“Ecco scogliere nude, che dànno un marmo nero e giallo, il portoro, tra cui si abbarbica la vigna; poi la vigna si stende, e copre interamente il fondo roccioso con fusti bassi per difendere i pampini dal vento robusto del mare.” (Guido Piovene)
Even if Manarola has more ancient origins, its area belongs to the municipaly of Riomaggiore, its houses are partially built on a pictoresque spur, touched by the fresh sea, its economy is based on the production of wine and olive oil.
According to some academics the name Manarola, comes from a temple devoted to the gods Mani, while others are convinced that it might mention the structure of water windmills, typical of this area.
The fishermen village par excellence in the Cinque Terre is Manarola, surrounded by a natural barrier of cliffs overlooking the sea, it is an ideal place for landscape lovers or for people who love loneliness and quiet, but nothing prevents you from sitting on the pier for an energising siesta.
The shape of the village reminds us of a fan, developed in front of the main street, with colourful tower-houses, the Gothic church of Saint Lorenzo, with a particular concrete pyramid that stands out from the roofs of the houses.
Brave hikers should be informed that above Manarola, far from the beach but where you will still able to smell the scent of the sea, there are two charming hamlets, Groppo and Volastra, here the tradition for fish dishes is still strong.
Volastra is at 300 metres above the sea level and develops on a round area that reminds ancient middle age walls, surrounded by wonderful olive groves.
Both villages are part of the municipality of Riomaggiore.
Groppo is located halfway between Manarola and Volastra, both villages can be reached on foot through the ancient paths or using the daily regular shuttle bus service.
The bus connects Manarola and Volastra in about ten minutes.
How to get here
BY CAR OR TRAIN
Whether you are coming from the North or South of Italy, you can either take the A12 (Genoa – Livorno) or the A15 (Parma – La Spezia). The exit is the La Spezia-Santo Stefano Magra toll booth. Once you pass the regional county seat, and right after you get past the military arsenal, you go uphill on the SP32 (ex-SP 370), called Litoranea delle Cinque Terre; after about a quarter of an hour you arrive near the junction that from Riomaggiore leads to Manarola. Parking in the village is reserved for residents only, the other alternative is the pay and display parking.
For this reason, we suggest that you take advantage of the train service from day one. You can easily reach Manarola, which has got its own station, through the Genoa-Rome railway line: the Regional train is available every twenty, thirty minutes. The most important airports of the peninsula are well linked to the Intercity trains that stop in Genoa, or La Spezia, the main stops where you necessarily have to change train. Furthermore, so as to make travelling easier, you can use the Cinque Terre CARD, which covers all the routes of the Cinque Terre between Levanto and La Spezia for the entire day. Finally, electric buses allow you to reach Groppo and Volastra.
The airports of reference are the Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa, which is connected to the railway station of Genova Brignole through the Volabus, and the Galileo Galilei in Pisa. In this way it is easier to reach the Riviera di Levante, La Spezia or the Cinque Terre, as there is a direct train connection. Even from Linate or Malpensa airports the distance is negligible since, as already mentioned, they are very well linked to fast trains and Freccia trains.
Scheduled boats, motorboats and ferries connect Manarola to the other villages of the Cinque Terre, except for Corniglia, which does not have its own landing place. The main boarding points are: Levanto, Portovenere, Lerici and La Spezia although, during the summer season, there are more connections along the coast, including those from Deiva Marina. The Maritime Tourism Consortium Cinque Terre – La Spezia – Gulf of Poets is in charge of sea transits. There is also the possibility to reach Portofino through the same boat line. Another alternative, for those coming from Sardinia, is to reach Genoa with one of the Grandi Navi Veloci ferries and then travel by train.
How to get around
The structure of the village extends from the small marina surrounded by rocks to the main street, which now covers the course where the Groppo once flowed; from the centre, narrow alleys link to the houses on the sides of the promontory and, along the uphill path, they reach the vegetable gardens, many of which have become real scented yards.
