Cinque Terre, Portovenere and the Poets

Portovenere seen from the water

Portovenere

I know you’re all waiting for Cinque Terre – and I’ll get to that. But hold your horses, as the Yanks say. First, I’ll show you a town at least as pretty (and even more interesting, I think). That’s Portovenere, just a few kilometres away. I’d recommend staying here rather than in the five little villages, especially in summer, as with fame come the crowds.

Not only is Portovenere a lovely base for a visit to Cinque Terre; it’s a very worthwhile destination in itself, with natural beauty, quirky, colourful Ligurian architecture, and fascinating stories to boot.

A place that inspires great works of art, to be sure. And no, I’m not talking about this little photo/write-up. Famous poet and diplomat Lord Byron lived in Portovenere, in a grotto it’s said – and his friends Mary and Percy Shelley stayed in Lerici across the gulf, now named Golfo dei Poeti.

Portovenere, view to Byron's grotto

Don’t know about you, but I’ve always had an image of the romantic poets as pale, weak, indoorsy kind of people. Not so. They were positively athletic. Byron swam across the gulf here to visit the Shelleys, a distance of 7.5 km.

That’s not quite a marathon (which in the swimming world is at least 10 km), but pretty impressive all the same, especially considering the winds and waves. Here at Grotta Byron his feat is commemorated

the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici

Grotta Byron

Dramatically, on 8 July 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelly drowned when his sailing boat sank off the coast here, at the ripe young age of 29. Percy had staged a play in Livorno, and was on his way home to Lerici with two others. The bodies were washed ashore ten days later.

A storm was raging and their sailing skills were questionable. Yet speculations abounded: was this an accident, was it suicide, or was it perhaps a political murder? There was even talk of pirates. Conspiracy theories … nothing’s new under the sun.

Portovenere street

Apart from the poetic connections, Portovenere has crooked little alleys with brightly coloured houses, steep stairways, an impressive castle and the gothic Church of San Pietro precariously placed on a petrous promontory (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Church of San Pietro

View from St Peters church

Immediately in front of Portovenere are the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. And just a few minutes out to sea, you’ll find mysterious azure grottos.
Cinque Terre and Portovenere: Grotto just off Portovenere

Cinque Terre

Coming from Portovenere, Riomaggiore is the first of the five little villages. It’s a distance of 14.6 km, a good hour’s walk if you’re up for it. However, to get that jaw-dropping first impression, that classic Cinque Terre photo op, approach from the water. Sadly, we didn’t. The ferry was cancelled (rough waters), and I arrived by bus, not the most romantic way.

Cinque Terre, Portovenere and the islands together form a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. When I imagine the terrain as is must have looked to the first human there, well, it can’t have been the most welcoming of places. Manarola, for example, must have appeared a huge, dark crag. Building a house, a community, in this steep, rough terrain must have been incredibly challenging; especially considering the machinery available 1000 years ago. Yet the resulting landscape here along the jagged cliffs is exceptionally charming.

Manarola flowers Manarola, plants

Hiking Cinque Terre

Continuing from Riomaggiore, you come to Manarola, either by the Cinque Terre Train that links the villages, or by foot along the romantically named Via dell’ Amore. This is the easiest section of the trail: a good half hour hike, about 2 km long.

The three other towns in the protected Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre are Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Hiking between all five takes 5 – 7 hours, plus however long you want to stay in each. Be aware that sections of the trail are sometimes closed, as happened after the floods in 2011.

Manarola, Cinque Terre

Even back streets and shabby stairways are ridiculously picturesque in Cinque Terre:

Riomaggiore back street Manarola back stairs

Tired after the hike? It might help to know this is wine growing country, with particularly tasty white wines on offer. I can recommend the Sciacchetrà Terra di Bargòn, known as a meditation wine. It comes in tall, slim bottles and goes particularly well with cheese and Genovese fruit cake.

We only had one day in Cinque Terre, covering Manarola and Riomaggiore, and with lots on the agenda. The hike is for next time. Already looking forward to meditative wine breaks along the way.

The winery cat of Cinque Terre

Can’t have a picturesque village without a photogenic cat, the winery cat of Riomaggiore insisted. 

