It’s a sweltering late August afternoon and I am eagerly biting into a very hot, cheesy and gooey focaccia – perhaps not the best snack of choice in the midst of an Italian heatwave, but I could have hardly chosen anything else.
Recco is one of those unknown and generally unvisited northern Italian towns. Situated along the Ligurian coastline, most people bypass it in favour of the more renowned and recognised La Spezia or the string of whimsical centuries-old villages, Cinque Terre.
For those, like me, taking the three-and-a-half-hour journey from Milan to Cinque Terre, Recco is the perfect place to take respite. Apart from the evident Italian charm and Mediterranean beauty which saturates this village of 9,000 people or so, there’s nothing truly impressionable. That is, until you have tasted their focaccia.
People come from all over the region to taste Recco’s focaccia al formaggio; creamy stracchino cheese stuffed into a salty dough. It is both simple yet sublime. In fact, the focaccia is native to Liguria and various iterations of this ancient (it’s 2,000 years older than pizza, which evolved from Naples in 1889), flat oven-baked bread are dotted along the coastline. The Recco variation, however, is the most memorable.
The focaccia and Liguria are completely intertwined; it’s their native snack and the backbone to their culinary culture. Every restaurant, bar and trattoria flog the focaccia.
Such a scrumptious, delectable and, let’s face it, messy treat seems almost incongruous with the elegant and picturesque Riviera coastline. This crescent-shaped strip of Mediterranean coast is the go-to destination for millionaires and European royalty. The sea is punctuated with illustrious Sunseeker yachts and the shoreline is littered with red Ferraris. Designer-clad supermodels take promenades along the cobbled Medieval streets.
But the Italian Riviera is a place of cultural, culinary and economic contradictions. This Mediterranean coastline is essentially a series of ancient fishing villages which, despite its popularity as a go-to destination during the summer for an economically lucrative clientele, retains its bucolic and parochial ways.
Unlike the more urban Florence, Milan and Rome, the Italian Riviera only came to the attention of the public eye in March 1857. Like so many formerly unreachable destinations, it was opened up by the introduction of the railway, the Genoa-Ventimiglia Railway. This 91-mile track linked 40 villages that had previously been impossible to reach by land.
Since this industrial expansion, Cinque Terre and the surrounding villages have become the go-to watering hole for those in need of a summer respite, and it is easy to see why.
Charging through Recco, Rapallo, Moneglia and Bonassola, I finally find myself at the tip and the first of Cinque Terre’s five villages, Monterosso al Mare. It’s the only Cinque Terre village with a sandy beach and subsequently brightly-hued and neon umbrellas heavily decorate its shoreline. This area is famous for its lemon trees and the town is enveloped in a heavy scent of citrus.
Meanwhile, the beach is packed with bronzed Italian bodies gesticulating wildly to each other. There’s a man screeching ‘COCCO BELLO’ as he lugs fresh coconut and picks his way through the mass of horizontal forms. It’s a quintessentially Italian beach, pulsating with people and energy. This is not a place to lie languidly and read the latest John le Carré novel.
While Monterosso al Mare conjures up images of Capri or Positano, its neighbour, Vernazza, remains entirely unique and incomparable. The town clings dramatically to the vertiginous cliff. There’s no room for a sandy beach, the cliffs and the shoreline are claustrophobically close and the town and its 852 inhabitants forcefully grip the rocky coastline. Some of the houses on the water side of the village look as if they might slip into the sea at any moment.
The sea is punctuated with illustrious Sunseeker yachts and the shoreline is littered with red Ferraris
The town is alive with colour; the vivid, deep blue of the ocean contrasts strongly with the light pastels of the fishing huts, rich plum and pink bougainvillea decorate the dwellings and the vertiginous vineries (which produce the globally admired DOC white wine) loom over from above. The small piazza heaves with tourists and locals eating brightly-coloured gelato.
Vernazza is an early Medieval town and everything about it (from the dwellings, architecture and churches) are cemented in a bygone time. It was officially recognised as a fortified town in 1080 and as an active maritime base for the noble Obertenghi family. They certainly needed it; the entire Ligurian coastline, especially Vernazza, was a haven for pirate raids. Known as the ‘turcheschi’ pirates, they came for loot and would burn and enslave the local population in their quest, a relatively easy endeavour as the isolation and remoteness of Cinque Terre made it incredibly vulnerable. Medieval fortifications and 16th century cannons are still visible to this day and are noticeable reminders that this tranquil, seemingly picturesque place has endured a bloodied and tumultuous past.
Corniglia is a short train (or boat ride) away from Vernazza. It’s perched high in the mountains and unlike it’s other four counterparts it can’t boast adjacency to the sea. But the views are spectacular and this village, more than the others, has an undeniable local and provincial feel. If you are travelling by boat this is the perfect place to moor – as the coastline is completely people free and you’ll enjoy exploring the coves in utter peace and tranquillity.
While Corniglia retains a listless apathy to its visitors, Manarola has a frenetic and inviting energy. The spirited locals here speak an esoteric local dialect known as Manarolese. This is undeniably my favourite town in Cinque Terre, but I can’t quite get to grips as to why. It’s quaint and unique but overpowered by an atypical Italian élan: flamboyant, unapologetic, loud and dramatic. Children and adults throw themselves from the rocky harbour into the deep marina, while onlookers fight for a free patch of space on the concrete boat ramp.
The final outpost of Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore, a fishing village and the largest of the five. In similar aesthetic to the other four, the peeling pastel buildings march down a steep ravine to a tiny harbour. It’s the postcard of Cinque Terre – a glowing Riomaggiore harbour at golden hour is widely and commercially distributed.
To travel around Cinque Terre and the surrounding Italian Riviera coastline by Sunseeker yacht is a truly authentic experience. From the water, you can fully appreciate the majesty of these Medieval villages. The infinite range of colours, steep stairways, narrow alleys, vertiginous cliffs, overhanging vineries and fishing marinas are all perfectly and romantically framed. You can’t get a more quintessential Italian snapshot.
I finish my day in Liguria as I started, with focaccia. Needless to say, every town along Cinque Terre has its own version of the venerated food, but in Manarola it’s salty, oily and decorated in rosemary. Fresh and pungent oil spills over and runs down my shirt. The night air is fruitful and heavy and as I sit in the piazza with various other tourists enjoying the culinary simplicity of Cinque Terre, I come to the realisation that this is the true denotation of travel; a place which invites the senses, challenges the emotions and totally overpowers and overwhelms.
This article appeared in Sunseeker Magazine Issue 60