Riding the Cinque Terre


Italian hill climb

With just three days to spare, the Bear finally visits a place he’s wanted to see for years

Where do you go for your holidays when you live in one of the world’s most desirable tourist destinations? Well, my newly acquired mate Lucio who lives in the tiny Italian village of Monterosso in the Cinque Terre goes to Scotland or Ireland.People respect your privacy there,” he says. “Here? Hah!”

“Here” is the northernmost of the five villages that together make up the unique Ligurian cliffside travel destination that’s probably been seen by more people in magazine spreads than in real life.Unless you catch the train, it isn’t easy to get around in the Cinque Terre.

Some of the villages are less than a kilometre apart – but require a fair bit of steep and even occasionally strenuous walking. The connecting footpaths are the main tourist attraction, running through vineyards and fields along the seaside cliffs.

The locals clearly got fed up with all this climbing some years ago and designed spidery monorails that carry the grapes from the vineyards and the groceries from the supermarket up to their cliff side houses, built from the same stone and glued to the mother rock like suckling children.

I first ran into my new second-best friend Lucio when I arrived in Monterosso one wintry Friday night and found my preferred hotel booked out despite my careful off-season timing. Apparently the Cinque Terre is a popular weekend holiday destination all year, with families from Genoa and as far away as Turin catching the train down for some sea air and a brisk walk. The desk clerk suggested an alternative hotel, a cheaper albergo, but offered the usual highly generalised Italian directions, so I managed to get lost in this village of a few hundred houses. Lucio, chatting on the corner, soon put me straight when I asked for directions.

“Yes, yes, here – then there, and up there and it is blue. Not far,” he said and he was right. Then he noticed the GT1000. “But this is a Ducati! Ah, they are excellent, excellent…”

The albergo was okay as well, basic but clean and remarkably cheap. It consisted of a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, closed for the season, and several rooms on the fourth floor. All the floors between were private flats, an arrangement that’s quite common in Italy. The bike found a home in the locked courtyard of the restaurant, I had a shower and then it was time for a drink. The small bar down by the “beach” had a pretty sorry choice of beers, but more than made up for it with the selection of wine from both the local area and further afield. All with names I’d never heard of. Fortunately Lucio was there and steered me to a Nero d’Avola D.O.C. which turned out to be quite drinkable.

Picture perfect
So, I was finally here at the southern end of the Italian Riviera (you may have read how I got there in “Love and lunch in the Apennines”, a few issues back). I’d been trying to get to the Cinque Terre for years, ever since I saw my first photo in a travel magazine of a collection of houses jammed onto a cliff side with the Ligurian Sea far below. And now here I was, sitting in the cool evening air, looking across the bay to the sparse lights of the next village and listening to the waves rattling up the beach.
A word on beaches. There are actually few places in the world where you get the kinds of sand beaches that we take for granted in Australia. Lots of so-called “beaches” are really half mud, and even more are like the beach in Monterosso: pebbles. There is nothing wrong with pebbles, of course, but reading the tourist blurb that praised the town for having the best beach in the Cinque Terre, and simultaneously looking out at a crescent of what can only be described as small, smoothly rounded grey rocks was a little bizarre.

Lucio suggested I try the trattoria around the corner for dinner before he headed off somewhere to watch soccer on TV with a couple of his other friends, and he was spot on. The fish was locally caught and crisp on the skin side with delicately moist flesh and the white wine suggested by the waiter set it off very nicely. Sorry, I didn’t make a note of the label; while discussing holiday destinations with Lucio in the bar I’d also been checking that subsequent glasses of the Nero d’Avola were just as good as the first.
Next morning, while I waited for someone to come and unlock the courtyard for me, I wandered around. That’s what people come to the area to do – to wander around, not to wait for their bike to be unlocked – and it’s a very pleasant place to do that. The streets are narrow and cobbled and although Monterosso is the most accessible of the villages to traffic, few of its streets would be able to accommodate cars. There’s no problem with scooters, though, mainly with rusted-out exhausts, and the occasional bike. The Carabinieri, the paramilitary police, ride BMW F650s around here while the local police drive the typical Italian cop cars: Alfa Romeos.

Hidden roads
Most of the villages are not directly accessible by motor vehicle unless you’re a local (one at least has a boom gate with closed circuit TV surveillance and another is not only closed to traffic but charges for parking outside the village), but there are in fact roads to all of them. It’s just that the footpaths get all the publicity. I’m happy enough with that. The roads, which wind their way around the cliff sides and dip in and out of the gullies, are brilliant for bikes and I’d just as soon discourage too many cars from using them. Especially as they are very narrow and sometimes really poorly surfaced … encounter a marauding Fiat at the wrong moment and it’s hello, Ligurian Sea several hundred metres below.
Mind you, there’s quite a bit of Armco – but no cheese slicer Brifen fencing. Italian road designers are clearly a little more thoughtful than their Australian colleagues.

I spent the rest of the morning and the afternoon sampling the roads to Levanto in the north and the other villages and even tackling a gravel track that seemed to be heading for a lookout over the sea. It was doing no such thing – it actually went to a small farm – but the Ducati GT1000 handled it perfectly well. Despite the fact that I was often down to second gear the bike was really enjoyable on these roads with their tight corners, even where the surface was poor. I even got some respect from the Carabinieri on their BMWs. I think they were a little embarrassed not to be on Italian motorcycles.

I got back to Monterosso tired and dusty in the gathering dusk, with the last light flaring on the rocky cliffs across the bay as I rode down the switchbacks to sea level. Fortunately I’d filled up in La Spezia, because there didn’t seem to be a petrol station anywhere in the Cinque Terre!
Then it was Sunday and the Milan motorcycle show was calling. Lucio didn’t show up while I had a typically Italian breakfast in a small café by the railway line, so I had to make up my own mind about the food on offer – but it turned out all right. Well, if a delicately lemon-scented, custard-filled pastry is your idea of breakfast. It could become mine, I suspect, especially with a cup of the excellent café latte I had with it.

So – apart from documenting changes in breakfast habits, the point of this story is that you can take a very few days out of a business or holiday trip overseas (or locally, of course) and do something that you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, just as I did. All right, not everyone can just borrow a SportClassic from Ducati, but renting is not all that difficult (see that “Love and lunch in the Apennines” story again).

All it really takes is the decision to do it. Well, and a lot of brownie points with your equivalent of Mrs Bear. But don’t expect to see Lucio in Monterosso. He’ll probably be in Galway…