Liguria – The Coast of Pastel Houses


12th August 2018 – It was another motor north from Pisa to Le Grazie. The previous day’s wind had left a swell at the entrance to the river Arno, but we still had plenty of water under us. Heading out to deeper water, the swell dropped down and eased throughout the windless day. Ahead of us, thunderheads bubbled up; on the land the Apuan Alps rose majestically from the coast, their tall, grey peaks slashed by vivid white patches. It’s not unseasonable snow, but the gouges made from where the marble has been quarried since Roman times and continues to this day. These mountains provided the materials for famous sculptors including Michelangelo and for the beautiful buildings of Pisa, Florence and Rome.

The day’s destination was Le Grazie, a long cove in the side of the large bay of La Spezia with excellent shelter from most winds other than east.

The scarred Apuan Mountains

The scarred Apuan Mountains

Le Grazie

Our first attempt to walk up over the hill to Portovenere was thwarted by the arrival of a thunderstorm in the afternoon. Emerald got an excellent hosing down from the rain and the holding for us turned out to be good in the 30kts of wind; not so much for the two or three boats that dragged out into the open space of La Spezia bay. But we had other worries. A power boat plonked it’s anchor down in front but just off to the side of us. Somehow the boat then ended up bobbing about a few meters off our stern, it’s chain pulled taut under our keel. When the storm passed we suggested they move. Oh no, they were going to enjoy their lunch and a spot of sunbathing first! When he did pick up, his boat was so close to our bow we wouldn’t have needed to stretch to pass a drink. He managed it all without making any eye contact, then floored his engines as a departing gift. What a twonk!

The storms weren’t going to leave us alone either. In the early hours a monster roamed the skies around us. Distant rumbles woke us from our slumber and we got up to double check everything was prepared that needed to be. This time there was less wind but enough to start boats from elsewhere coming into the harbour in the dark, looking for better shelter from where they’d been, now circling us like sharks stalking their prey. The town lights went out, making the almost continuous lightning stand out even more against the blackness. The rain finished off cleaning any areas not scoured clean earlier and the storm lingered for several hours before chugging off further out to sea. I hate thunderstorms, especially at night.

Tuesday morning was grey and heralded further storms, but we were lucky as none passed too close.

The anchorage at Le Grazie

The anchorage at Le Grazie after the storms had passed

Portovenere

By Wednesday the skies were bright and we walked up over the ridge and down into Portovenere. The walk up a mule track was pleasant, the walk down the other side not so much. There isn’t a footpath, just a white line drawn on the edge of the road to demarcate the pedestrian area. We had to be on constant alert for cars wandering over the line as several got far too close for comfort. It was a relief to be down into the pretty waterside town.

There must be a lot of pastel masonry paint sold in Liguria to keep the houses looking as smart as they do. Peach, pink and shades of yellow with an occasional russet and blue create a pretty sight especially where the houses are clinging to a steep hillside.

We took in the sights – St. Peter’s church perched on a rock, the (now collapsed) Byron’s cave and on up the steep hillside to the windmills and castle. Fried calamari in a cone, eaten whilst sat on a step watching the world go by, fuelled us up for the millions of steps that we chose to take on the route back rather than the busy road. Not sure which was worse!

Portovenere

Portovenere

Portovenere

Portovenere

Mother Nature keeps a eye on the sea

Mother Nature keeps a eye on the sea

Behind Portovenere’s protective walls

Cinque Terre

I’d been hoping to visit Cinque Terre for a while and had originally planned a land based trip outside of the summer months. The photos I’d seen of the picture postcard pretty villages clinging to the hillside and the many hiking trails between them were very tempting to experience and here we were, just a few miles away by bus and train. Unfortunately we were in peak season and the area has been a victim of it’s own success. It regularly crops up as a tourist destination groaning under the weight of too many visitors which is considering methods of limiting the tourist numbers in order to protect the area. Fortunately for us, there weren’t any restrictions in place yet.

The train station in La Spezia was rammed; tour groups were being shepherded about by flag wielding guides and there were long queues for tickets. It was close to being a corner of my own personal hell. We wanted a Cinque Terre Train card which gave us unlimited travel and access to the coastal walk. But it could only be bought from a dedicated office with only two staff on duty. What were they thinking? We were already well into August, if this is what happened every day why weren’t there more staff or more places to buy? In hindsight, we should have just got on a train and bought a ticket at the first town where there was no queue at the park office. But instead, we waited over an hour in temperatures over 30c becoming increasingly grumpy.

Tickets finally in hand, we squeezed onto the next available train and in 5 minutes we were at the first village of Riomaggiore. It was very pretty, with it’s de rigueur pastel colours. We had a wander, got stuck in a throng and ate some more fried calamari. Our lost hour in the queue of doom meant we couldn’t linger as long as we liked so we got back on the train, leapfrogged Manarola and got off at Corniglia. The coastal path that links the villages was badly damaged in floods a few years ago so several sections are closed; the route between Corniglia and Vernazza was one section that was open. The park website provides information on the trails along with a traffic light scheme to indicate how busy the path is. Midday to 2pm was red for crazy busy and we were there just after 1pm. What were we letting ourselves in for? 

But it wasn’t the logjam we were expecting at all, in fact the complete opposite. There were a couple of squeeze points where the path narrowed and some passing courtesy was required, but otherwise we had large sections to ourselves. The views were magnificent so having to wait a minute for people to pass wasn’t a hardship.

