow’ at Portovenere, so we knew it couldn’t just be a laissez-faire mindset and we so wanted to feel the love.
For the moment though it was Portovenere 2 CT 0.
Such was our disappointment and tiredness, if we’re honest, we decided to miss Manarola. We heard a less than positive review from a lady who was staying there, so would Riomaggiore be our final saving grace? It’s true that this most easterly village had a certain charm as its roads rose steeply into the mountain bedrock above it and its streets swooped down to the sea below. Some buildings had been newly painted, creating something similar to the magazine images, although we still felt there was something missing. You need to be fit to wander the streets of this village, as in your pursuit to explore the real village and not just the high street geared for tourists, you will need to climb towards the gods – and the stairways are unforgiving.
As our experience came to an end and we reflected on our day out in the Famous Five, what would our honest appraisal be in influencing future visitors? I would love to report that this is a ’must’ on your Italy tour, although with all integrity I cannot. Clearly all experiences are coloured by our own conditioning and the truth is that you must make up your own mind. I’m really glad we went and we did have a fabulous day together – travel after all is not a Utopian experience – you must experience all sides of a place to truly be enriched. Although these are the factors that influenced our experience; the villages are over-run with expensive ferry arrivals and tour groups. The villages seem to have lost their souls, selling them to the Tourism devil and it felt to us that they had sacrificed their authenticity for the sake of the crowds, of which we were part, of course. The buildings look tired, unloved and shabby and fishing boats had been replaced by motorboats looking for their next experience-hungry customer. The marketing of the area creates an expectation that, in reality didn’t match up for us. We hoped for so much more.
Photoshop certainly gives us an illusion of Cinque Terre at its best and if you are looking for a genuine insight into the villagers’ way of life back in the day, you may be left sadly disappointed. You can of course say that you have ticked off Cinque Terre, although unless you are wiling to stay in each village for a short period during November to March then I’m not sure you will feel its real heart-beat. Our advice is visit Portovenere as this is what encompasses our expectation of the Cinque Terre and it was the ‘wow’ that we were looking for.
Final verdict? Portovenere 4, Cinque Terre 1
Travel Tips for Cinque Terre
- You can buy a One Day Cinque Terre ticket for €16pp and this gives you access to the walking paths, the Shuttle Buses, the Hop On, Hop Off Train and the toilets that are normally charged at €1 per wee! We bought our tickets from La Spezia Train station.
- Tickets must be validated at the Green Machines before getting on the train.
- You can go by Ferry, which depart regularly from Portovenere, Lerici and Levanto. From Portovenere it costs €33 per person and is subject to weather conditions. Please remember that the Ferry does not stop at Corniglia. From people we spoke to, the ferry is a tiring option, only because linking up to departure times can cause a lot of hanging around and the transfer from one village to another is a lot longer than the trains, which generally go every 30 minutes.
- If taking the train, you can buy a single ticket for €4 one-way, although this will only take you to one village. You must then buy another €4 ticket for each separate journey you wish to take. So if you only want to do a couple of villages each day, then this could be a cheaper option than buying separate Day Tickets.
- The tower at Vernazza castle costs €1.50 to enter and you really only spend five minutes up there. You will need to be fit to climb the steps that leads to the Ticket Office, so be aware of this and the costs before you make the climb.
- You can take a small dog on the train and boat for free. You will need either a dog carrier for the train or carry the dog and take a muzzle. For a larger dog, check before you travel and make sure you have your dog passport.
- If you take the train, take note of the departure schedule so you can manage how long you spend in each village. This way you don’t waste valuable time waiting for a train’s arrival. They are not always on time.
- Visiting all five villages in one day by train is doable, although it is a tough schedule that doesn’t really allow for any chilling or lunch/refreshment breaks. We did three villages in our day trip over about four hours and with the walks to and from the station, it makes for a long day. Ideally to enjoy the villages take two days.
- You can hike between the villages if you are keen walkers, although some of the paths are still damaged by the 2011 storms, so please enquire before deciding to walk. http://www.cinqueterre.it
- To visit Cinque Terre, you must have a reasonable level of fitness due to the steepness of the alleyways, towers and paths to and from the train stations. The villages are not all Pram or Wheelchair friendly, so please consider this in your plans and get advice before travelling.
- Of course you can travel by car to each of the villages, although this will add a significant amount of time to your visit as there are no direct coastal roads that link each village. So the mountain roads will need to be navigated to reach each one.
- You can reach Portovenere by car or bus. The yellow bus leaves La Spezia from Via Garibaldi and it takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the town and costs €5 return.
Sitting in Spain at the beginning of the year, we started contemplating the next chapter in our Motoroaming adventures – our Greek Odyssey. How best to get there? Did we go overland and take two weeks to get there with the investment of diesel, wear and tear on the van and campsite fees or use the ferries, via Italy?
