Monterosso al Mare
“Meriggiare pallido e assorto presso un rovente muro d’orto, ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi…” (Eugenio Montale, “Ossi di seppia”)
Monterosso al Mare is the last village of the Cinque Terre, it the westernmost going towards Genoa, the largest and with the longest beaches after the villages of Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Monterosso al Mare is part of the province of La Spezia, it is situated at the centre of a small natural gulf, closed to the west by Punta Mesco and to the east by the municipalities of Pignone and Vernazza; compared to other villages there are fewer steep cliffs, longest beaches, as most of the village is on a flat area, it has become an important and suitable tourist destination for everyone.
There are two separate settlements in Monterosso, Fegina the modern part, where there is also the train station, and then going along the promenade, if you pass through the well kept old defensive Aurora tower, which is built on the hill of San Cristoforo, where there are the ruins of a medieval castle and the church of San Francesco, you will reach the colourful old part of the village, which is the real Monterosso.
Its fame distinguishes the village, it has many evocative corners and trails, perched close to the hills covered by vineyards and olive groves; it is well served by ferries and also by land. Monterosso is part of the National Park of the Cinque Terre and of the Protected Marine Area.
Eugenio Montale, Nobel Prize in literature, used to spend here the summer, when he was young, his experiences are described in the famous poems “Ossi di seppia “.
The hamlets of Soviore and Madonna Soviore are part of Monterosso.
A bit of history...
According to documents dated year 1000, the first settlements were near Punta Mesco, however there is evidence of an inhabited area, around the ninth century, near the mouth of the Buranco stream, these people were the survivors of the village of Albareto, which was destroyed by the Longobard King Rotari. During the following centuries towers were built along the coast to prevent Saracen raids.
Some of these towers still exhist, this makes the place look like other villages of the east coast.
The first official document that refers to the built up area of Monterosso, dates back to 1056, when the village was ruled by the Obertenghi family, an ancient feudal family of Lombard origins, descendants of Oberto I.
The family expanded its territories in 614 from Bobbio, including a vast area of Lombardia, part of Liguria, Tuscany, Lunigiana, Garfagnana and Cinque Terre. The remains of the castle and the ancient cemetery overlooking the bay of the country, testify this passage.The oldest part of Monterosso was situated below the castle, in the valley of the stream, only later the village developed on the other side.
Towards the middle of 1200, after heated disputes between the Maritime Republic of Pisa and Genoa, Monterosso was first occupied by the inhabitants of Pisa in 1241, then it passed under the Genoese dominion in 1254, which consolidated its power on the Ligurian Sea; the castle was fortified; Monterosso was elected Podesteria within the Captaincy of Levanto.
It was under the Genoese domination that Monterosso had a remarkable agricultural development, intensifying the cultivation of wheat and increasing the vineyards on the hills leading to the sea, the olive groves and lemon trees, a valley protected by stone walls along the characteristic terraces (the so-called “fasce”) near the coast. Also the maritime activity increased and in 1600, Monterosso started a new economy based on fishing with the help of its own tuna fishing nets.
It was in that period that the picturesque hermitage of San Antonio al Mesco, located in the woods of the homonymous cliff, was completed.
Under the French domination of Napoleon Bonaparte, Monterosso became part of the Department of Vara, as county seat of the Ligurian Republic, but in 1798, with the new French laws, the area was enclosed in the administrative centre of Levanto, the Jurisdiction of Mesco.
It was part of the First French Empire from 13 June 1805 to 1814, the village was included in the Department of the Apennines.
In 1863 its name changed to ” Monterosso al Mare”.
Its castle is the proof of a glorious past, with its long walls that include three round shaped towers, the Aurora tower overlooking the sea and a medieval tower situated in the centre of the village, in front of the parish church of San Giovanni Battista.
The oldest part of the village was protected by its fortifications, while the area set on the plane developped to the east up to Punta Corona and to the west up to the cliff of the Aurora tower.
In the early ’60s, after the last traces of the Second World War, the European and foreign bourgeoisie, gathered in the characteristic bay of Monterosso, as they had done before in the nineteenth century.
It was a real tourist attraction thanks to its beaches, clear waters and a mild climate, and the approval of poets and writers, all this made Monterosso the capital of the Cinque Terre.
