“Dal porto di Vernazza le luci erano a tratti scancellate dal crescere dell’onde invisibili al fondo della notte.” (Eugenio Montale, “L’Occasioni”)
Vernazza is a wonderful village situated on the west coast of Liguria, between Monterosso al Mare and Corniglia, that is part of its municipality, it is the second hamlet starting from the west. It boasts an ancient maritime tradition, and is characterized by peculiar terraces used as vineyards, a comfortable, natural, safe port- It is one of the hamlets of the Cinque Terre and is part of the Province of La Spezia.
The Cinque Terre are five little villages, clung to the rocks, their names can be remembered like a nursery rhyme: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, the villages have been isolated for centuries, due to the difficulty to reach this area, which has helped to preserve the beauty of a unique landscape. Vernazza, for its part, stretches along the stream Vernazzola, now covered, rising on the slopes of a rocky spur.
The village is characterized by the typical Genoese tower-houses, gathered around the main square, and by a dense network of hiking trails, one of which connects the area to Val di Vara. Two beautiful beaches complete the scenery, while at 325 metres above the sea level there is the sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Reggio, a popular place of prayer for the locals. The municipality consists of the village of Drignana, Muro, Prevo San Bernardino and, indeed, Corniglia. Vernazza is bordered to the north by the municipalities of Pignone, Beverino and Riccò del Golfo, to the west by Pignone and Monterosso al Mare and to the east by Riomaggiore, and by the sea to the south. The territory is part of the Cinque Terre National Park.
A bit of history...
The name of the village comes from the Latin adjective verna, meaning “of the place”, or “native”. This term was then used to indicate the wine Vernaccia, which was produced in the ancient village and was therefore famous for being the “local” wine, and the current name of Vernazza.
The true history of this incredible natural harbour dates back to 1080, the year in which for the first time the name of the village Castrum Vernatio was mentioned in an official document. It is quite clear the use of the defensive fortifications present in the village, and its activity as a maritime base of the Marquis Obertenghi was well known, as a starting point for the ships used to defend the village against the Saracens.
In the following centuries, Vernazza collaborated with the Republic of Genoa, helping to enrich its naval fleet, and in 1209 was ruled by Genoa, through an act of loyalty carried out by the main and richest families of the village. Vernazza also became one of the main areas on the coast for the commercial, political and above all territorial conquests of the Eastern Liguria.
In the same century, the new feudal lords of the village settled in Vernazza, the Da Passano family and from 1211 the Fieschi family. There are some remains of the military defensive constructions made by the Genoese, the city walls, a bastion and the lookout towers overlooking the sea.
Together with Riomaggiore, Vernazza was part of the homonymous Podesteria until the fall of the Genoese republic.
From 1500 to 1600 there was a period of decline, which struck all the villages of the Cinque Terre, with strong consequences on the production of its typical wine, and on fishing; due to the continuous pirate raids, which had already put a strain on the local economy for at least a century, and the harshness of the territory, which made possible to reach the village only by mule-tracks. However this isolation, as we will see later, will become an advantage for Vernazza.
Under the domination of Napoleon Bonaparte the town became part of the Department of the Gulf of Venus from 2 December 1797, with La Spezia as main administrative centre, within the Ligurian Republic, it was then annexed to the First French Empire from 13 June 1805 to 1814, and later it was included in the Department of the Apennines. In 1815, as established by the Congress of Vienna, it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia, then to the Kingdom of Italy from 1861.
In 1871 there were the last adjustments to the municipal territory, with the aggregation of the hamlet of Corniglia after its separation from the territory of Riomaggiore. During the nineteenth century there was a roaring revival of Vernazza, thanks also to the construction of the railway network, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This event will help the village to abandon the afore mentioned isolation, aiding the growth of its population, and increasing the terraces dedicated to the cultivation of the vineyards, therefore significantly increasing the production of wine. The commercial and working relationships with the city of La Spezia was also intensified.
In a short time, the entire coast of the Cinque Terre was blessed by luck, and its glory increased quickly.
Furthermore in 1997, together with Portovenere and the islands of the Golfo dei Poeti (Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto), the Cinque Terre were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Since 1999, Vernazza was included in the jurisdiction of the Cinque Terre National Park.
Nowadays, the main activities of the village are related to tourism, with the extraordinary flow of visitors, to catering, thanks to the sea full of fish, and to the cultivation of olive trees and vineyards, which testify the strength of a centuries-old tradition.
With the aim of protecting and safeguarding the nature that surrounds this idyllic stretch of coast, in 1999 the Cinque Terre National Park was established, which follows the work of the institution of the Marine Protected Area.