The private houses are parallel to the main axis, while further uphill than the built-up area, in the upper part of the village, there is the central square that hosts the religious buildings as well as the activities of the village.
The Fieschi castle, once a defensive bulwark against the incursions of Saracen pirates, has been transformed and partly converted into a private house, but it’s still well recognisable due to its rounded stone structure, which recalls a bastion. The access gate is visible in the street called “Via del Baluardo” (“Bastion Street”).
Via Belvedere, which at the end of its course turns into a natural terrace overlooking the sea, is full of shops, ice cream parlours and typical restaurants. If you reach Manarola by train, you will travel through an underground tunnel with paintings of the Cinque Terre on the walls, which directly links to the main road. Manarola station is where the Via dell’Amore (“Way of Love”), the famous path that connects the village to Riomaggiore, originates; you can also reach the village through the ridge path number 1, known as Alta Via delle Cinque Terre (“High Route of the Cinque Terre”).
In order to fully enjoy Manarola you should go up to Punta Bonfiglio: in its highest point, on the facade of the small cemetery of the village, the final verses of Vincenzo Cardarelli’s poem “Liguria” have been imprinted. The train ride from La Spezia to Manarola, starting in La Spezia Centrale – which can be easily reached from Piazza Domenico Chiodo – takes about fifteen minutes, with a negligible cost of a few euros; bus connections from La Spezia to Volastra are guaranteed.
Manarola resorts to the extreme simplicity of a “poor” cuisine and to recipes and dishes that have remained almost unchanged throughout the different eras. From single courses, such as rice or legume soups, and crushed sauces to accompany the simple fillings, to a very restricted selection of meat, which is limited to rabbits and chickens, which are butchered during public holidays. Therefore, the Cinque Terre cuisine focuses on fish dishes: anchovies, octopuses, musky octopuses, mussels and deep sea fish offer you a great multitude of delicacies.
As part of the appetisers and single courses we find the focaccia, served warm and with a sprinkle of “good oil”, potatoes or rosemary, the sgabeo, which is a kind of fried dough to be served with cold cuts, the courgette flower pancakes and the “gianchetti” pancakes, colourful summer side dishes, the polenta with cabbage and the fried polenta. Farinata (“chickpea flat bread”), typical of the area between Genoa and Tuscany, is a tasty, unmissable snack prepared with chickpea flour. You should also taste the savoury rice cake, which is commonly served during the holidays in Monterosso.
First and second courses are mostly lean, but let’s see them in order: the homemade pasta stands out, including trofie, trenette, tagliatelle, pansotti, as well as ravioli, professionally prepared by the housewives of La Spezia; all these varieties are seasoned with the customary pesto, which, following the traditional recipe, is prepared with basil, extra virgin olive oil, grated cheese (Parmesan cheese or Grana Padano cheese and properly seasoned Pecorino cheese), garlic, coarse salt and pine nuts, or with walnut sauce, in which case the walnuts are picked by hand in the woods.
The fish of the Cinque Terre is mainly bluefish, and in this category the anchovy of Monterosso is inimitable. The gianchetti, the whitebait of sardines or anchovies, are eaten in a soup or, as we mentioned, they are fried in a good amount of olive oil. Food lovers will also enjoy it served as breaded cutlet or as a simple “mixed” dish, which may change depending on the restaurant. Furthermore, there are the crudités of shrimp, scampi or mixed carpaccio.
Another typical dish are the raw mussels with a slight touch of lemon, preferably from Deiva Marina, and pepper, or stuffed with courgette, cheese, eggs and borage, stewed with sauce or simply served with a nice dish of spaghetti. Stockfish, which we also already mentioned, goes well with chard (stucafissu a zemin), or can be cut into “bits” and served with cut potatoes, tomatoes and salted olives. Tuna and swordfish are often served grilled, while shrimps, squids and musky octopuses are commonly served fried.
