In this post, I will take you along our Italian road trip through three regions of Italy. Our summer in Italy was busy and filled with a lot of work and family responsibilities, but here, I want to share some of the free time moments we had enjoying this spectacular country. We started the trip from nearby Pisa, heading first to Emilia-Romagna. Then, we visited the famous Cinque Terre in Liguria, and on our way back, got to know one of Tuscany’s best known seaside resort cities, Viareggio. Welcome on board!
Our Italian Road Trip, Stop 1. Emilia-Romagna: Hills and Spa-hospitality
Starting the our Italian road trip from nearby Pisa early in the morning, we reached the first destination in Emilia-Romagna around 10 o’clock. The drive through the countryside was beautiful. Our first stop was a traditional family-run hotel called Hotel Boomerang, owning its name to the original boomerangs decorating the reception downstairs. Even if I appreciate the friendliness of the staff and the ease with which they engaged with customers, I would not recommend this place for more than a quick one night stop before heading back to the road again. The pool water was cold -and if a Finn says so, it really is cold- and the lunch served was probably the worst food I’ve ever had in Italy. I still don’t know whether what I ate was really fish as I ordered, because it tasted more like a deep-fried fish wrapped around reindeer meat. Weeks after this eating experience, the shoe bottom -like taste was still not gone from my mouth.
Emilia-Romagna is a cultural, economic, and touristic center. It’s capital is the university city of Bologna, of which I have written earlier, see for example here. The region has river Po to its North and the Apennines to its South. The uniqueness of the landscapes comes from the alternation between the mountains -over half of the region is hilly or mountainous- and the sea. Emilia-Romagna is also the home for 11 UNESCO world heritage sites and known for being the land of Pascoli’s poetry and Fellini’s cinema.
Before the Romans took control of the present-day Emilia-Romagna, it was a part of the Etruscan world and then part of the Gauls. The first thousand years of Christianity saw flourishing trade, culture, and religion in the regions’ several monasteries. The area is one of the wealthiest of Italy. It has Italy’s biggest agricultural sector and a long tradition in car, motor, and mechanics manufacturing. For tourists on their Italian road trips, the inland has several wellness spas founded on traditional thermal water sites. Even if you would opt out of a spa-experience, for example the thermal spa city of Salsomaggiore Terme is a nice stop for a quick drink at some of its lovely cafès and bars.
On the Way to Cinque Terre: The Fidenza Village
Next morning, we were discussing of whether to head for a spa experience or change the course on our Italian road trip and visit the Cinque Terre. We came to the conclusion that living close to a city spa back home in the Netherlands is enough and the Cinque Terre is more worth seeing.
On our way to this classic Italian tourist attraction, we decided to go and see Fidenza Village. It is a luxury outside shopping mall located in the province of Parma in Emilia-Romagna. Fidenza Village is one of the 11 shopping destinations of the Bicester Village Shopping Collection, the other locations including e.g. Paris, Milan, and London. The façade is like that of a Disney World castle, opening up to an outside shopping mall. This temple of kitch is quite unique in how polished, branded, and fake it is. As you enter into this mecca of consumerism, you are greeted with cheesy big letters standing on the ground and forming the word HOPE. Welcome to a parade of upscale retail shops and people who seem to draw their identity from the expensive brands whose name they carry in their clothing and shopping bags. The only shop worth a quick visit for me was that of the Moleskine stationary brand. Then we were ready to hit the road again.
Liguria: La Spezia
Here comes a “Don’t do what I did but do as I say” -moment of our Italian road trip. My strong recommendation is not to reach Cinqueterre by car, but to leave the vehicle behind and access the area by train from La Spezia. From there, trains go to all of the five towns. In the summertime, you can even arrive on a ferry by sea from Genoa, Portofino, or Porto Venere. We did the opposite: Had a nice lunch in La Spezia, admiring at the harbor below, and then drove the maddeningly narrow and curvy roads up the mountains.
La Spezia is the second largest city in the Liguria region after Genova. The city is located on the Ligurian sea, midway between Pisa and Genoa. La Spezia is one of the main Italian military and commercial harbors as well as a big navy base. It is also a popular seaside resort and a significant railway junction.
In La Spezia, we had lunch at a lovely restaurant called Il Paradiso del Golfo. A warm recommendation indeed! Great food and astonishing views.
The Highlight of Our Italian Road Trip: Cinque Terre – Five Towns
Cinque Terre, Five Towns, is a string of five fishing villages located high on the coastal area in Liguria, in the Northwest of Italy. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are part of the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. Footpaths, trains, and boats connect the villages. By car, they can only be reached with great difficulty on the narrow mountain roads. As mentioned previously, I would not recommend driving up to the Cinque Terre. If you decide to go against my advice and drive, do keep in mind that this road is not for unexperienced drivers and puts a lot of demands on the car. Even having sat next to a skilled chauffeur, I’m not sure whether my blood pressure will ever normalize to its pre-Cinque Terre levels.