The sea is the natural resource that, undoubtedly, best represents the territory: the protected area covers the whole area that goes from Punta Mesco, to Monterosso, up to Capo Montenero, above Riomaggiore.
The marine area is populated by numerous endemic or rare species, the gorgonian colonies are noteworthy, in addition to the immense Posidonia Oceanica meadows, particularly extensive in the area in front of Monterosso.
Unsurprisingly the waters of the Cinque Terre are considered among the richest and most varied in Liguria, as well as being particularly appreciated by divers, for their wonderful spots (“Franata di Corniglia” is splendid). On the coasl outside the Marine Protected Area, it is possible to explore the area looking for the many wrecks on its sea bottom.
The landscape is mostly wooded, populated by holm oaks, sorb apple trees, myrtle bushes and thorny brooms, the lively colours of the Mediterranean scrub embellishes the cliffs. The coast of the park is indented, with coves and small promontories stretching towards the sea.
The beaches are almost non-existent: remember that nature n Vernazza and its surroundings, is always wild.
The territory of Vernazza is characterized by numerous prickly pear plants, in the woods the fauna stands out as an excellent indicator of the healthiness of the place, among the many animals that populate the Mediterranean scrub we find the peregrine falcon, the dormouse, the weasel and the badger, with some sightings of wolves coming from the Apennines.
Places of interest
Both inside and outside the village, there are plenty of attractive places and charming buildings. A must is a visit to the square located close to the small harbour, stop in the clearing known as “u cantu de musse”, ” chatting corner”, a traditional gathering place for the inhabitants of Vernazza.
Restaurants, souvenir shops and anything else necessary for the most fashionable people can be found in Via Roma, plus the typical charming Ligurian landscape, full of colourful houses, clothes hung in the sun to dry, and slate portals of the early twentieth century.
The Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia was built in the early decades of the thirteenth century, Romanesque style, with some Gothic elements that have survived the reconstruction, it was built up in the seventeenth century, it has three naves, the entrance is through an open door in the area of the apse. It bears the name of the matron of the village. It is situated on a rock overlooking the sea in the western part of Vernazza, however protected by a group of rocks. You can take some really amazing pictures from the windows inside the church.
Vernazza is protected by the Doria Castle, situated on top of the promontory in front of the small marina, for the purpose of dominating and controlling the whole bay.It was built on a quadrangular base, with an irregular shape, which follows that of the rock spur on which it was built, the structure has also a cylindrical sighting tower. The castle was built to protect the village from piracy attacks, nowadays if you want to take wonderful pictures of the surrounding landscapes, you just have to go up a few steps.
Below the Doria Castle at the entrance to the small port, we find Belforte bastion, a quadrangular building that dates back to the time of the stabilization of the Genoese dominion. Another tower, very similar to Doria Castle, stands right behind the village, along the first stretch of the path that leads to Corniglia, it was used as a support tower to the main one.
If you want to see something really charming, at only 30 km from Vernazza, you can go and visit the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Reggio, also called the Black Madonna or the African, the name derives from the painting kept inside the sanctuary, which represents Jesus’ mother holding the infant child, who has in his hands the dead sea scroll of the Bible.
According to a popular belief, the painting was painted by Saint Luca and brought to the Sanctuary by the Crusaders. The building from the fourteenth century is a Latin cross plan, and has three naves, it can be reached through a path that ends in the square just in front, that is embellished by a fountain.
There is a stretch of coast that connects the villages of Vernazza and Corniglia, which is part of the famous Sentiero Azzurro, the most visited of the Cinque Terre, a must, not to be missed. It takes about an hour and a half to complete the path, starting from the small harbour and then continuing towards San Bernardino, among vineyards and Mediterranean scrub, where euphorbia and the characteristic yellow lion’s mouth stand out among the many plants. Your efforts while going up and down this path, a bit difficult if you are not well trained, will be paid back by the wonderful landascape.
Don’t forget to pay a visit to the beautiful surroundings of Vernazza, explore its beautiful hinterland among pine woods and unique landscapes, stop at Pignone, whose territory, is crossed by a network of paths which divide the Cinque Terre from the famous Val di Vara, better known as the “valley of the round villages”. The village has very ancient origins: there are archaeological finds dating back to the Bronze Age. Near Pignone there is the medieval hamlet of Casale.
Accommodation, tourism and events
The whole territory is crossed by many paths, with different degrees of difficulty, which allow walkers to spend a day pleasantly, discovering the Cinque Terre and their most hidden hamlets.