If you are staying somewhere along the slopes of the valleys, you can enjoy meat dishes, such as the excellent stewed tripe, the traditional rabbit alla cacciatora (“hunter-style”), a tasty beef kidney cooked in olive oil, parsley and garlic, and a wide range of recipes that feature galletti (“chanterelle”) and porcini mushrooms.
The wines of choice are the white ones, and among them we find the dry white wine of the Cinque Terre (DOC), the Levanto and the Colli di Luni (DOC).
Finally, the desserts complete the picture of the typical cuisine. Look for a bakery that can offer you those unique buttery canestrelli coated in icing sugar; the most demanding visitors will appreciate the “Biancomangiare”, a cold dessert with almonds and sugar, while the loyal visitors won’t miss the “pandolce”, a kind of homemade bread with pine nuts, sultanas, zibibbo and candied cedar which is always present on tables during the winter holidays.
A bit of history...
The name of the village probably derives from the ancient expression “magna roea”, the “big wheel” of the water mill which was commonly present in ancient buildings. Information about the populations and settlers who inhabited Manarola before the year 1000 is uncertain. It is assumed that the first people who permanently colonised the village were the Romans, who built some houses near the landing place, at the mouth of the Groppo.
The first real records about the village are linked to the Fieschi family: in 1202 Manarola was still subjugated to the bishops of Luni, and only in 1252, at the request of Pope Innocent IV, it was put under the control of the family from Lavagna, who built a small castle (of which very little remains today ) on the eastern cliff.
Only in 1276, Manarola fell again under the dominion of the Genoese, after they conquered and destroyed the castle of the village, which had been built by the Fieschi. Under the dominion of Genoa, the maritime trade blossomed and the cultivation of vines intensified; at the same time, the first terraces were built on the hills, and they became the place of production of the fortified nectar of Schiacchetrà, the pride and joy of the local production whose original version has lived up to the present day. It is reported that in 1500 the village strenuously resisted the raids of pirates, who periodically attacked the area and plundered Manarola as well as the neighbouring villages.
In 1800, a new phase in the history of all of the Cinque Terre began, thanks to the construction of both the Military Arsenal of La Spezia and the railway line between Genoa and the regional county seat. According to the chronicles, the new urbanisation ended the state of isolation in which the villages had remained for a long time, but it also led to the extinction of traditional activities and, as a consequence, of all those small crafts that, even today, make these special lands a forgotten place that belongs to one’s dreams.
The definitive transformation of the Cinque Terre, including Manarola, into a holiday resort took place in the Sixties, when the development of tourism brought back traditions and new wealth. To sum up, Manarola represents a compromise between worldliness and echoes of the past and, of all the five villages, it is undoubtedly the quietest. This is partly due to the belated discovery of Manarola as a resort, and also to the laid-back and enjoyable lifestyle of its older inhabitants, mostly fishermen and farmers occupied with their vegetable gardens, or artisans who master those crafts that haven’t survived anywhere else.
The coast between Riomaggiore and Monterosso is naturally jagged, and Manarola feels the effect of this incredible landscape, which apparently does not seem to be suitable for everyone. The soil of the Cinque Terre is indeed almost entirely rocky in nature and mainly made up of sandstone. As a matter of fact, the Cinque Terre have been dealing with this problem for centuries and their strength lies in the fact that they have adapted to the dangerous landscape: roads and mule tracks have been adapted to bike paths and CAI paths. These paths, which are all monitored, allow you not only to enjoy these beautiful cliffs, but also to quickly reach all the places of interest, characterised by cliffs overlooking the sea, bays, coves, caves and hidden ravines.
Similarly, the extraordinary geographical complexity has enabled the development of healthy microclimates, with the consequent diversification of the vegetation. There are also holm oak forests, pine forests, woods of fir trees and cork oaks, scrubs of chestnut trees, which supply the local cuisine.