The five fishermen’s villages of the Cinque Terre are among Italy’s most iconic highlights. Tucked away in the mountainous corner of the Italian Riviera, these villages were historically deeply shaped by their geographical isolation. Cinque Terre is mentioned in documents dating as far back as the 11th century. Vernazza and Monterosso were settled first, and the other three villages grew later, under the regime of Republic of Genoa.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, Cinque Terre experienced an economic decline, but recovered when an arsenal was built in La Spezia, and it got linked to Genoa by railway. However, soon the train connection lead to migration from the area and a decline in traditional industries. The growth of tourism from the 1970’s onwards brought again prosperity to the area. The picturesque, painted fisherman cottages are a mere tourist attraction dating back to the times when tourism started to become the core business of the area.
Cinque Terre is known for its olives and grapes, which you see grown on the hillside terrazzas, along with some citrus trees. Today, Cinque Terre is a national park and a protected marine area. An ancient footpath system is the best way to visit the interlinked five villages of Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso, and Riomaggiore. The area is known for its nicely preserved architecture and stunning coastal and mountain trails, views of harbors far below the coastline, medieval fortresses and plentiful vines, It is a dream-like imagery familiar from several visual representations of Italy from pictures in language books to postcards and posters. Fun fact: In 2013, Cinque Terre served as a shooting location to the Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese.
Vernazza: The Pearl on the Crown of the Cinque Terre
Of the five cities of the Cinque Terre, on our Italian road trip we decided to visit Vernazza, perhaps the most beautiful and iconic of them all. Vernazza can only really be reached by train or by hiking. Thus, even if you drive -which I really do not recommend- you will have to leave the car behind and hike the last 1-1,5 kilometers. On your walk towards the town, you will see some shacks that resemble a post-apocalyptic Hobbit cottage. Perhaps a farmer had an ambitious dream but then, the economic reality and the powers of nature kicked in. The walk up to the village is lovely, though, and you might spot things like this old mill with amazingly clear water running by.
Vernazza is a true fishing village of the Italian Riviera, perched on a big cliff, a haven of cobbled stone streets and alleys lined with colorful buildings. It was founded around 1000 A.D., and is described already in the chronicles of 1080 as a fortified hamlet and a maritime base. The town used to serve as a naval/military base for marchesi Obertenghi as they defended the coast from the Saracen pirates. Vernazza was the key to Genova conquering Liguria, because it provided a port, fleet, and soldiers until being consumed by Pisa.
Vernazza has a small harbor surrounded by characteristically colorful houses. The center is surrounded by steep hillside terraces the locals have built over centuries, covered in vineyards, olive trees, and private gardens. The lovely central piazza, Piazza Marloni, has a sea-facing amphitheater of colorful houses and is lined by restaurants and bars. Here, you can find some very romantic -and expensive- guesthouses and hotels.
On 25th of October in 2011, torrential rain caused severe mudslides and flooding in Cinque Terre, and Vernazza took a lot of damage. None of it is visible anymore, and the village is just as picturesque as you would imagine. However, it was a little too full of tourists to my taste. Taking a walk in the crowded center and seeing the beach full of people like sardines in a can felt extremely weird after all the caution and attention to social distancing so carefully practiced during the mid-pandemic.
One of Vernazza’s symbols is the church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia. The church is built on the rocks that overlook the sea. Above the bay raises also the Doria Castle, built in the 11th century for the protection of the village and for the surveillance of the coast. In the latter part the Second World War, the castle was used by the German forces as an anti-aircraft post. Nowadays, the castle is largely ruined, with the exception of the circular Belforte tower. This tower is THE symbol of Vernazza visible in most pictures you would have seen of the village. You can see the Belforte tower in the picture right below, peeking from below the amphitheater of houses.
Another place worth of visit is the monastery of the Minor Friars of the Franciscan Order. It was built in the 17th century, but the tower and some supporting walls were constructed hundreds of years before. This convent of the Reformed Fathers of St. Francis of Assisi serves nowadays as a government headquarters.
For centuries, walking paths were the only way to travel from one village to another. Today, many trails are in a delicate state and all are prone to periodic or permanent closure -do check with the national park office before setting out for a mountain hike.
In case you are -rightfully so- shocked by the prices of accommodations in Vernazza or the other cities of the Cinque Terre, consider driving over to Tuscany, further into the countryside. Perhaps you could consider staying over in an agritourism bed and breakfast as we did on our Italian road trip, and start your day by petting donkeys and dogs?