Manarola

 

unesco logo Portovenere, Cinque Terre, and the Islands (Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are heritage sites I’ve visted around the world.

 

Disclosure: I was invited to Italy as a guest of Turismo in Liguria. As always, I retain complete freedom to write about all or nothing, whatever takes my fancy, good or bad… you know.

 

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24 Comments

  1. Agata 22 May 2015 at 1753 - Reply

    Wonderful! Although I visited Liguria many times I have never been to 5T and this is the part of Italy that I missed. It’s on my bucket list for ages now! The most shocking information in your post is on Lord Byron fitness. Who would have thought? I love it! And your wonderful pictures, of course!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1540 - Reply

      It was on my wish list too, for a long time, so absolutely loved this opportunity.

  2. Vera Marie Badertscher 23 May 2015 at 1500 - Reply

    What marvelous photos. The bold colors make them look like a painter’s rendering with an imagination rather than reality. Such beauty, and as usual your lovely story telling, too.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1540 - Reply

      Thank you for your very kind words, Vera 🙂

  3. Mette 24 May 2015 at 1109 - Reply

    I’ve been to both Portovenere and Lerici, and still find it hard to believe that the old flamboyant Romantic Byron swam across the bay, but I guess he was rather excessive in every respect.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1541 - Reply

      Would have been so interesting to know them there, wouldn’t it…

  4. Paula McInerney 24 May 2015 at 2104 - Reply

    Those photos- wow. You should be so proud. This is a beautiful area of Italy and you have done it total justice. Will be exploring more of your site for sure

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1542 - Reply

      Thanks 🙂

  5. Corinne 25 May 2015 at 0926 - Reply

    Sophie, Jim and I have wanted to go to Cinque Terre for some time, but the idea of all the crowds dissuades us. I like the idea of staying away from the big five! Thanks for linking to Weekend Travel Inspiration!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1542 - Reply

      All about season, I expect. Even in the villages there weren’t many tourists in April.

  6. Jeff Titelius 26 May 2015 at 0133 - Reply

    Oh what a wonderful journey this must be and to be accompanied by Lord Byron nonetheless! I love this history and the vibrant buildings seemingly stacked one upon the other. Such a romantic journey through a beautiful region of Italy. Where do I sign up?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1543 - Reply

      🙂

  7. Marcia 26 May 2015 at 1209 - Reply

    Very picturesque, Sophie. Love the vibrant colors and the winding streets.
    Interesting tidbit about Byron and Shelley – two of my favorite poets.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1543 - Reply

      They’re such interesting chaps, aren’t they…

  8. Gayla 27 May 2015 at 1932 - Reply

    Fabulous post! I hope we get to visit Portovenere in the future, as we missed it on our trip to the region. It looks just as romantic as the Cinque Terre and I can see why the region inspired the poets. I have to agree with your image of the romantic poets; I was quite surprised to learn such adventurous things about Lord Byron.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1544 - Reply

      There’s really so much more than “just” Cinque Terre, so one needs a bit of time here.

  9. Muza-chan 28 May 2015 at 0730 - Reply

    Lovely place…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 28 June 2015 at 1544 - Reply

      Very true 🙂

  10. Amy 29 May 2015 at 1116 - Reply

    Portovenere really does look like a lovely place! I’d love to go myself one day! Your images are fabulous! Must be pretty amazing waking up each day in this wonderful place!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 June 2015 at 1655 - Reply

      Thanks so much. Very pretty place to look at through the windows first thing 🙂

  11. Lovely. And the colors just pop. Hope you had a memorable visit!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 June 2015 at 1655 - Reply

      Indeed I had 🙂

  12. Mark stiles 30 June 2015 at 1424 - Reply

    My wife and I absolutely loved portovenere and the hidden gems around Cinqe Terre. Our bucket list vacation company Blaycation was actually inspired from one such amazing Italian holiday. For us it’s the story that you tell and the way it’s told when you do experiential travel that makes every little town or conversation a new journey.

  13. Andrew Darwitan 29 September 2015 at 1457 - Reply

    I will never forgive myself for missing Cinque Terre. This place looks like it jumps out right from a fairytale book! Portovenere looks positively amazing too, so I suppose I have a reason to go back to Italy now! =p

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