How to eat all the focaccia in Cinque Terre.
When I visited Italy two summers ago, I had only one day to explore the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. I decided to make the most of it. And by that, I mean I decided to create a Tour della Focaccia, where I sampled focaccia all along the way as I hiked village to village. (A tactic I highly recommend if you ever travel there.)
I’m actually gluten intolerant, so when I’m home I stick to a 90 percent gluten free diet. But when I travel? Bring on all the pasta, all the pizza, and all the bread. Maybe I’ll have a bloated belly, but who cares? I’m on vacation, after all. You can find gluten-free foods all over the world fairly easily these days—even gluten-free pasta and pizza in Italy. But unless you’re celiac, it seems almost criminal to steer clear of the foods that make Italian fare so Italian.
For my Tour della Focaccia, I went all in. The day started early. Heading out of my adorable Airbnb in Lucca, I hopped a series of trains to Monterosso, where I immediately went to work finding my first focaccia. I settled on a piece that was covered in rosemary, with a perfect balance of salt and olive oil. Breakfast could not have been better.
From Monterosso, I set off on the trail that connects the five idyllic seaside villages of Cinque Terre. I knew that some portions of the trail were closed due to landslides, but I intended to hike every possible stretch. There’s a train that runs regularly from village to village, so it’s easy enough to board at any point where the trail is impassable, or if you need a break from the trail’s zillions of stairs. But I had carbs to burn, so off I went.
After two hours of trekking and stopping to soak in the spectacular views, I found myself seaside in Vernazza. I stopped at a café for a quick espresso boost, then picked up picnic supplies at the market: fresh fruit, hummus, and yes, more focaccia. This one was Liguria style—simply flavored with olive oil and salt, perfect for dipping in the garbanzo spread. I climbed up to the ruins of Castella Doria, where I perched and picnicked on the wall overlooking the village below. I was also in prime stalker position to spy on a local man, as he tended to his yard with its enviable view.
From Vernazza to Corniglia, it was another hour and a half up and down and down and up, with to-die-for vistas at every turn. Corniglia sits 100 meters above the sea, surrounded by terraced vineyards. The Lardarina, a dizzying stairway of nearly 400 steps, leads down to the train station. I boarded here to bypass the trail closures, skipping the next village of Manarola and instead going straight to my final destination of Riomaggiore.
My first order of business in Riomaggiore was to find—and devour—focaccia recco, a local specialty filled with soft, creamy cheese. Next, I headed for the tiny harbor. I joined a handful of tourists and locals for a dip in the sea, surrounded by boats and brightly colored buildings. Refreshed and rinsed of trail dust and sweat, I used the public restroom to change into a summer dress. A swipe of lip gloss and hair up in a wet, messy bun and my beauty routine was complete. I set off to find my happy hour and sunset dinner spot (you didn’t think I was done yet, did you?).
I had read about A Pie de Ma, and once I found it (after getting lost in Riomaggiore’s winding maze of staircase streets) I understood immediately the rave reviews. The self-service wine bar is downstairs. You order at the bar, pick a seat overlooking the water, and a while later head back to pick up your snacks. I was hungry again, and I had an hour or so to relax before the restaurant upstairs opened, so I went for a cheese platter. Did I mention that in real life I eat mostly dairy free? But when in Riomaggiore…
In truth, my Italian feeding frenzy could have stopped right there. The cheese platter was massive, and accompanied by plenty of fresh bread (although none of it focaccia). I held off eating it all, however, because my final culinary goal was to try testaroli. Upstairs in the main restaurant, I ordered testaroli al pesto. It’s a Ligurian bread-like pasta, similar to focaccia but cut into bite-sized squares and smothered in fresh pesto. That, plus more wine and an unbeatable sunset, capped my Tour della Focaccia and a dreamy day in Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre Tips:
- You can hike the trails in either direction, and there are plenty of trails to choose from. With only one day, I opted for the popular lower route. Next time, I’ll stay a night or two in one of the villages and tackle some of the tougher upper trails.
- The entire area is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll need a Cinque Terre card to access the trails. Buy one on arrival at any of the village train stations. There are options that include local train transport, as well as multi-day passes.
- Cinque Terre can be brutally hot, depending on the time of year you visit. I was there in August, at the peak of summer heat and humidity, and I opted to hike in the midday sun. My choice meant far fewer tourists to contend with on the trails, which suited my travel style. Pack plenty of water, refilling in each village, and you’ll be fine.
- Normally, I find that estimated hiking times are slower than my athletic pace. But the times listed for Cinque Terre’s trails were spot on. Even if you’re a fast hiker, I guarantee you’ll want to stop every few minutes to take in the view.
- You’ll find details on the various routes in Cinque Terre, as well as current trail closures, on the official park website.