A conundrum indeed. Even after a year on the road, we still feel like we’re building our confidence and we have plenty of green tendencies in our nomadic life. So the thought of travelling through Albania and Bosnia didn’t greet us with huge joy, especially given that our insurance wouldn’t cover us in those countries and we would need to reply on buying insurance at the Borders.
At this stage on our trip, we decided that going by ferry was the right option for us just now. So we have documented our route, costs, camping spots and experiences so that if you have the same contemplation any day soon, this may help your planning.
Leaving Spain – It’s Grim all the way
Grimaldi Ferry Embarkation
After three months over winter in Spain, we wanted to get to Greece for springtime, given that the summers would most likely be too hot for us (read me – Myles was born in Cyprus so he’s a sun-baby). So leaving end of March or beginning of April gave the weather enough time to warm up and yet not fry us to a crisp.
We decided to go from Barcelona to Italy, then cross the country to Bari, then catch a second sailing to Igoumenitsa, just south of the Albania border. Barcelona offers two ferry operators; Grimaldi Lines who go to Savona and Civitavecchia and GNV to Genoa. Barcelona is such a great option as before you sail, you could fit in a quick city tour, a visit to Monserrat up in the mountains and Sitges to the south has to be on the cards. Here’s our Guide to Barcelona, without Blisters to help make the most of your visit here.
We took the Civitavecchia route so we would arrive on Italy’s west coast – just north of Rome. Genoa or Savona are cheaper, although after nine weeks in Italy in 2016, we decided to short-circuit the Italian leg and save the bone-rattling ride. Such is our eagerness to begin our Greek experience. Sadly Grimaldi lives up to its name and it aptly describes both their ferry and service. We booked through Direct Ferries to get the best price, which was €410, far cheaper than with Grimaldi direct.
It is no cruise liner that’s for sure. Sailings leave Barcelona at 2215, so there’s plenty of time to navigate through the rush-hour traffic, check in and have some supper. Although be warned that as an Italian manned boat, embarkation can be flakey and disorganised at best. That said we did get away on time, although I think we were lucky, having heard other stories. The boat is tired and has no personality, although for 20 hours, if you can get your head down for a good night’s sleep, then a third of your journey will be over by the morning. Our sailing was affected by 500 excitable and un-supervised teenagers running riot until 0100 and not having a working toilet due to a system problem, caused a lot of unnecessary stress. Still a discussion with reception the next morning landed us a free lunch so that was some compensation.
You arrive into Civitavecchia around 1815 and depending on where you are parked, you will be off the boat within 45 minutes. Again a bit of a free-for-all, although with no passport control you are through the port in no time at all. So from here, where to next?
An overnighter outside Rome
If you’ve not visited Rome before, then this is a must. It’s a beautiful city with an abundance of ancestry and religion to whet your whistle. Having already ‘done’ Rome, we decided to get out into the country and I had earmarked Bracciano Lake, just under an hour away, east of the city. There are a lot of camping options along the lake, a number of which are ACSI sites, although we had our eye on Blue Lake Camperstop in Trevignano Romano. ( Co-ordinates N42° 9.522′ E12° 13.441’) This is a super site for €15 per night, out of season with hook up and only has 28 pitches. You are right by the lake if you wanted to stop for some RnR, Trevignano is only a mile along the charming promenade full of restaurants, supermarkets and a dominating castle.
From Coast to Coast
Italy, Coast to Coast in 3.5hrs, click to enlarge
We decided to skedaddle cross-country to explore the east coast, which was new territory for us. Knowing how bad the Italian roads are, we plumbed for the quickest and shortest route possible. Now sadly this meant motorways, one of which was a toll, although as you’ll see from our route, our 150 miles took us through some stunning mountain scenery, only cost us €27.30, which was cheap at half the price. Within three and half hours we were looking at the sparkling Adriatic Sea with the promise of Greek lands just across the horizon. Now we were in touching distance.
Petacciato Marina, Italy
Our overnighter was in Petacciato Marina, south of Pescara. ( Co-ordinates N42° 2.175′ E14° 51.078’ ) It was a dedicated Motorhome Parking area right alongside the beachfront and although there were some suspicious looking car manoeuvres that had me on edge, we actually had an uneventful night. There is a railway not far although there are no trains at night and the views of the beach are to die for. Oh and it was free, out of season. €3 during season when the Office at the end of the road is open. There are no services, although for the night, that is ok.
From here we fancied exploring the peninsular that is home to the Gargano National Park, partly because on the map it is full of green – we like green. It was a bizarre journey because our destination for the night – Vieste was only 88 miles, although with a stop for lunch and a bit of shopping took over four hours. Although you’ll understand why if you do the route. There are more twists and turns in this road than Shirley Temple’s locks. Hugging the coast, then up into the mountains, you weave around the peninsular being treated to some stunning scenery. It is totally worth the trip.