The most important event in Vernazza is the Patronal Feast to celebrate Saint Mary of Antioch, which is celebrated on 20 July. During the day you can go shopping between stalls that sell all sorts of goods, or eat with friends and family, along the main street waiting for the fireworks that take place in the evening.
The first Sunday in August the village celebrates Our Lady of Reggio, with a holy mass and a procession. Since 1853, every 25 years the effigy of the Madonna is carried through the streets of the village, where it stays for a week, then it is taken back to the Sanctuary with a second imposing parade.
On the evening of December 24th you will be able to see the so called Diving Christmas, there will be a ceremony lit by lanterns while divers bring a small statue of the Child Jesus from the sea bottom to the surface, to celebrate the holiest of the masses.
In summer take a trip to the village to visit Vernazzarte atelier, which hosts an exhibition of modern and contemporary art.
Another event worth to mention is The Pirate Festival, celebrated every year on a different date, the protagonists wear nineteenth-century pirate clothes. A landing is simulated and then the pirates and the spectators go towards the centre of the village, accompanied by a local group of samba the “Batebalengo”.
As well as in the rest of the Eastern Riviera, the cuisine in Vernazza is simple, with few farmed meats used, due to the morphology of the territory.
The typical dishes, however are not few, and range from the culinary tradition based on fish and shellfish, to meat and products such as mushrooms, preserves, vegetables from the kitchen garden, and above all the aromatic herbs, that can be found easily in the surrounding nature.
Rosemary, sage, thyme, borage and marjoram are just some of the aromatic herbs of the area, the basil is exceptional, has large and scented leaves, and it is the main ingredient to make a delicious sauce that has become famous all over the world: pesto.
The lemons and the d.o. p. extra virgin olive oil represent the perfect crowning of the local cuisine.
Let’s start with the main courses seasoned with pesto sauce: trofie, are a type of corkscrew handmade pasta, and pansotti seasoned by the sweet pine nuts and parmesan cheese. Then lasagna with pesto sauce, served with a light béchamel and a bit of butter.
Handmade tagliatelle seasoned with walnut sauce or with extra virgin olive oil and mushrooms. Legume soups, with chickpeas or borlotti beans, are filling and simple dishes to prepare, enriched with scented rosemary and a spoonful of sauce, to be served hot.
The most significant typical dishes are however those based on fish, that have maintained, over time, their original characteristics. Ciuppin, a soup made with the left overs of red scorpion fish, tub gurnard, breams, and the symbol par excellence of Vernazza, which best represents its tradition, the “tian” is a dish made of thin sliced potatoes, enriched with anchovies, seasoned with local oil, white wine, garlic, lemon zest, tomato and oregano.
People who love blue fish and fried seafood can choose anchovy cutlets or the rich “fried seafood” as main courses. Another typical dish of this area, as far as fish is concerned, are the mussels, here called cozze. Fish can be eaten raw with a light sprinkle of lemon juice and a little pepper, or stuffed with seasonal vegetables, eggs and cheese. Stock fish is also very important for the local cuisine, it is prepared with chard (stucafissu a zemin), or “Alla Ligure”, with tomato sauce, pine nuts, potatoes and some salted olives.
Ample space is given to the various qualities of focaccia, talking about other local food, we can mention the famous farinata made with chickpea flour, both dishes are prepared every morning at dawn, and should be eaten hot. A variation of focaccia is sgabeo, as the ingredients used are the same, bread dough cut into strips after proofing, then fried in plently extra virgin olive oil.
Don’t forget to try zucchini flower fritters (fris de burbugiun), with a liquid batter made of flour, water and salt. Among the classic desserts there is a cake called “Stalin”, which has no Russian origins, it just takes its name from the baker who invented it about 25 years ago, Stalin created a tart covered with pastry and filled with dark chocolate.
The wine of the Cinque Terre has obtained, since 1973, the denomination of controlled origin, it must be cultivated in the territories of the municipality of Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Monterosso and on the hills of La Spezia or Portovenere bordering Riomaggiore. In Vernazza we can find Cinque Terre Bianco wine, Cinque Terre Costa de Sera, Cinque Terre Costa de Posa, Cinque Terre Costa de Campu, plus the very famous and most rare wine Cinque Terre Schiacchetrà, a rare liquer, made only in this area, using raisins and suitable to be served with desserts.
To finish your meal, you could try a pleasant “limoncino”, a liqueur obtained from the plenty lemons of the area, strictly with thick zest, left to rest in alcohol immediately after harvesting.