Typical species of the Mediterranean scrub such as shrubs of rosemary, thyme, helichrysum, and the colourful strawberry tree, euphorbia and lavandula are widespread near the coast. The village of Manarola was rightfully included in the Cinque Terre National Park, also known as the Park of Man because of the happy combination between the evolution of urban planning and the sustainability of the indigenous habitat. It is one of the most visited UNESCO sites and it is home to the Environmental Education Centre, a structure dedicated to promoting knowledge of the territory and to carrying out awareness campaigns on the issues of sustainable development, in order to support the beauties of this territory.
On the topic of landscapes that need to be saved, the “Manarola Cinque Terre Foundation” is another organisation committed to the cause. Founded in March 2014, it raises money to protect not only nature, but also farming traditions and those famous activities of the past that are linked to the traditional agricultural trade. This project includes the construction and maintenance of dry stone walls, the cleaning and preservation of the park to prevent hydrogeological instability, safeguarding the village from landslides.
The Cinque Terre Marine Protected Area is another attraction that will make your stay in Manarola worth remembering. Located in the easternmost part of the Ligurian Riviera of Levante, west of Portovenere, this area covers the stretch of sea between Punta Mesco, in the municipality of Levanto, and Capo Montenegro, in the municipality of Riomaggiore. There are many fish species that populate this stretch of sea, from groupers and gilthead breams to dolphins. The Marine Protected Area has been included in the “Pelagos” Sanctuary, or Cetacean Sanctuary, which was established in 1999 thanks to the collaboration between France, the Principality of Monaco and Italy. The sanctuary, which covers 100,000 square kilometres, has peculiar environmental features and it is home to at least a thousand whales, many other aquatic mammals of the genus Tursiops and, occasionally, smaller fin whales, which find in these waters the right habitat. In this way, they liven up the marine environment and make you live unique experiences.
Places of interest
The parish church of San Lorenzo, also known as the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and built according to a style that is a mixture between Gothic and Baroque, is dedicated to the patron saint of the village. It is the result of the work of the Antelami Masters. The richly decorated rose window of the facade is the only element showing an extreme sobriety of the forms. The 14th century bell tower, with a square-shaped plan, was originally a watchtower; the ancient previous structure was therefore raised and a pinnacle was added to the building.
The church is located in Volastra. Its interior, with a basilica plan with three naves, houses a triptych of the 14th century depicting the Virgin Mary with Child, together with Saint Lawrence and Saint Catherine. In the same square of the church there is the parish of the Disciplined, dating back to the 15th century. On the corner with the main street there is the builiding of the Lazzaretto (“Lazaret”), or old hospital of San Rocco. In Volastra we also find the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Health, of Romanesque origins. With a single nave and a rectangular plan, it houses an image of the Virgin Mary from the 18th century in the internal room with a circular vault. A particularly interesting detail is that on the sides of the sanctuary there are narrow monophores. If you are spending more than a few days in the village, you cannot miss the romantic “WayofLove” ( “Via dell’Amore” ), a path just over 1 km long which connects the villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola in about twenty minutes.
Do keep in mind, however, that due to recent landslides, only part of the path is accessible, and precisely the section in Manarola. Everything we are going to describe will be ready for you to enjoy in 2018. So, while works are still in progress, take notes! Originally, the construction of the Way of Love started from the excavations in the rock which had been carried out by miners in the early 20th century; they interrupted their activity when the railway was redoubled. The starting points, depending on where you begin your walk, are located in the Riomaggiore railway station and near the railway station of Manarola, on the side of the pedestrian tunnel, where you have to go up a staircase; there is an access ramp for the disabled. Along the route, which offers an exclusive view of the cliff, you can experience the scents of the Mediterranean scrub. Moreover, being part of a longer itinerary, the Blue Trail, it is well connected to the entire coast, acting as a bridge to the five villages, within a network of breathtaking paths. Now to the path marked as no. 2 by the CAI: you can walk all of it in a single day, but in order to better grasp the spirit of the Cinque Terre it is advisable to break it into more legs.
