Last port of call for us ...

Stephen Bellingham on 08 October 2014
Our short taxi trip took us to the Melia Hotel, primarily a business hotel. It proved to be a well-appointed hotel, with a good buffet breakfast and tranquil spa and pool area.

The check-in staff were really helpful, providing a map and rail times for our proposed trip to the Cinque Terre National Park ‘The Five Lands’, an area reported in the guide books as popular with American and Australian tourists, which bizarrely it was.

The trip took a couple of hours; however it was well worth it. On arrival it was confusing to establish the best order to visit the villages taking the local infrequent trains into consideration. The five villages are connected by the Sentiero Azzurro ("Azure Trail"). Our initial idea was to walk between a couple of the villages along the coastal paths, however the shorter sections were closed due to landslides. It is something to be taken into consideration as, apart from the trains, boats are the only other way to reach most of the villages.

We headed for the furthest village Riomaggiore, a beautiful little village dating back to the 13th century. We took time there to roam around and to taste the local fish served in a cone at Il Pescato Cucinato. The calamari and anchovies served with a slice of lemon for €5 tasted even better than we had expected. Then it was on to the next town to sample a pancake and ice-cream made from local honey.

We had hoped to take the coast path just 1km to Manarola. It is reputed to be the most romantic part of the coast path Via dell’ Amore (Lovers’ Lane) with wonderful views of the cliffs, vineyards and sea, however wasn’t open due to a rock fall. Excavated through rock, the footpath was created at the beginning of the 20th century for railroad workers to travel between the two towns, whilst the tunnel for the railway was being constructed. The legend says that the path became a meeting place for lovers from the two towns.

It is not difficult to see why this area is so popular. It just oozes character. Beware of peak season though; it was busy enough in May! Colourful tower houses, small beaches, local produce shops and inviting restaurants all make for a wonderful relaxing day out. Each village is unique; one with a piazza right by the sea, another a small harbour with fishing boats, then a walk through vineyards high above the houses. Do be prepared to climb a fair few steps and explore the back streets between the houses, with their sea-washed walls and woodwork to make the most of your trip. Apparently the houses are all different bright colours so that the fishermen could easily identify their home whilst offshore, and ensure that their wives were still at home doing the housework!

It was a lovely experience to look down on the villages from the terraces on the rugged steep landscape overlooking the sea. The views were amazing.

Walking back to our hotel from the station we had not expected the tall houses of six or seven stories high, and on split levels to make the most of the space. There was so much to experience. We decided to eat locally and save the old medieval town for the next day.

We had not known what to expect of Genoa, and were pleasantly surprised. It is a real Italian gem. Quoting Henry James, “the most winding, incoherent of cities, the most topographical ravel in the world”. It is Italy’s sixth largest city, and largest port.

It is an intriguingly diverse city with daring architecture, evidence of a grander age with large palazzi squeezed into the dense medieval warren of the old town. Built in the 16th and 17th centuries by competing, wealthy merchant families many now house museums and galleries.

We by far loved the old city between the two stations and the waterfront. It is described as dark and slightly menacing in the guide books, however it is full of local life, food shops in small cellar-like areas, workshops and local restaurants. Around the 13th and 14th centuries, four main families claimed as much area as possible marking out streets and squares to include churches. This meant new buildings had to be fitted in to each family’s area as best they could. The result remains today – narrow alleyways, with towering houses very close together.

Moving on north and north-east are the more cosmopolitan shops, department stores and business areas. There’s still more to explore here however we were running out of time, so decided to take the Art-Noveau style lift up to the Casteletto for a panoramic view over the old town and the port.

Genoa has a diverse choice of eateries, which range from reasonable trattorias to more upscale restaurants. Lunch is obviously a serious business with many places full of locals for an hour or two. We found a family-run trattoria down a narrow alleyway, serving three courses including wine for just €10 per person. Granted the tables were shared, however the food was delicious and we of course had pasta with Genoese pesto for our first course. The area and the region of Liguria is well-known for its pesto – we bought some at the local market and wished we had brought back more it was so good. There are many variations but this was definitely the best as was their ice-cream we also managed to fit in!

Would we return – yes of course, there is still much to discover.