La Spezia/Cinque Terre, Italy

TL;DR

  • Stay
    • Airbnb: Contemporary apartment sea views
      • A lovely flat with gorgeous views of the water but this place was a little far from the main downtown of La Spezia. It also involved going up and down a lot of steps. But very comfortable.
  • Eat/Drink
    • Osteria da Bartali, Via del Torretto 64/66, La Spezia
      • If you’re in La Spezia, you will ensure yourself at least one fond culinary memory by coming here for dinner. The trenette or trofie with pesto is a must as is whatever fish they’re serving.
    • Bar Gio, Lungomare Fegina 92, 19016, Monterosso
      • Bask in the sunshine by the ocean as you sip aperol spritzes and eat some of the delicious seafood or pesto.
    • La Pia Centenaria, Via Magenta 12, 19121 La Spezia
      • Farinata is the item to try here – a crepe-like item made from chickpea flour. Add a little pesto to a plain farinata and you have a delicious snack.
    • Farmer’s Market in La Spezia, Piazza Cavour, 19121, La Spezia, Italy
      • If you’re about to board the boat to Monterosso or any of the Cinque Terre, stop by here for some picnic items. Fruit, cheese, meats, and bread here are fresh, delicious, and easy to transport.
  • See
    • The Promenade in Monterosso
      • Saunter in the sunlight. Buy one of those fancy blankets they’ve got draped on the beach, if you want to have a seat in the sun. Or don’t, and keep walking til you find a restaurant of your liking.
    • Old Town Monterosso
      • Pick a direction. Any direction. And prepare to be charmed by the quintessential village of the Cinque Terre.
    • Vernazza
      • A smaller town compared to Monterosso filled with steep hills and hiking trails. Also a good place to stop for some gelato.

Trip Background

The stereotypes of Italy that I have held all my life have included the ideas that:

  • all Italians are beautiful dark haired men and women wearing leather
  • romance is built into the language and culture, and
  • everything in daily activities is a hugely dramatic affair, not unlike like the 1990 Academy Award winning movie Cinema Paradiso in which the main character finds and loses love in post-war Italy.

Now that I have concluded my recent trip with my wife and her parents, I can confirm that all three of these are absolutely true. But I would hope you would not limit yourself to only these associations. Beyond these contrived and limiting stereotypes is a culture obsessed with passion, amazing food and wine, and a national heritage that any young country like the United States should aim to emulate.

It goes without saying that I would happily go back to Italy in a heartbeat to immerse myself in all of these. And perhaps a few espressos.

Day 0 (October 26, 2017): Oh O’Hare

As someone who has flown into Chicago three times in the last two months, I’ve decided two things:

  1. I really like Chicago
  2. I really dislike O’Hare International Airport

The latter point is because of the numerous delays I seem to run into when transiting into or through O’Hare. My wife Caitlin and I left San Francisco on an 8 AM flight and landed in Chicago on time at 2:15 PM, which gave us a three hour window to keep ourselves busy. We went and had a Goose Island  beer to pass the time and got to the gate about 50 minutes before our scheduled departure time of 5:20. Our first reason to be concerned: seeing the crew standing next to the boarding gate at the time we were supposed to board. Three delays later, we started getting hungry. And the boarding agents told us we wouldn’t have a *decision* until 6:30 PM (note: a decision is not a boarding time…it is merely a go/no go sign from the maintenance crew). I scurried off to McDonalds to buy the wife and I a sandwich and fries and when I returned to the gate 5 minutes later, food in hand, she anxiously waved her hands saying “they just told us they’re going to board…now!” We packed up our gear and scurried onboard as flummoxed passengers returned to the gate asking what the hell had happened and realizing they had potentially missed their boarding group.

To our surprise, the middle seat on our row was unoccupied. While we stretched out for our flight, we made sure to peruse the onboard movie library and settled on some classics: Casablanca and Roman Holiday (the latter naturally to prepare us for the impending Italian experience). In spite of a very surly crew who were likely as grouchy as we were about the delays, the flight was pretty smooth and I even managed to get a few hours of sleep in!