Riomaggiore, the first village in the chain of five

Riomaggiore, the first village in the chain of five

Terraced hillsides

Terraced hillsides

That’s a long way down! Looking back towards Corniglia and Manarola

Walking the trail

Walking the trail

Looking down to Vernazza

Looking down to Vernazza at the end of our walk

The end of the walk at Vernazza

The end of the walk at Vernazza

Vernazza harbour

Vernazza harbour

From the train station, the walk begins with a lot of steps that zigzag up to Corniglia. Out the other side our tickets were checked and we were onto the cobbled path that provided access to the terracing that has been cut into the steep hillsides over the centuries to provide land for cultivation of grapes, one of the main industries of the area. The walk between the two villages is only 2 and a bit miles but it is quite strenuous with some steep steps and rocky areas. It’s also not great for sufferers of vertigo.

We refuelled with an ice cream in Vernazza and debated where to go next. We were back in the mass of people and time was now ticking on. We decided to skip the last village in the chain of five and go back to Manarola on our way home. The crowds were still about but we found a peaceful corner up at the top of the village where we’d gone to admire the view. The locals were sitting around having a chat and there was a cafe selling craft beers. Just what the doctor ordered to smooth away the memory of annoying queues and multitudes of people.

Manarola

Manarola

The village of Manarola

The village of Manarola

The perfect antidote to a busy day

The perfect antidote to the crowds

La Spezia

Poor La Spezia gets overlooked by most people on their way to it’s more famous neighbours. We only went into the town because we were becoming dangerously low on spicy nuts and there was a Lidl there. However, we found a pleasant town for a wander around with gardens lining the seafront, a busy shopping district and some attractive buildings.

La Spezia

La Spezia

Lerici

Every so often Facebook sends me a notification that it has found some events nearby. Usually, through some quirk of it’s location system, these events are hundreds of miles away – when we were in Sardinia, Facebook sent me events for the south of France! But for once, it had my location correct and there was to be a Pink Floyd tribute band playing just across the bay in Lerici tomorrow night. Two Pink Floyd tributes in one summer?!?!

The next day even the winds obliged to make a trip across the bay worthwhile. We had a slow sail under genny and parked ourselves off the beach with protective castles perched on either end of the wide bay. You can visit the castle in Lerici but it was only open in the evenings when we were there and the day we found out was the day we left. The houses ashore range up the hillside and of course are painted pretty pastel colours.

Lerici has rows and rows of trots for local boats but the anchorage was fine and most boats left in the evening. We topped off our diesel and looked for bins to get rid of our rubbish. In Le Grazie, the bins around the harbour were all locked and could only be opened with a keycard. We found a similar problem in Lerici where the large recycling bins all needed a key to open then so sadly all our collected bottles and cans went into the small waste bins around the waterside. It seems a daft policy to prevent visitors from disposing of their waste properly.

During the day the town’s beaches were busy, in the evening the people moved from beach to the many restaurants and bars making it into a lively place. We had a great pizza before the main event; the band DOMINOESsential did not disappoint, just three guys – guitar, keyboard and vocal/bongo – outside a tiny bar provided a perfect tribute to the Floyd. Here’s a link to their Facebook page with some videos from the night.

The busy beach and anchorage at Lerici

The busy beach and anchorage at Lerici

Castle, beach and mooring trots

Castle, beach and mooring trots

Lerici's bandstand - at night it lit up in my favourite colours!

Lerici’s bandstand – at night it lit up in my favourite colours!

Lerici

Lerici

View from the castle

View from the castle

Running Away

This was the point for decisions to be made. To continue north to the French Cote d’Azur or head to Corsica and start our southward journey to our winter marina in Sicily? In the end, the weather helped make the decision for us as a fierce mistral was being forecast with winds up to 50kts set to batter north Corsica. A return to Elba to sit out the winds seemed the most prudent of choices so an overnighter was planned for Monday night.

We didn’t need to leave until late afternoon, so there was time for a walk and to gather a few bits of shopping. There would even be time to do a spot of gardening on Emerald’s hull; she was sporting a green fur below the waterline and ominous white patches of coral worm could be seen on her belly and keel. No wonder our SOG had been low recently.

But when we returned to her the wind had gone west, blowing straight in to the bay at Lerici setting Emerald into nodding mode. I got in to and managed to clean one side along the waterline of the bouncing hull. When Colin got in to do some a jellyfish came to say hello. A good point to give up.

Sailing Info

12th August: River Arno to Le Grazie – 32nm
Anchored in 9m in position 44 04.134’N 9 50.411’E
There is a pontoon at the head of the bay where dinghies can be tied up in the corner.
A small Simply supermarket as well as a bakery and veg shop provide supplies.
There is a regular bus out to Portovenere and La Spazia. Tickets bought from the tabac are cheaper than buying onboard.
There is a lack of bins available for both recycling and general waste as those available can only be accessed by keycard.

19th August: Le Grazie to Lerici – 3nm (1.5nm sailed)
Anchored in 5.2m in sand in position 44 04.698’N 9 54.302’E
Ashore there is a lively town with plenty of restaurants to choose from.
We tied the dinghy up alongside a slipway inside the harbour.
Disposing of rubbish was a problem here also as all the large recycling bins were locked.
Fuel is available. We paid E1.68 a litre.

 

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