We disembark the boat in Genoa Italy, jump a train and after many stops we arrive in the fairytale like land of Manarola. I have no other words to describe its quaint charm other than unexpectedly magical. Pastel rainbow colored houses pour down the mountain edges to the sea with a rushing river flowing under the paved road that ends at a waterfall dropping into the Mediterranean. Terraced grape vines and olive tree orchards cover the hillsides beyond the houses up to the highest peaks. Manarola is a small town, a frazione of the comune (municipality) of Riomaggiore, in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, northern Italy. It is the second-smallest of the famous Cinque Terre (Five Lands) towns with a population of 353. Manarola may be the oldest of the towns in the Cinque Terre, with the cornerstone of the church, San Lorenzo, dating 1338 AD. The local dialect is Manarolese, which is marginally different from the dialects in the nearby area. The name "Manarola" is probably a dialectical evolution of the Latin, "magna rota". In the Manarolese dialect this was changed to "magna roea" which means "large wheel", in reference to the mill wheel in the town.
Manarola's primary industries have traditionally been fishing and wine-making. The local wine, called Sciacchetrà, is especially renowned; references from Roman writings mention the high quality of the wine produced in the region. In recent years, Manarola and its neighboring towns have become popular tourist destinations, particularly in the summer months. Tourist attractions in the region include a famous walking trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore (called Via dell'Amore, "Love's Trail") and hiking trails in the hills and vineyards above the town.
We roll our luggage up the cobblestones about a half mile from the train station to our lovely Hotel Ca D’Adrean. It’s walls are formed of stunning old stone work with large arching doorways and giant beam construction like stepping into the past. The rooms, however, are stylish and modern once inside featuring a romantic view over the weaving grapevines to the turquoise sea from the large picture window. It’s picturesque and sleepy.
Exploring the small town reveals that the few tiny shops open this time of year don’t take credit card, which is all we have at the moment. A short walk later we find one of the two restaurants that is open off season takes card. We sit to have lunch overlooking the small harbor. Our meal pulled from the sea we sat next to, started with a thinly sliced octopus appetizer that was divine. We then tried the regional specialty of black squid ink pasta with shrimp and delectable stuffed mussels. After lunch we walk the cliff edge and find a path that winds above the town along endless terraces and gardens. The air is cool but the climb warms us. At the peak, lemon trees and grapevines climb into the panoramic view of the neighboring coastal town of Vernazza. The National park hike that starts at this viewpoint and runs along the coast between the five towns of Cinque Terre is closed due to landslides. We descend from the skyline hike in the back of the valley from another small footpath that puts us out closer to the hotel.
Showering and changing into warmer clothes, we wander back to the marina to enjoy dinner at Ristorante Marina Piccola. We share a giant platter of Seafood Stew with langostines, prawns, mussels, clams and two types of fish. A bag of bread and a bottle of the local made wine, Menestun D'ua, made this the most perfect meal ever experienced. Surrounded by local families riotously laughing, welcoming us and sharing stories we basked in the authentic atmosphere and savored every drop of the delicious and rare wine. Stumbling back to our rooms on the uneven streets we laughed and held each other; drunkenly reminiscent of days from romantic youth.
The night's festivities make it hard to get out of bed the next morning but once we do, Espresso and cappuccinos are waiting for us in the lobby. The strongest coffee ever tasted immediately removes my hangover as our friendly host Simone fills us in on some interesting history and facts about Manarola. I devour a croissant with Nutella before heading off to the Manarola train station to spend the day in La Spezia. We’re on a mission to mail 20 pounds of dirty clothes and try to find a bank to exchange US Dollars to Euros.
We spend all morning wandering bank to bank unsuccessfully in the rain. DHL ships the dirty clothes for a bit more than I wanted to pay but one less bag to carry for the remainder of our travels is a welcome feeling. It’s pouring rain by midday and I’m extremely grateful we have an umbrella, however a bus splashes up a puddle and absolutely soaks us. Ducking into a small family owned trattoria cold and wet, we have an exquisite lunch. Our waiter looks like Dave Franco and takes his job very seriously. Seared Octopus, Squid gnocchi with a leek potato starter and fresh baked focaccia. He actually brings the focaccia out to rise before your eyes on the table then takes it back to bake. Truly, the best focaccia ever tasted. The art of everything they prepare is beautiful and detail oriented. It was quite a gem we happened upon.
Warmed and satiated we walk back to the train station and ride back to Manarola with a bag of supermarket fruit & snacks to have for dinner later. Frozen by the rain and wind, we take a moment to thaw out & lounge around the spacious room. We eat a chocolate swiss log the size of my forearm while reading and watching a little news. After a few hours we venture down to the rustic lobby for some tea and a chat. It’s our last night in the quaint fishing town and it’s bittersweet to leave this romantic seaside paradise. It felt familiar in strange way; like another home from a past life.
Next stop, the eternal city, Rome.