If my 12 hour journey to La Spezia earlier this month (documented here) was a chaotic mess filled with one stressor after another, my 48 hours in La Spezia and the villages of Cinque Terra (and even a few hours in Bologna) were the exact opposite. Most of my weekend was filled with warm sunshine, gelato and strolls through ancient streets with breathtaking views.
Initially I thought it would be fine to spend just 48 hours in Cinque Terra, they are tiny villages after all. But that’s not the case. You CAN see a lot in 48 hours, but you can’t see it all. Here I’ll run down what we were able to see, what I wish we were able to see/do and my recommendations of must visits while you’re there. As my Classical archaeology professor said, “it’s not if you go to Italy, but when.” It’s not IF you got to Cinque Terra, but WHEN.
La Spezia, our home base for the weekend is not one of the five villages of Cinque Terra (or as it’s commonly written there, 5 Terre), but kind of an anchor town at the southern end in the Liguria region. La Spezia is a pretty large city with nearly 94k citizens and a history that spans back to the Roman Empire and a regional history of settlement that traces back to prehistoric times.
Today the city is a large naval and trade port, but it still feels like a small town when you’re there. The streets of La Spezia are narrow compared to larger cities like Rome and many shops are closed on Sundays. A short five or ten minute walk from the train station and you’re surrounded by small restaurants, gelaterias, farmacias and clothing stores in downtown La Spezia. If you get there mid-day to early evening during the week, you can catch a market with some amazing deals. Stalls line the streets and you can score anything from shoes for €2 to moisturizer, clothes, hats, accessories and basically anything else you can imagine. Further into the center, in Piazza Cavour, you’ll find the food market with tons of fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, wine, etc.
We stayed at the Affitacamere Lavanda and have never been happier with a hotel in Italy. The Affitacamere Lavanda is not a large hotel but has a small B&B feel with only three rooms and a warm, welcoming, amazing hostess, Carlotta. Located off Piazza Garibaldi, behind nondescript, large wooden doors, the hotel is located on the third floor (fourth if you’re American) of an old apartment/business building. The best part of this type of accommodation is that you get to feel almost like you’re living in the city. Carlotta was there to welcome us to the hotel and from the moment I met her I knew I wanted her to be my friend. She had prepared maps and information for us and even provided us with a tiny chilled bottle of champagne. While the hotel itself isn’t actually a bed and breakfast, Carlotta has great relationships with several restaurants around the area and you can get discounts such as 10% off or a free drink with your breakfast. She answered all my many questions about how to get around, what to see and where to eat and I could have probably talked to her all afternoon.
After checking into our hotel, we spent our first evening in La Spezia as it was too late to really do any site seeing. At least in Italy dinner doesn’t start until about 7 pm, so it really was just about time to start scoping out places to eat. After a stroll through the city, we ended up in beautiful park complete with palm trees and a statue of a charging general riding a rearing horse. Sitting on a bench, we scanned tripadvisor for dinner ideas (because Yelp still isn’t really a think in Europe), and noted that the number one restaurant, Enoteca Dei Bardi, was fairly close.
Set in a small alley street, Enoteca Dei Bardi is a tiny restaurant. We arrived a nearly empty restaurant and took a seat at an al fresco dining table. Reviewing the menu, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t really any pasta on the menu, but only smaller things like cheese and meat plates. But I’m never one to turn down a good cheese plate, so we ordered an amazing local cheese plate served with fresh bread, balsamic jam and honey comb, along with a local glass of wine and a beer for Tim. Our pre dinner snack was delicious and entertaining as we watched locals greet each other in the gorgeous Friday evening air, some even leaning out windows stories above us to converse with their friends on the street below. It was almost out of a movie. And maybe it was the wine on an empty stomach, or maybe it was the Italian air, but I had an amazing sense of euphoria sitting on that little street.
In search of more food, we went against the suggestions of Carlotta and ate at a pasta and pizza place that was hopping. I ordered gnocchi quattro formaggi and sadly, I was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t bad, but I’ve had better (even in California).
The next morning we awoke early and set out to explore the 5 Terra. We grabbed acappuccino and pastry for breakfast and then we were off… to stand in line at the La Spezia train station. It’s best to get the Cinque Terra train card to allow yourself to ride the regional trains up and down the five cities and back to La Spezia as many times as you want all day for only €16 a person. Because it’s best to do this… EVERYONE was doing this… But we didn’t have anywhere to be until noon when we had plans to meet Saskia and her two friends, Jane and Jamie. It love meeting up with California friends in foreign counties. It makes the world feel a little bit smaller.
After nearly 45 minutes in line we got our railcards, and were ready to catch the next train. Along with hundreds of other tourists, we took the next regional train up to the second of the five villages, Manirola, where we had planned to meet our friends. Once in Manirola, we had time to kill, so we did what anyone else would do while waiting in a beachside Italian village, we gate gelato and watched the people dive off the rocks into the water.