Tuscany: Agritourism and Seaside Resorts
Next on our Italian road trip, we drove deep into the stunningly beautiful countryside of Tuscany. There, we reached our stay for the next night -a bed and breakfast called Le Chianine dei Tognoli (“The cows of Tognoli). The place is located in Gragnola, Fivizzano, in the province of Massa and Carrara. At the end of a bit challenging stony road, you find several buildings spread at the top of a small valley with forests and hills hugging it from all sides. A river flows a little farther away. A beaver interrupted its busy work to come at the edge of the forest to say hi to us from a respectful distance.
A stroll around the farm allowed us to make friends with some sweet donkeys, two majestic horses, four dogs guarding the farm, and a small duck living next to our bedroom in its own fenced garden. The friendly hostess told us that this duckling was always smaller than its siblings who bullied it and picked its feathers. The feather coat never grew back. If seeing this half-naked baby taking a bath in its own mini pool doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will. A shy black kitten vanished in its hiding place in the bushes upon seeing us. I tried to approach the horses, but the male one, curious and friendly but also authoritative and aware of its majesty, made me stay further away from its regime at the stalls. However, my partner made friends with him in true Saint Francis of Assisi style.
Even if the animals of this place are many and nice, I was somehow expecting more of them. Moreover, do not be lured by the name of the place (Chianina = a large Italian breed of cattle) or the pictures the place has up on the booking site. There are no cows around here to be seen, at least not at the moment of our stay, and to call this a farm stay is a bit of an overstretch of the word.
The room where we stayed gave a little bit of a crammed feeling with its low-hanging ceiling, heavy air, and lack of other view but a small glimpse of the backyard from one small window. The sleeping experience there was hence not really the best. In the morning, we woke up with the perky barking of a loud little dog, and were welcomed to have a nice and simple breakfast in the terraza with some of the other guests. Lo and behold, we found out that at the same time with us, there were two other bunches of guests from the Netherlands staying at the place. There was a family with a small boy and an elderly couple, who were travelling with a van and were heading to a local market to find some treasures. The elderly couple were actually from Breda, a city right next to Tilburg where we live.
My conclusion is that people who live in the Netherlands share two qualities. Firstly, in their home country, they do not see any unbuilt nature, so when travelling, they want to experience the true raw countryside. Secondly, in true Dutch manner, they are careful with money. They would rather drive extra than stay for 400 Euros a night in Cinque Terre. Perhaps this would explain why three households all from the Netherlands found their way into a remote corner of Tuscan countryside all at the same time!
Last Stop of Our Italian Road Trip: Viareggio, the City of Carnival and Ships
Towards the end of our Italian road trip, when driving back home towards Pisa, we stopped by at the city of Viareggio. Viareggio is known as the Pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea and is located in Northern Tuscany. This seaside resort and center of shipbuilding industry is also known for its carnival. The symbol of the carnival is Burlamacco, designed by Uberto Bonetti in 1930. See Burlamacco grinning in the picture right below.
Access to the sea has always been a defining characteristic of Viareggio. The city has its roots back in the 1st half of the 16th century when it was the only gate to sea for the Republic of Lucca. It started as a medieval fishing town and later got known for its shipbuilding industry. It became a municipality in 1701, and when the area’s marshlands were completely drained in 1739, thanks to the engineer Bernardino Zendrini, the town started to become a place for noblemen of Lucca to build their palaces.
Viareggio did not grow into a true city until the 1800’s when it started to get a more residential character. In the mid-19th century, Viareggio transformed into a seaside resort that we know nowadays -long beaches, luxury shopping opportunities, vivid nightlife. Many tourists also come to enjoy one of Europe’s most well-known carnivals with a history dating back to the late 19th century.
Viareggio’s story is full of drama and obstacles. In the 17th century, malaria and other epidemics made the lives of the fishermen and farmers of the area very difficult. When Napoleon invaded Italy, the place was under the power of his sister Elisa, and when Napoleon fell, the town suffered horrible acts of violence. In 1917, a large part of the then wood-built city was lost in a fire in just one night. Then, the heavy bombings of the Second World War destroyed whole suburbs. In June 2009, a train carrying liquified petroleum gas got derailed while approaching the local station, causing a violent explosion that took the lives of 32 people and destroyed many houses nearby.
When in Viareggio, you should take a walk along the three kilometres long “La Passeggiata”. This wide street is parallel to the beach and has a number of cafès and gelato; you can nourish yourself for example with a nice pizza and some very decent ice cream. You should also enjoy a walk on the pier looking out to Burlamacca’s canal. However, prepare well with sun scream and a hat, because this long walk next to the sea can take you by surprise in the mid of a hot sunny day. Many locals are fishing and taking the sun along the pier in a truly professional manner.
This was one of our small trips in Italy on the summer 2021. I still have some more travel stories and pictures to share -I believe that when the cold and dark of the November sets in, I will dive into the warmth of the Italian memories and write a couple of blog posts more. Stay tuned!