The famous and picturesque Cinque Terre of five villages facing the Ligurian Sea is a tourist magnet and during the holidays, especially in the summer, it is packed with both local and foreign travellers, turning its idyllic atmosphere into a madness of human activity.
For some reason, I have planned my trip to Cinque Terre over the Italian Republic Day long weekend, after a short trip there six years ago. I check into a hotel at Manarola and am hoping to explore the other four villages at my own pace over two days.
But I change my mind and give the now-bustling Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia and Riomaggiore a miss. Instead, I decide to travel further north and visit the charming and pretty villages of Bonassola and Framura.
I wouldn’t have known about them if I hadn’t eaten lunch at a famous pizzeria in Levanto, a small town just north of Cinque Terre. Over a large slice of delicious pizza, I start a conversation with a fellow solo traveller at the next table. He is an Italian from Parma, and when I lament about the crowd at Cinque Terre, he suggests visiting the next two coastal towns that are just as lovely but minus the tourist crush.
The train ride from Levanto to Bonassola takes only two minutes but I heed his advice and take a leisurely 40-minute walk on a pathway along and above the shore. It helps that the view of the beautiful blue sea on my left is a mesmerising companion.
I have to walk into three long and old train tunnels that are no longer in use after World War II. These old tracks have been converted into a walking and biking path from Levanto all the way to Framura.
Bonassola is truly a charming small town and offers a mellower vacation alternative to the more popular villages in Cinque Terre. Known to few tourists, the sandy beach and crystal clear waters attract quite a lot of locals to come out and bask in the sunshine. With the weather so nice, it is not surprising to find all the deck chairs on the beach are occupied.
Leaving the beach behind, the town centre is rather peaceful. Many of its streets are dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists and lined with dusty but pretty red buildings.
There are some nice shops and cafés serving gelato and focaccia bread. There are also several small to medium-sized churches as well as a 16th-century castle.
But the most famous sight is probably the Madonnina della Punta, a little church built at the end of the promontory, to the right of the beach. The location is also a panoramic point, offering breathtaking views of Cinque Terre to the left and the Portofino peninsula to the right.
Seated on a bench on a terrace overlooking the beach, I enjoy the splendid vista with the cool evening breeze. When hunger pangs strike, I go in search of a restaurant, only to discover that most are already full.
I finally manage to find an empty seat in a quaint restaurant. To my pleasure, the food is better than the meal I had last night at Manarola.
Houses on the slope of Bonassola
The next day is a Sunday and the number of tourists in Cinque Terra has doubled! I couldn’t wait to leave them behind, so after checking out of my hotel, I immediately hop onto the train to Framura.
Framura is made up of five small villages – Anzo, Ravecca, Setta, Costa and Castagnola – spreading up the hill from the sea and connected by a steep panoramic trail.
The older villages were built on the hills to protect them from pirate attacks. Framura is one of the borghi più belli d’Italia (prettiest villages of Italy), and is a paradise for those who love nature, hiking, mountain biking, art, history and seafood.
The train stops at Anzo, the village at the bottom of Framura. I am advised to take a bus from the station to the higher villages since I am not prepared for a long hike.
The bus goes up a winding road to Costa, the second highest village of Framura. It is here that the bus service ends for the route, which is a pity since it means I probably will not get to see Castagnola, the highest village with the well-known Chapel of San Castagnola. The chapel houses the Deposition from the Cross by the famous 16th-century painter Luca Cambiaso.
I am spellbound by the beauty of Costa, a sleepy village with only 100 residents. As I alight from the bus, I see only a couple walking in the small piazza that overlooks the cliff and sea on one side and the mountains and valleys on the other. Standing there, I feel as if time has stood still. There is nothing else to do but just soak in the splendour of it all.
I marvelled at the sights, both natural and man-made, and wondered what it would be like to live a life so tranquil and simple in this village.
The most outstanding structure is the well-preserved Carolingian Tower dating back to the 9th century. Next to it is San Martino Parish Church where a painting by the famous Genoese painter Bernardo Strozzi can be found.
I have a satisfying seafood lunch at the only restaurant nearby, which also commands a paranomic view. Then I slowly make my descent to the other villages below.
It is an interesting walk on a sunny but cool day. The path takes me past colourful old houses as well as a pizzeria and a bar that are unfortunately closed because it is a Sunday. I encounter only a few locals and holidaymakers from other parts of Italy.
Soon I reach Setta, where the seat of the Municipality of Framura is located. The village also boasts a 15th-century stone watchtower. The recently restored San Rocco Chapel is another beautiful sight that holds my attention for a while.
Walking further down, I reach the village of Ravecca where the buildings reveal themselves to be of medieval origin. Famous landmarks include the Santi Bernardo and Pasquale chapels.
Throughout my walk, I notice buildings are nestled amidst small squares and parks, making Framura the ideal hideaway from the rest of the world. Some of the residential buildings have even been turned into holiday homes.
Besides admiring the architecture, it is a delightful and picturesque walk along an old but wide footpath. I finally take the metal staircase all the way down to the railway station.
The Framura train station at the bottom of the hill
The trains connecting small towns in Italy are often infrequent, and I have just missed one, which means a two-hour wait for the next train. Fortunately, I discover an outdoor bar behind the station next to the sea. I sit there sipping a mug of beer, enjoying the breeze and watching the waves crashing on the coast. I spot some youngsters playing and sunbathing on a rocky edge nearby. As much as I have enjoyed the sights, I have to catch the train to Lucca where I am studying the Italian language.
While I didn’t get to see Cinque Terre properly as I had hoped to, the trip isn’t a complete waste. I am happy to have discovered the beautiful Bonassola and Framura, both of which are blissfully free of tourists. But who knows for how long?