The first day of a trip to Italy starts with gelato. Never go to Italy thinking you’ll just have a few scoops and be done. There’s too many flavors– each one labor intensive and obsessively hand made. Gelato making is an Italian super power. For every day of my 3 week trip I sample a flavor crafted by the local Michelangelo of ice cream. Wherever you begin your journey through Italy, start with Gelato. Then go to Cinque Terre and spend a week unwinding in Monterosso.
Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare.
Gelato of the day: Amarena Affogato / Vanilla Gelato with Black Cherries
Where to get it: Nuovo / Bar Eden Via Fegina 7 Monterosso Al Mare, Italy
A regular spoon won’t cut it when you’re working through the deep dark sweet tart cherries and vanilla channel to the bottom of your desert cup. You need a little shovel. Don’t worry about the calories. Somehow they burn off fast when you’re trekking across ancient cobblestone streets that were constructed during a time when being fat was a privilege. Anyone with a huge ass in the 15th Century was wealthy. Only the rich could afford enough food to have a bloated muffin top gut.
Of the five villages in Cinque Terre I stay in Monterosso because it has the most walkable areas that are flat and level. If I go to any of the other villages I’ll need hiking gear and a crew of paramedics ready to carry me on a stretcher in case I twist my ankle, hip or knees walking up 100s of steps for a slice of pizza . I’m 60 and that’s too f*cking old to be sprinting up the front of a mountain with a backpack and a selfie stick.
Monterosso has everything you need to relax, get rid of jet lag , workaholism, and any fear of second hand smoke you might have when you take your first breath of fresh ocean air and your lungs are suddenly filled with a waft of Camels from a guy in a Speedo on the lounge chair next to yours. When his girlfriend fishes a pack of Marlboro’s out of her Dolce & Gabbana bag you know they’ll be chain smoking while they sunbathe, swim and eat. So just don’t think about it. There’s a certain faction of Italians who do everything with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth. This is another Italian Super Power— the ability to do anything from changing a diaper to singing opera with a lit cigarette pressed between their lips.
.* Note: I took the first photo of El Gigante (sculpture of Neptune) 2 years ago. This year he’s “getting some work done.” While he’s being renovated his muscle beach bod is covered in scaffolding — so Monterosso will be missing a major chunk of eye candy for a while. Can’t wait to see his new look.
The turquoise ocean is cool and clean at Fegina Beach. I went to the far end, which is off a street called Via Fagina , or in English , it means “Chain Smoking Speedo Dude Street.” There you can rent a beach chair and an umbrella for 10 euros or go a little further to the free public beach and lay a towel in the gravelly sand beneath towering walls of mountain cliffs and rocks. In this enclave a giant sculpture of Neptune jutting out from the mountainside makes everyone seems small and insignificant. Neptune–god of the sea–is called “El Gigante” here. It was built in 1910 out of concrete—the stuff I made a dessert bread with in a Monterosso cooking class. (More about my cooking class in the next blog entry) . The sculpture is 46 feet high and weighs 1700 tons. I wish I could look that good weighing 1700 tons. The “sweet spot” is a cove of shoreline where you can lay in the sun or in the shady shadows of El Gigante, If your eyes start hurting from too many exposed Dad bods on the beach, look up at Neptune and be glad he stayed in shape.
Every so often someone tries to sell you a hippie blanket or a dress or a shirt or a massage. Say yes to the massage. I recommend spending a few hours every other day getting a massage on the sand. An Italian-Vietnamese woman gave me a 1 hour massage for 30 euros right there on my towel. I got so relaxed I didn’t care what day it was or what I had to do. There’s nothing like sun , salt air and a pair of human hands to dissolve the stuff of life that winds you up. Before you do anything else, wind down. Don’t think. Just be. In your zen moment on a beach in Monterosso, there is nothing you have to do but get your next gelato.
Cool places to chill out near Fegina Beach
Bar Gigante The ultimate beach vibe. Breathtaking view. Open early in the morning till late at night. You can sip your cappuccino, beer or cocktail any time of day. They have a diverse ” beach food” menu and lots of big colorful salads. Live music on Fri. & Sat nights.
L’Ancora della Tortuga
Slurp Gelato Artigianale Like Vodka, Not all gelato is created equal. The more detailed the process making it and higher the quality ingredients, the more flavorful and authentic my clean tasting it is. Some people are happy with anything sweet and creamy, but if you’re foodie into good quality and that “unforgettable” taste, go to Slurp. It was the best gelato in all of the 5 villages. There’s a nonstop cluster of people in there grabbing cones, handmade popsicles (non dairy) and cups . While marveling over your tasty You can sit at their tables along the seaside to gaze at the breathtaking coastline, people watch or just feel like you’re in heaven on earth.
Stroll around town, shop, snap photos, eat. Do lunch at a beach bar, dinner at a seaside restaurant. You can’t have a bad meal or take a bad photo in Italy. Every country has its armpits but most of the places you’ll visit will be like walking through a picture postcard collage. If you have an eye for detail you’ll become a famous photographer in minutes!
I peeked into a window of a kitchen and saw this! Italy’s rocket fuel — is tomato sauce!
Monterosso part 1 and 2
I’ve seen people rushing around Cinque Terre trying to see the whole thing in 3 days. I don’t recommend it, but if you’re only there for a short time you should know that Monterosso has an “old part of town” and a”new part of town.” A walkable tunnel connects the two areas … so whichever side of the tunnel you end up in, be sure to walk through it and see what’s on the other side.
Explore the other Villages: Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Porto Venere
There’s 3 ways to explore the other villages around Monterosso: Ferry Boat, Train or Hiking. The entire area is not car friendly, so if you’re driving, stash your car in a garage. Monterosso has a big long term parking garage at the end of Via Roma in the historic district. You’ll see eye popping dramatic photos of the other villages on the internet, but once you get there, you’ll find they’re small and have 1 road straight UP. There isn’t much to do in Vernazza, Riomaggiore or Corniglia aside from hiking, taking some snapshots and a few ships and cafes. This is why I recommend Monterosso as your home base. It’s more expensive to stay there but you’ll spend more time and money leaving your little village to go elsewhere once you’ve been there for an hour.
Hotels are a little pricey but keep on the lookout for specials on booking.com, where you can also get a $25 discount on anything you book using this link click HERE for a $25 on bookings
In Monterosso, or any of the five villages for that matter, if you don’t book a hotel that’s on Via Fagina or super close to it, prepare to drag your luggage up dozens of steps and steep upgrades. If you like level ground, book a hotel or AirBnB on or close to Via Fagina or Via Roma ( historic district )
If you arrive by train you will be in the new part of town. The historic district is through the tunnel about 1/2 mile walk from the station. Taxis and little busses are everywhere but you have to call a taxi . You can’t just flag one down. Uber or Lyft? Nope!
How to stay in Cinque Terre if you’re on a lower budget:
Too broke to even think about a hotel? Good news– there’s a great hostel in Biassa, about a 10 minute bus ride up the hill from Riomaggiore, and several others in Cinque Terre.
Check Hostelworld.com for cheap digs