From 1973 to 2008 Monterosso was part of the Comunità Montana della Riviera Spezzina, which was abolished by the Regional Law nº 24, 4 July 2008. Nowadays the largest of the villages is a local touristic centre of the East coast, with the beautiful church of San Giovanni Battista, built in Ligurian Gothic style, its public gardens overlooking the rugged landscape of “Costa dei Santuari”, which includes Santuario di Soviore in the area of Albereto and the sunny strands in Fegina; the village stands out for conviviality and unique landscapes, the lemon groves on the hills and the boats pulled into shore at sunset.
Everything about nature and environment within several kilometres is controlled by the Marine Protected Area of the Cinque Terre National Park.
The Marine Protected Area was established on 12 December 1997, the National Park two years after in 1999. The area includes Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Monterosso, a small portion of Levanto and the village of Campiglia- Tramonti, in La Spezia.
The marine area goes from Punta Mesco on the west, to Punta di Montenero to the east, it is divided into three different protected areas (A, B and C).
The protected areas preserve and offer a unique variety of species, they also monitor and study how to protect the marine and coastal biodiversity, focusing on sustainable development of the natural environment and not only that: in fact, the National Park of the Cinque Terre protects the area and provides, among other things, the preservation of the dry stone walls of the terraces.
The National Park and the Marine Protected Area are both part of the Cetacean Sanctuary, a portion of sea which includes Corsica, the Ligurian sea and the Provencal area, it is also known as Pelagos Project, it follows the movements of dolphins, whales and sperm whales resident in the Mediterranean.
The five villages, including Monterosso, are built along a mountain chain that runs parallel to the sea, the highest area is at 800 metres, it is the perfect setting for a typical Mediterranean vegetation.
Maritime pines, Aleppo pines, cork oaks, holm oaks and chestnut trees among rocky landscapes and sunny clearings, wild fennel can be found along the foot paths as well as thyme, helichrysum, spurge and broom, the colourful strawberry tree almost near the waves that touch the cliffs. There are some local species of great scientific interest such as Santolina ligustica, Centaurea lunensis and Centaurea aplolepa.
The environment is favourable to species such as the dormouse and the weasel, there are rumors about the return of a big predator, the wolf. The abundance of resources attracts the lords of the sky such as buzzards and peregrine falcons. In summer pay attention to the families of wild boars, when you go along untrodded paths and to the nests of vipers in arid areas.
The coast has many bays and coves, but few beaches are free of charge, Fegina is an exception, it is equipped with a variety of tourist facilities, the shore has sandy and gravel stretches, with rocks in Mapassu and Quarto. The sea bottom species are not common in the rest of the Mediterranean sea, gorgonie and Posidonie meadows, thanks to the diving centres of the Ligurian Riviera you will be able to explore them.
There are info points in the small villages of the National Park that provide information about the trails and hiking routes, there is also the possibility of buying souvenirs and local products.
Places of interest
The church of San Giovanni Battista is the symbol of the religiosity of the East and seat of the Diocese of La Spezia-Sarzana–Brugnato; it was built between 1244 and 1300 and is a fine example of Ligurian Gothic style.
The classic facade with white and dark green serpentine marble stripes, with a slightly splayed pointed portal, the central fretworked rose window is made of white marble and is attributed to Matteo and Pietro da Campiglio, underneath there is a frescoed lunette depicting the Baptism of Christ. It has a basilica plan with three naves, its embattled bell tower is an ancient rectangular medieval watchtower made of green stone, it was increased in height in the fifteenth century.
Of even greater historical interest is perhaps the sancturaty of Nostra Signora di Soviore, located above Monterosso at 464 metres above the sea level, among woods and terraced fields. It is the oldest sanctuary in Liguria of Marian dictates and is included in the circuit of Sancturaries of the Cinque Terre. According to historical sources, this place was in the past the refuge of the inhabitants of the lost village of Albareto. The actual building, with a single nave, is the result of many renovations, however its Romanesque origins, the Gothic works and the eighteenth-century additions, still stand out, there is a masterfully restored guesthouse and a new Congress Centre. In the sanctuarythere is a wooden statue of the Pietà, attributed to the fifteenth century Nordic School; inside there are also preserved votive offerings mainly marine ex voto.