Day 1 (October 27, 2017): The Joys of Transit

It’s always disorienting taking a night flight and landing in a new day, and this was no exception. But my first morning in Italy was actually really good because I’d been able to sleep for the majority of the nine hour flight. After passing through customs with no issues, we met up with my wife’s parents and bought our tickets to La Spezia from one of the many ticket vending machines. The machines feature English options and showed us all of the available options with connections and duration information. The train station platform is a quick five-minute walk from the arrivals area and should be easy to spot.

The train from Fiumicino Airport to Roma Termini was relatively short (a mere half hour) and then we transferred to the train that would take us to La Spezia. The high speed train brought us to La Spezia Centrale station in a bit over three hours. Our Airbnb host, Armando, came to pick us up and drop us at our home for the next two days. La Spezia is a port city and you can tell as you drive alongside the water and see both military ships, cargo vessels, and small sailboats all docked together. We drove up to our home and were treated to some splendid views:

After we got settled, we wandered down into the downtown area and spent an hour walking by the shore.

2017-10-27 18.31.50

The view by the water

We worked up a hunger while trying to kill some time before our dinner reservation and following a coffee, we went to a restaurant where our Armando had made a reservation for us, Osteria da Bartali. You have to remember a few things about where you’re about to dine. Liguria is an Italian province known for pesto, seafood (given its location on the sea) and two kinds of pasta called trenette and trofie. You’ll likely see one or more of these items on every menu you see in La Spezia or Cinque Terre, and I would encourage you to try new things each time or compare the variation between restaurants. For example, the pesto we had at Bartali on day 1 had a stronger basil flavor than the pesto we had on day 2 in Monterosso, which was cheesier and richer.

 

Our dinner consisted of bread and olive oil, beef carpaccio, risotto, trenette di pesto, fresh fish, and stuffed mussels. All of this on top of the requisite red wine and some tiramisu. Our evening did not end without one slightly iffy moment. We decided to take a detour back into the hills above the town (where our Airbnb was) and wound up running into a bunch of teenagers smoking weed and carousing with one another. Nothing happened but a bunch of them gave us some dirty looks and we quickly realized that this was not the place for four American tourists to be wandering late at night. Keep that in mind if you choose to stay here in La Spezia – it’s not exactly your traditional romantic, safe destination!

Day 2 (October 28, 2017): A Day in Cinque Terre

To make the most of our time, we woke up early around 6 AM in order to leave the house by 7:15 AM. We walked to the nearby farmers market where vendors were still unpacking boxes and preparing their wares for a morning of selling. Rows of shops selling produce, bread, homecare products, seafood, and dried meats awaited us with colors as vibrant as the Cinque Terre homes. We purchased some fruit (try the Fuji apples…they were huge and delicious) and were making our way to a café when Caitlin discovered a butcher with a case of dried meats awaiting their new homes. She eagerly pointed at one and we sampled a bite. Then the butcher pulled another piece of meat off another shelf, sliced four pieces, and handed them to each of us saying, “This is prosciutto di parma.”

2017-10-28 09.19.39

Prosciutto di parma

In case you are not aware, prosciutto di parma is dry-cured Italian ham that ranks up there as one of the best things to ever come out of Italy. Basically any version of cured pork products is amazing – but combine this with fresh burrata and some bread and you have a winning combination.

My wife’s eyes opened up in eager anticipation. The meat was slightly sweet and sliced razor thin, as if the butcher knew we were preparing to make small heaven sandwiches. Caitlin nodded, asked for a quarter kilo (250g) and then asked for a package of burrata (all for €11) and then we set out in search of bread to go with our tasty treats.

2017-10-28 08.06.21

From the market, we walked down to the wharf to the ferry ticket office in order to be on the first ferry of the day and watched as the staff changed the sign indicating the departure and return times. We had literally come on the first day of the off-season and as a result, the number of trips had been reduced. The schedule also shortened our day as the last return time from Monterosso was 4:20 PM, as compared to 5:00 the day before. The agent also told us that due to rough seas that the boat would only stop at Portovenere (the first stop) and Monterosso (the last stop). If this happens to you, buy the ferry ticket for only one direction (you can choose outbound or return) and take the train in other direction. Even from Monterosso, it’s only €4 per person to train back to La Spezia Centrale station.