Apart from the Way of Love, which is still in the making, among the most appreciated paths there is the long one that goes from Monterosso to Vernazza, and the wild one from Vernazza to Corniglia. Always inquire about the conditions of the trails and which are the fee-paying ones. You can alternatively ask information to purchase the Cinque Terre CARD to take advantage of the additional services within the National Park. With the idea of experiential tourism in mind, there are many activities that increase the loyalty of visitors to the park, both within and outside the village of Manarola. Depending on the season, you can ask the tourist offices for further information.
Tourism infrastructures, tourism and events
As already mentioned, do not miss the lights of the Manarola Nativity Scene at Christmas; it is the largest nativity scene in the world, so much so that it is included in the Guinness Book of Records. Since 1961 it has been held every year from early December until the end of January on the hill that dominates the village. All the pieces are handcrafted and made up of thousands of lights installed on the specific figures; almost twenty thousand light bulbs cover an area of about 4,000 square metres.
Apart from the Christmas period, we recommend visiting the village at Easter as well, a period which coincides with the traditional Way of the Cross, which is “illuminated” by the same genius who conceived the nativity scene, Mario Andreoli.
Every year, in June, there is the Festival of Painters, where artists paint in the streets of the village, while in the summer months there is the Annual Organ Festival. August is the month of the celebration of the patron saint, Saint Lawrence; on this occasion there are liturgical celebrations and stalls with handcrafted and typical products. The event culminates with a suggestive procession of brightly lit boats that parade across the sea in the evening. This celebration also coincides with the night of the shooting stars, an unmissable event where you can make a wish, or even more than one.
A place full of history and traditions may leave you with the desire to explore more of its surroundings or to discover new landscapes. The lands surrounding Manarola are charming enough to make your stay truly unforgettable. Nestled like a precious gem in the woods of the National Park, Manarola is a special starting point to capture all the secrets of the Cinque Terre and to fully enjoy the wild atmosphere of the cliffs overlooking the sea. A nice walk along the picturesque path of the Way of Love will lead you in just over a kilometre to Riomaggiore and its port, hidden in a narrow cove. It will be necessary to seek the help of a motor vehicle, public or not, to enjoy the sunset over the sea from the top of Corniglia and have a taste of the past from Bastion Doria, on the promontory of Vernazza, or feel the sand between your fingers and go for a swim in the Gulf of Monterosso.
Even if the itinerary will be longer and less easy than the quiet path of the Way of Love, the landscape and the villages, which seem to be almost freezed in the past, will surely make up for your efforts. If you go even further, by road or rail, you will discover all the magnificent gems of the Riviera di Levante, such as Levanto and its castle, with the intoxicating scent of the delicious Gattafin, the beaches of Moneglia and its paths in the Mediterranean scrub. Then, you will reach the isthmus in Sestri Levante, where you can choose whether to swim in the Bay of Fables or in the Bay of Silence before going up to the top of the island to admire the Gulf of Tigullio and the open sea. In the opposite direction, the first city we encounter by train is La Spezia, where you can enjoy the shops, a casual aperitif, or the panoramic view of Campiglia.
Furthermore, we must not forget the other towns of the Gulf of Poets, such as Porto Venere with its Church of S. Pietro and the Castle, Lerici and its promenade, and the beautiful villages of Fiascherino and Tellaro, up until we reach the Magra Valley. You can also easily reach the seaside resorts in Versilia, Tuscany, as well as the beaches of the nearby seaside resorts in Marina di Massa and Marina di Carrara, where you can lay your beach towel on the soft sand and, perhaps, the saltiness will make you want to taste the famous lard of Colonnata.
Mountain lovers will certainly appreciate the Vara Valley, with its forests, mountains and hidden villages, which are not very popular among tourists but still, they are no less fascinating than the most famous “cousins” along the coast. In Liguria di Levante, you couldn’t ask for better options.
Explore the surroundings