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Mountains meet the Mediterranean in Italy's Cinque Terre
By James Suckling and Michèle Shah
Negotiating the shallow sea off the rocky coastline of Italy's Cinque Terre can be heart stopping. Jagged cliffs thrust in every direction. Massive rocks rise out of the water through the swells. The beaches are stony and unforgiving. Some of the ports are not much bigger than an Olympic-sized swimming pool, hedged in by boulders and cement wharves.
Yet Gianni Giobatta steers Lola, his 24-foot wooden motorboat, to a tiny jetty at the town of Manarola with little concern and great expertise. He speeds straight for the cement jetty, then jams the boat into reverse to pull in precisely and let his clients disembark.
"Cinque Terre is all about nature," he says, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette as he pulls away from town into deeper water. "It's nothing like Portofino or Portovenere. There's no nightlife or anything else like that. It's about the sheer beauty of the area--the mountains, the sea and the sun."
Giobatta, 42, runs the only boat-taxi service in Cinque Terre ("five lands" in Italian), a rugged yet beautiful coastal region on the Ligurian Sea, about 70 miles south of Genoa in northwest Italy. Few areas in Italy or even Europe have scenery as breathtaking or water as clear as Cinque Terre's. Plus, the area offers a subtle local cuisine that places an emphasis on seafood and satisfying white wines produced from terraced hillside vineyards. What more could a food- and wine-savvy traveler want? It's no wonder that UNESCO declared Cinque Terre a World Heritage area in 1997.
Each day Giobatta ferries customers up and down the 11-mile coastline that borders the five small towns that make up the region. From north to south, they are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Giobatta, his German deckhand and his 14-year-old dog (also named Lola), are based in Monterosso. The crew takes up to 20 people each trip on Giobatta's boat, for about $20 per person.
"The best time to come here is before July and August, which is the height of the tourist season," advises Giobatta, who also rents his boat by the day for activities including swimming, fishing, diving and sightseeing. "Most people come here to relax, enjoy the sea and hike on the mountain paths, which take you from village to village, with breathtaking views overlooking the sea."
Although boats are the most picturesque means of transportation in the area, most visitors choose to take trains or hike between villages. The walks follow the rough coastline along dirt trails and usually take less than an hour. Station to station by train only takes a few minutes and costs about $1 each way. Aside from the private boat-taxi service, there's a local ferry.
Monterosso, with its busy waterfront crowded with shops, outdoor cafs and tourists, is the largest of the five villages. It is the only one that offers easy access to broad beaches, where visitors can swim, sunbathe and rent umbrellas and deck chairs for about $12 a day. But don't expect to find white, sandy beaches. Ligurian beaches are dark and grainy, covered with stones from as small as pebbles to as large as the size of a fist.
Monterosso also has the greatest number of hotels, including the region's best, the Hotel Porto Roca. It's just outside the town, tastefully set in the lush, green hillside. Porto Roca's outdoor restaurant is one of the best places to enjoy a leisurely lunch and to gaze out at the blue sea, dramatic cliffs and bustling town of Monterosso.
About 4 miles south of Monterosso is Vernazza, a charming village with a natural harbor in the shape of a semicircle and a 14th century church that appears to have risen from the sea. The village takes its name from Vernazzola, a stream that zigzags its way down the cliffs, through the vineyards, past the crowded houses, under picturesque small bridges and down to the sea. It seems as if nothing has changed here for centuries. The little harbor is dotted with fishing boats, and the water laps up against a small piazza. It's the perfect setting for an aperitif or an evening meal. Among Vernazza's handful of restaurants, Gambero Rosso and Gianni Franzi offer the best in alfresco dining.