The ferry ride is not far (as the crow flies) but the end-to-end journey including one stop at Portovenere took a little under two hours. The good news is you’ll not be bored during this journey. On the trip from La Spezia to any destination, sit on the top deck on the right side and you’ll be treated to a visual tour of all five towns (conversely if you come back to La Spezia, sit on the top deck on the left side). The first thing you’ll notice are the daunting military vessels docked at the La Spezia Naval base. As the boat moves along the coast line, you’ll soon arrive at the town of Portovenere. Though we didn’t have time to stop here, I very much would like to have spent a day here. Continuing onward, you’ll see the tiny speck of the Tren Italia trains zooming through tunnels carved directly into the earth pop out from time to time and cross bridges that span sharp chasms of rock. You’ll also see the lovely colors of Cinque Terre’s homes stand out from the rock and earth.

We landed in Monterosso and the gorgeous sunshine made it feel like it was 65-70 degrees F. From the train station, you can take one of two paths. Northwest along the coast and by the beach, or north east into the old town. We decided to do both areas, but one at a time. The old town has a number of charming shops with art, souvenirs, clothing, pesto, and a variety of other goods that deserve your attention and consideration.

Upon walking down the promenade along the beach, the hunger bug set in and we stopped at the outdoor seating area at Bar Gio for some lunch before exploring the neighboring village of Vernazza.

Since the boat we took in could not stop at the other towns, we decided to get on the train and proceed one stop over to Vernazza. From this train station, you can head up into the hills if you’re looking to hike or down towards the water and the small cove where boats dock (weather permitting). Sadly this time of year (end of October/early November) usually coincides with the closing of the trails due to landslides, so be prepared if this is when you come. Or an alternative is to try and come at the beginning of October – you’ll have missed the summer rush and heat and should be in time to miss the trail closures.

We took the train back to Monterosso to catch our boat ride back to La Spezia and were treated to more views of the gorgeous seaside and some locals/tourists who decided to be extra photogenic.

After we returned to La Spezia, we decided to try farinata, a pancake/crepe-like item made from chickpea flour that is another noteworthy Ligurian invention. We went to a small restaurant called La Pia Centenaria, which is a casual place with a small seating area.

I’d recommend this place for a snack but not a full blown dinner. Speaking of which, we soon learned that Saturday night is an exceptionally busy time in La Spezia. If you plan to go out, you need to make a reservation in advance. Or else, you’ll be like us and spend an hour going from restaurant to restaurant and being told they’re fully booked up (while their tables sit empty waiting for incoming reservations). After getting rather hangry and a bit annoyed at the lack of sympathy for four hungry tourists, we finally came across a place called Best Italian Fish, where the wait staff was super pleasant and welcoming.

Day 3 (October 29, 2017): Transit to Rome

Our lesson from this part of the trip was that more than one full day is needed in La Spezia/Cinque Terre. We knew this coming into this trip but we wanted to see more than just Rome. Oh well – just another reason to come back! We got up and on our way by 8:30 AM and our host Armando was nice enough to drive us to the train station in his car.

2017-10-29 09.46.27

Roma Termini is our destination

The station in La Spezia is small but it has a coffee shop, small set of fast food restaurants and restrooms. That said, I’d recommend you buy something before you leave the town before boarding the train as there isn’t anything you’d rave about here in the station. Buying tickets was just as easy as it had been at Rome Airport and it cost us €182 for four of us to get from La Spezia to Roma Termini train station.

For the rest of my journey, please click here to read about our adventures in Rome! (link coming!)

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2 responses to “La Spezia/Cinque Terre, Italy

  1. Pingback: How to… Prepare for a Trip to Italy | Go See The World·

  2. Pingback: Why I Love T-Mobile when Traveling | Go See The World·

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