Be warned that out of season, i.e. before Easter, not many of the campsites are open and in fact, throughout the whole journey we only saw two with welcome signs outside. And there really are no wild camping opportunities around here. Even the Apps indicate Sostas were open, when in reality they are not. We found our welcome haven just the other side of Vieste – Camping Adriatico ( Co-ordins N41° 51.547′ E16° 10.453’ ) and for €16, paid in cash, we stopped a while to rest our travel weary souls.
The rest of the journey around the peninsular is wonderful, if not a bit hairy with full concentration needed. Still it is a stunning part of the country and in fact we would go as far as to say that it is one of the better regions of Italy, especially the southern region. In fact we are really drawn to the south-eastern region and will definitely return.
Alberobello and her Trulli
Our route then took us to Matera and Alberobello. Matera is an iconic cave-dwelling town that has built up around a limestone gorge, carved by the river and perched on the cliff face. This stunning place is full of rock chapels and houses that show you life before cement and timber. An hour away, Alberobello is one of the most unique places that you’ll ever visit, with a whole section of the ‘old’ village still with their Trulli, (small, dry-stone buildings that are made mortar-free, the roofs of which come off to avoid paying tax). Sounds sensible to me. With reluctance, we headed off to Bari for our second ferry within the week, with hopes that this one would be better than the previous week’s debacle.
Ship ahoy! Bari, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece
Our second ferry crossing after six days in Italy, sailed from Bari on the south-east coast of Italy. We sailed with Anek Lines and when we arrived at the port, seeing a burnt out ship didn’t give us great expectations. Although we were pleasantly surprised, in fact highly delighted. This firm is terrific. You can sleep on board your camper, which is a bonus and on board the boat, it is just classy. A whole different world than GRIMaldi Lines. One recommendation we would make is, if you want to fill up your fridge/freezer before hitting Greece, don’t do it in Bari. Trying to find and get to one of the supermarkets and then out again was a nightmare and added unnecessary stress to our journey. So shop the day before en route, would be my suggestion.
Check-In, however is tricky as there’s no clear signs as to where you get your tickets. The Greece embarkation is right at the end of the Bari Terminal and when you see a large blue building on your right, stop there. This is the check-in.
We used a recommended travel specialist from Crete (as we’re moving on to here in May) who co-ordinated our Italy and Greece legs and so we managed to get some great discounts that I was unable to secure through Direct Ferries or the companies themselves. Aria is seriously worth talking to, so very helpful;
Shipping & Travel Enterprises
5, 25th August Str.
712 02 Heraklion – Crete – Greece.
TEL: (+30) 2810 346185
The best tip for 2018 is to book before 28 February for an extra big ‘early bird’ discount. I would highly recommend using them to secure every discount you can, given that the prices are quite high. So with our discounts, our trip from Bari to Igoumenitsa cost us €237.50, given our 7.5m van. (They charge by the metre of your vehicle). The sailing is 9 hours, leaving at 1930pm arriving in Greece at 0530 the following morning, which don’t forget is another hour ahead than western Europe.
It was the easiest disembarkation we’ve ever experienced on any ferry and, living on the Isle of Man for 20 years, we did our fair share. You’re off in 15 minutes and out of the port, check-free and ready to hit the road. There are two petrol stations just five minutes out of the port and they are open. They also sell LPG there too. The prices are marginally cheaper than Italy, at €1.32 – April 2017.
Wild camping, Drepano, Greece
So ready to hit the road? Perhaps not, given the time of the morning, so if you want to just place your head down for some extra ZZZs and ground yourself in this beautiful country, then head over to Drepano, which is 15 minutes north of Igoumenitsa. It’s on a road that separates a lagoon from the bay, so you have flamingoes one side, the sea the other and you can camp up right on the beach. Although there are signs saying NO CAMPING, out of season when the ACSI site just on the corner is not open, camping seems to be tolerated. Well at least there were four of us when we arrived first thing in the morning. (Co-ordinates; 39.515513 20.212752) It’s such a beautiful place to start your Greek adventure and it’s great to watch the ferries move in and out.
And so there we have our route to Greece from Spain. Obviously there are other routes such as taking the road, going through eastern Europe and other Italian ferries, although this was how ours panned out. In addition you could check out:
- Ancona – Igoumenitsa or Patras
- Venice – Igoumenitsa or Patras
- Brindisi – Igoumenitsa or Patras
- Trieste – Igoumenitsa or Patras
- Ravenna – Igoumenitsa or Patras
For a full break down of sailing options and the different ferry companies available, this is a good website, you can then make plans in the best way to suit your budget and your timescales.
We wish you happy Greece adventures and safe travels wherever you are.
Greece Ferry options, click to enlarge
Drepano wild camping, Greece, click to enlarge