On sunny days there is a fantastic view from the square from the promontory of Portofino up the Tuscan Archipelago and a front view of Corsica.
From the places of worship to those of beauty, at the end of Fegina beach, where there is the Giant, a concrete and iron sculpture made by Arrigo Minerbi and engineer Francesco Levancher. The statue was built thanks to the desire of a wealthy couple from Monterosso who returned home, after spending years in Argentina. It is 14 metres high and depicts the god Neptune, it decorates the splendid Villa Pastine together with a large shell-shaped terrace, it was however bombed as well as the building, during the Second World War.
In 1966 a heavy sea storm ruined the statue even more, however today it is still distinguishable, instead just a tower remains of Pastine villa.
Overlooking the sea, the castle of Monterosso rises on a ledge that separates the old housing cluster from the distant Fegina. Of Obertenga origin, the Genoese took care of building new fortifications. What’s left today are only parts of the walls with some battlements, three round towers and a square corner tower on the western side, including a guard tower in the old village, the exhisting bell tower of St. Giovanni Battista and another tower, that is located on rocks called “Torre Aurora”, built to guard the town.
The “high promenade” which goes from Monterosso Station leads to the village and passes right near this tower, this place is not open to visitors, it offers a beautiful panoramic view. Located on a promontory that overlooks the bay, it can be reached through the narrow streets of the historic centre, along a long row of houses and stairs, you cannot miss the last and perhaps the most fascinating place of worship. It’s the convent of Monterosso, dated XVII century, it belongs to the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor of the Province of Genoa, inside the seventeenth-century church dedicated to San Francesco, with altar and a wooden choir, inside you can admire a painting attributed to the painter Van Dyck.
We will leave it for last as it is a habit at sunset, for the pious visitors to meet here in front of the lovely statue of St. Francesco d’Assisi caressing an animal and looking at the sea, it is located in the square in front. It is not a surprise that both church and convent were voted as “places of the heart”, in 2014 by FAI (The Italian Environment Fund).
Accommodation, tourism and events
The residential area of Fegina, is located on the south west of the old village, beyond Aurora Tower located on the hill of Capuccini, owes its fortune to the large and highly enjoyable beach. At the end of the maritime promenade, past the castle we will find it in front of us, our feet will sink in the sand and pebbles.
Shops and modern facilities are at hand, there is the possibility of renting sun loungers and beach umbrellas. In Fegina, you can lay down on the many large rocks placed just under Aurora tower, or you can go through the tunnel that will take you to the old part of the village. Beyond the promontory, there is the second beach of Monterosso, which is also very beautiful, it is placed between the marina and the train viaduct.
In the old part of the village you can feel the classic atmosphere of a Ligurian village, among slate porticos, alleys and multilevel gypsy houses, it is ideal both for shopping or for tasting good fried fish in one of the many restaurants of the historic centre, or you can take a picture of the countless glimpses of the carrugi that will surprise you.
In the afternoon you can walk along the itineraries that were dear to the acclaimed Nobel Prize Eugenio Montale, you can identify yourself in the precious verses that he has left us. We can start from Piazza Garibaldi then go to the cemetery of the Capuchin friars, and sunbathe along the ups and downs of agaves and pine groves of the Burranco valley, till we get to the old house of the poet Villa Montale, which is in front of Punta Mesco, at present the house is a private home.
During the Easter period that goes from March to April, the Cinque Terre welcomes you with a roundup of festivals, fairs and flea markets. In Manarola the characteristic Procession on Good Friday, with a performance of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, it takes place on the Hill of Crosses.
Among the events that take place in Monterosso we must point out the Festival of Lemons, on the third Saturday in May, with all types of stands, dishes and products made from lemon, Limoncino, lemon cream, finishing with jam and lemon cake, and the awarding of the most beautiful lemon window display, live music and prize giving.
On the third Saturday in June there is the Fried Anchovy’s Festival, the scent coming from the kitchens, fills the air from the early morning.
If this is not enough, come back here on the third Saturday in September for the Salted Anchovy and Olive Oil Festival, during which you will be able to taste the specialities dedicated to anchovies but also to local fishermen.
