The Marvelous Italian Riviera and Cinque Terre by Ray Raposo

Peg, Ray, Marylin and Rick enjoying Portofino

The Italian Riviera, synonymous with Italy’s Liguria region, is a crescent-shaped strip of Mediterranean coastline straddling between the south of France and Tuscany. South of Genoa, its eastern half, the Riviera di Levante, is defined by its rugged cliffs, turquoise coves and pastel seaside towns, including the colorful Cinque Terre fishing villages. It also includes stylish resort areas such as Portofino, Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure. 

The Cinque Terre, meaning “Five Lands” is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. This Liguria region of Italy is west of the port city of La Spezia, and comprises five villages: Monteroso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park. Over several hundreds of years, villagers have carefully built their homes on the very steep and rugged landscape right down to the cliffs that overlook the sea. A large part of the Cinque Terre charm is the lack of any visible corporate development in the towns. Walking paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. Recently with the Cinque Terre area becoming a very popular tourist destination, the local governments are looking for ways to limit the amount of daily visitors to the villages.
On the left our hotel in Rapallo and the castle to the right

Four of us drove east and then south to Rapallo from Monaco… our friends Rick and Marylin Smit joined my wife and me on this most spectacular adventure. Rapallo is a beautiful seaside municipality in the metropolitan city of Genoa. Our boutique hotel, “Italia e Lido”, sits right by the water of the coastal town. We booked two rooms with balconies overlooking The Castello sul Mare (Castle-on-the-Sea), erected in 1551 to counter the frequent pirate attacks. It includes a small chapel dedicated to St. Cajetan, built in 1688. Looking out at night from our hotel, seeing the small castle illuminated, made for a marvelous view.

Our boutique hotel, “Italia e Lido” in Rapallo
Rapallo’s Castello sul Mare, is lit up at night

We walked daily along the arching seaside and palm tree lined promenade, along Lungomare Vittorio Veneto Boulevard, with its wide and tiled sidewalks. Up and down the promenade there are quite a few wonderful restaurants with outdoor seating serving mostly Italian and seafood dishes. We enjoyed quite a few very tasty meals during our stay in Rapallo. Speaking of food, our hotel offered a terrific breakfast buffet spread, and lovely views of the water and the nearby marina.

The coastline promenade Lungomare Vittorio Veneto Boulevard in Rapallo
Breakfast in our Rapallo hotel overlooking the harbor

There are several interesting old churches in town including St. George, the Basilica of San Gervasio and the sanctuary of Nuestra Signora (Our Lady) di Montallegro. Try to visit at least one of these churches.

The colorful Cinque Terre town of Vernazza

One morning we walked to the nearby train station and bought tickets to travel south to the furthest of the Cinque Terre towns, Riomaggiore. The trip takes less than 45 minutes and costs just under 12 euros. Once at Riomaggiore, we walked from the station along the quaint streets full of shops to the coast and up to one of the high lookouts.

Overlooking the hillside buildings of Riomaggiore

The views of the beautiful and colorful buildings painted bright orange, red, yellow, pink, peach or white, the sharp cliffs walls, and the deep aquamarine waters made for magnificent views and terrific photos. We enjoyed some warm cappuccino and wine at one of the outdoor cafes. Later we boarded the train once again in the opposite direction towards Manarola, the second smallest of the five; and Cornilia, which sits on a hilltop and not adjacent to the sea. Our other favorite stop of the five, Vernazza, has a wonderfully colorful small boat marina area along a long cement walkway.

The colorful fishing boats in the Vernazza marina
The colorful boats and buildings of Vernazza

It truly has the most colorful little row boats I have seen anywhere. The Santa Margherita di Antiochia Church has a bell tower topped by an elegant cupola and commands one side of the town. Clinging to the rocks, Doria Castle is a medieval defensive structure with a cylindrical tower seen from any distance commands the other side. The contrast of the colorful buildings and the sea is something to truly take in and savor. Small business shops line the streets and courtyards of this lovely town. 

The Cinque Terre towns all feature colorful buildings and shop filled streets.
Rick, Marilyn and Peg in Vernazza
Again heading back towards Rapallo, we went past the last colorful town, Monteroso al Mare. It is the most visited of the five, largely because it has the only sizable sand beach and the biggest hotels. If you have the time, you can also travel from town to town via a winding path along the hills and the sea. From Rapallo’s harbor you can also catch a ferry to all these surrounding seaside Cinque Terre towns.
The many boat in the Portofino harbor

Early another morning we took our car and drove, basically south, along the winding coastal roads and towns towards Portofino. For quite a few years Portofino has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most picturesque of seaside towns in all of Italy. A small fishing village, it sits on the tip of a peninsula south of Santa Margherita Ligure, just over 8 kilometers from Rapallo. Taking just about 20 minutes to drive, we parked and walked to the iconic center of the village. 

The colorful facades in Portofino

With numerous pastel-colored houses, high-end boutiques and seafood restaurants around its small Piazza plus the surrounding hillsides, it looks marvelous. The Piazza is a small cobbled square overlooking the harbor, which is lined with many sailboats and some luxurious yachts.

Peg by one of the outdoor restaurants in Portofino

Sitting in a waterside cafe table, you can just relax watching bobbing boats and the beautiful scenery while enjoying your meal. A climbing path nearby leads from the Piazza up to the small San Giorgio Church, and from its front square you get wonderful views of Portofino and the harbor. If you go even further up the path is Castello Brown, a 16th-century fortress and museum with art exhibitions and panoramic views of the Ligurian Sea.

Marylin and Rick Smit overlooking beautiful Portofino and its marina from the front courtyard of San Giorgio Church 
Both stops feature spectacular aerial views and I recommend not to miss going up to see for yourself. We had arrived early enough to avoid the large group of tourists that came via a large ferry from Rapallo later in the day. At the very tip of the peninsula there’s the white washed Lighthouse of Portofino, which is best seen from the sea. Eventually we leisurely returned to Rapallo, driving through the center of Santa Margherita Ligure and then again enjoyed the incredibly winding coastal road. Later we had yet another outstanding Italian dinner in a lovely restaurant back in Rapallo.
We love Italy, and this was a marvelous time spent in this part of this very friendly and picturesque country. Eventually our time in this beautiful Italian Riviera area came to an end. We continued our vacation driving up towards the Alps, and going through the incredible Mount Blanc tunnel to stay in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. However, that’s yet a different story of another dream vacation and travel article to come. Until then.
Nighttime view of our hotel and the castle from Rapallo’s waterfront promenade
Peg enjoying the wonderful view of the harbor and marina from our Rapallo hotel balcony