Italy > Motorways and Cinque Terre

Italy > Cinque Terre

September 2013

We are in France, driving the A8 motorway just north of Monaco heading for the Italian border. The weather has not been good since we left Antibes, where we picked up Nukman, our kid #5, now studying at Université Nice Sophia Antipolis. The terrain is virtually rocky mountains and they seem to go all the way to La Spezia in Italy. Somewhere to our right Monaco clings to the narrow mountain slope as it drops into the Mediterranean sea.

Typical of the French tunnel — note the blue lights which are used to gauge distance. Rule of thumb is, use gap between successive blue lights as distance between your car and the vehicle in front for safety. I thought that was clever, as we speed at 100kph through the darkish tunnel.

The nearest major Italian city is Genoa, still a distance away, as we pass from tunnel to viaduct to tunnel to viaduct … ad infinitum! At first it is exciting to drive through tunnels and viaducts but soon we get fatigued by them.

Spectacular engineering at the sea’s edge. I call this a rich man’s motorway — no curves, no twists, just straight through mountains via tunnels and across deep valleys via viaducts.

The France-Italy frontier, but I suspect the border is actually in the middle of that tunnel — the sign is put here for convenience.

All in Italian now, but as always, we can always figure out what the notices or warnings mean. We better be!

Now we start seeing distances of some major Italian cities — we are indeed getting somewhere.

Italian tunnels are a bit spartan compared to the French ones — in general safety features along their motorways are somewhat behind the French’s.

And of course, a motorway cannot be free, especially when it’s an expensive one full of tunnels and viaducts.

I just can’t imagine how they built this hole and nothing above it is touched.  Sometimes there are even farms and houses up there, but during construction I’m sure there were vibrations.

A Fiat Bravo patrol car, looking quite sleek in this livery.

We started the day in Nimes, visited Arles, stopped at Antibes to pick up Nukman, and finally the much-anticipated night stop somewhere near the Mediterranean town of Varazze. We travelled 450km today, more than 10 hours on the road in two nations, so this dinner of seafood pasta and risotto was most welcome! And the cook himself comes out to greet us — an Egyptian Muslim he is. He says very rare to see fellow Muslims here.

Very tasty risotto packed with shellfish …

… and pasta full of fresh mussels. Fantastic!

We had a good rest, and good morning from the hotel balcony — the Mediterranean does not look too friendly today. We are just northeast of the town of Varazze, which is west of Genoa.

We get onto the motorway again, but skip Genoa because weather is not too good. Feeling ingenious I decide to get off here, hoping to find my way into the famous Cinque Terre area via mountain roads. A scenic route, off the beaten track, I tell the others.

We were on that motorway just now, which goes all the way to Rome, far far away.

We just have to marvel this incredible piece of engineering.

So far so good, the road signs are quite decent and we are seeing beautiful villages along the way. The rented manual Opel Corsa 1.4 performs pretty well along the narrow winding mountain roads.

We start to climb into the mountains, fog sets in and the temperature drops, with an ominous sign by the roadside. Uh-oh, ‘strada deformata’?

We seem alone, no cars around us, and I’m getting suspicious. Is this a through road that would get us to the famous seaside villages of Cinque Terre? The offline Google Maps we use seems to be saying so, and we push on.

Then we come to this prominent sign across half the road. My worst fear is realised … I can barely make out what it says … road closed, access only to residents or those authorised by the municipality of Vernazza. We promptly make a U-turn and leave … so near and yet so far … Vernazza is one of the five villages of Cinque Terre.

We retrace our way to get out of the mountains, and use the normal roads into Cinque Terre via the town of La Spezia. We lost good time in our aborted ‘shortcut’ to Cinque Terre, but at last we are here — Riomaggiore, the most famous of all five villages of Cinque Terre.

At the junction on the hill before we go down to Riomaggiore, I see this curious notice — restrictions for buses — which says a lot about what to expect down there, must be the narrow winding roads. No problem for cars hopefully.

From the mountains we descend towards the spectacular Mediterranean coastline.

The narrow road hugs the cliff and we see Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages of Cinque Terre.

We leave our car by the roadside temporarily to enjoy the splendid view of the cliffs jutting into the Mediterranean.

Cinque Terre means ‘Five Lands’, and it comprises the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.  These villages were first settled some 1,500 years ago, and the people have built terraces along the cliffs above them for planting olives and grapes.

The narrow road connecting the villages can be seen along the awesome cliffs. This is truly rugged country. There is a rail line connecting these villages with La Spezia, which is especially useful for travellers — probably the only real access in the old days.

We drive further down, and Riomaggiore opens up.

One can imagine in the old days how secure this location was, due to the sea and mountains acting as natural barriers to unwanted visitors.

We soon come to a small roundabout, and a traffic jam. There’s a checkpoint to the left with a boom gate and nobody’s moving. We soon find out, we cannot enter the town until a car leaves — all parking lots are already taken up! It’s a Saturday so I guess the town is full of day-trippers.

After 10 minutes of waiting and still no movement, so we decide to leave, only to give way to a bus escorted by a patrol car. Very congested indeed.

We return to the mountains and decide to try the other village, Manarola.

There’s a familiar notice nearby declaring the whole area of Cinque Terre as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Time is not on our side, alas, and Manarola looks congested too, so we stop at a layby to take a look at Riomaggiore from this vista.

It looks like a really cosy village, this Riomaggiore, especially on a fine day like today’s. On a bad weather day probably I’d think differently. Five of them all in a row, these colourful ancient villages.

Soon we are out of Cinque Terre and back in La Spezia.

Past La Spezia we find our motorway again, now heading south towards where the leaning tower is …


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