On 7 June, Corpus Christi day, appealing decorations adorn the “caruggi” where the procession takes place; on 23 and 24 June there is the celebration of the Patron Saint St. John the Baptist, with bonfires and a procession, as well as a picturesque show of floating candles in the sea, then on the last evening there is the ” Night of the past “, it takes place in August, with a historical representation in medieval costumes, of the transition of Monterosso from the domination of Pisa to that of Genoa.
On 15th August there is the Feast of the “Assunta al Santaurio di Soviore”, followed by a procession and fireworks on the sea.
The tradition of a “lean cuisine” in the Cinque Terre is valued and has improved over the years. There are of course typical fish and shell fish dishes, but the products of the territory, apparently ungenerous, have helped us appreciate certain ageless flavours.
The essential ingredients are olive oil, lemons, basil, marjoram, honey and chestnuts in autumn, as well as wild herbs such as sage, oregano, thyme and scented rosemary. There are few meat dishes such as poultry, rabbit or game.
Among the starters there are fried zucchini flowers, called Frisé de Burbugiun, which is the perfect combination between a liquid batter and the sweet zucchini flowers, fried in hot oil, or Sgabei a naturally leavened dough, cut into strips and then fried, they are served with cheeses and salami.
Although the most popular foccaccia is the one of Recco, also the one made in the East Riviera is well appreciated.
There are bakers in the Cinque Terre that produce excellent products, the key ingredient is the extra virgin olive oil. Focaccia is stuffed with plenty of rosemary on the top, slices of potatoes, or soft cheeses (especially goat cheese or stracchino cheese).
Farinata is not just a typical product of the Cinque Terre, it is also well known throughout the territory that goes from Genoa to the south of Tuscany. The dough is made with chickpea flour, water, salt and extra virgin olive oil, it is cooked in wood-fired ovens and it has an unmistakable taste.
Panissa is also another dish that uses the same ingredients as Farinata, the chickpea flour is cooked and then cut into slices or dices, fried in hot oil. It is served hot or cold, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon and a bit of sliced onions on the top. It can also be eaten inside a small focaccia, this dish is called “slices with Fugassette”.
Salted rice cake is made from a puff pastry with flour, water and wine, it is stuffed with boiled rice, olive oil, eggs, parmesan cheese or grana cheese and sometimes with mushrooms.
Among the first dishes the pesto sauce does the honours, it is prepared with basil, extra virgin olive oil, grated parmesan cheese, garlic, salt, pine nuts or walnuts. The gourmet versions use sage or can be red. The sauce is then left to rest, and used to garnish tagliatelle, trenette or “trofie”, all these types of pasta are boiled, the Genoese dish is served in the summer with vegetables such as zucchini, green beans or a boiled potato.
Whitebait, mussels as they are called in the East, together with bass, sea bream and gilthead bream, fried cuttlefish, are part of the many starters and main fish dishes.
Whitebait is served in a soup or covered with a batter and fried, the daily catch is good poached in a pan, the mussels can be grated, served with a sauce, stuffed, marinated or even eaten raw with pepper and lemon juice on top.
A place of honour goes to the “poor fish”, but with rich and nutrient elements that is the anchovy.
In Monterosso it is a must: ask for an anchovy pie, or put the anchovies on top of focaccia, olive oil, or ask for Cappunadda with olives and capers …
Salted anchovies are also put in glass jars, called “arbanelle”, and are well known throughout Liguria. The preparation of dried cod with chard, or with polenta and tomato sauce, in Val di Vara, reminds us of the stereotypes of a culinary art which is worth tasting.
As concerns wine-delicatessen, the typical products of the Cinque Terre are Sciacchetrà wine, Passito DOC with its amber yellow colour, it is a sweet wine with a delicate scent, Cinque Terre DOC, Vermentino and a local type of Limoncino.
There are many really good dessert recipes, we remind you of castagnaccio with pine seeds and raisins, or Spongata from Sarzana with candied fruits, Canestrelli a shortcrust pastry with icing sugar on top, or the timeless round shaped Genoese Pandolce, with pine seeds, raisins, candied oranges and fennel.
There is an extraordinary variety of typical local products, among which the unique extra vergin olive oil, the wines, pesto sauces and grappa produced locally, they can be purchased in the small family-run shops or from Cantina delle Cinque Terre, located in Groppo di Riomaggiore, this is a farmer cooperative that has been promoting the products of its land as well as new methods of wine making.