After we met up with the girls, we spent the rest of the day exploring three of the five villages. As I said before, it’s impossible to see it all and I’m living proof. I thought we’d have time, but we just didn’t. Even though they are small, the villages all have so much to offer. In Manirola we ate at Nessun Dorma with the most amazing view I’ve ever had during a meal. Perched on the edge of the cliff, Nessun Dorma patrons sit outside in the open air overlooking the bay and the colorful village built into the cliffs across the bay. We drank delicious sangria, ate fresh salads and an antipasto plate and talked for a couple hours with epic, classic Italian music highlighting the beauty of the entire experience. It was one of the most leisurely, beautiful, memorable lunches I’ve ever had. The bill at Nessun Dorma was fairly high and the wait was a good 30 minutes, but I honestly think it was completely worth it. The view alone was so rare and breathtaking. Plus, we made up for it with a delicious homemade pasta dinner later that evening. But more about that later.
Our next city was Corneglia and perched at the very top of what felt like 10000000 stairs, was a teeny tiny village. THere’s not much to see in Corneglia, but we did get some great views and delicious gelato at the top (yes, that was my second of the day… don’t judge, I earned it!).
The last city we made it to, was Riomaggiore. As the afternoon faded into the evening light, we stopped for bruschetta and spritzes before we walked on the cliffs of the city. AS we sipped our spritzes we witnessed a bride and groom and their wedding party parading through the village on the way to their reception. While we walked the streets and trails of Riomaggiore, we found their ceremony site and I can imagine it was one of the most beautiful views one could have during a wedding ceremony. The sun was sinking slowly in the sky and the reflection of the water made me want to stand and stare at it for hours.
As the sun made it’s leisurely decent into the Ligurian Sea, we boarded the train back to
La Spezia for dinner and our last couple of hours together before parting. We took Carlotta’s advice this time and I’m so glad we did. We ate at Traittoria il Giardinetto and it was phenomenal! I had ricotta and spinach ravioli in fresh bolognese sauce that was to die for. Tim had sea fruit pasta with ever possible sea creature in it. It looked absolutely disgusting to me, but since the region is known for their seafood pasta, Tim HAD to try it. He said it was delicious and better than any seafood pasta he’s ever had. But he cautions, it’s not for the faint of heart. It was more work to eat the mussels, and other different sea fruits than you’d normally encounter stateside. He does recommend it though, should you love seafood, or if you’re an adventurous foodie. Like I said before, our absolutely delicious dinner evened out our pricey lunch since my pasta dish only cost €8 and Tim’s €15! Even with the exchange rate, that’s a fresh seafood pasta dish for less than $20!! If you’re in La Spezia, do yourself a favor and eat at Traittoria il Giadinetto!
Our train departed La Spezia at noon Sunday morning so we decided to do a little shopping before we left. This proved a little difficult since, like many small towns, most shops were closed on Sunday, but we were able to find a store where I could buy some amazingly breezy palazzo pants that are totally “in” in Italy this summer. It was perfect because the jeans I brought were just too warm for the 80 degree humid Italian summer air, and Bologna, our next stop was even hotter.
In the end, we weren’t able to see all five of the villages, or Portovenere, the coastal town only reachable by boat, not train. Since Cinque Terra and Portovenere are both National Parks, there are amazing hiking trails throughout the region. Next time, if it’s cooler, and we are more prepared, I definitely want to do some hikes, take more photos and eat more pasta.
Since our flight on Monday was at 6 am, we decided to stay the night before in Bologna. After four hours and two trains, we arrived in Bologna and began the trek to our hotel. As I’ve found with several Italian cities, or cities in general, the neighborhood surrounding the train station is… less than desirable. Our hotel was a short walk away, but it wasn’t the prettiest of locations. The hotel itself was nice and it was a quick walk to the city center, but getting to the hotel, I was unsure I even wanted to leave to get dinner.
I did muster the courage to leave the hotel in search of dinner though, and I’m glad we did. Downtown Bologna is absolutely beautiful. Nothing like the outskirts of the city, the center is bright, thriving and bustling. Even though the hotel front desk told us many things were closed on Sunday, we arrived to a packed city center with a live summer concert, almost every shop open and plenty to see and do for the evening. We wandered all over, stumbling upon small gems like a fresh pasta shop and a Lindt truffle shop. Now that I know the beauty that lies within the center of Bologna, I’d definitely return for longer.
In all, I think just over 48 hours for a trip to La Spezia and Cinque Terra is almost a little too ambitious, but if it’s all you have, then I would recommend doing it. You can’t see nearly everything, but seeing some of it is better than seeing nothing because Cinque Terra is one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. Get out there! Eat the gelato! Climb the stairs and enjoy the sights.