Welcome to the real Liguria,’ guide Enrico declared as he threw open the hatch atop the Torre Carolingia. As we climbed on to the tower’s medieval roof – just as the bells clanged the hour – a handsome chunk of north-west Italy spread out before us: the scattered pink-peach hillside hamlets of Framura tucked amid a rise and fall of green, plunging decisively into the sea. Squint, and Corsica might be seen, though the five famed fishing villages of the Cinque Terre, only a few miles distant, were hidden behind the hills.
Framura is only a few miles north of Cinque Terre National Park but a world away in terms of visitors. While tourists swarm on the poster-children of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, here there are empty trails, turquoise-licked beaches, villages with heart and history, wines – and far fewer people.
Providing a new gateway to this alternative Cinque Terre is Sesta Terra, a sprinkle of wooden cabins and canvas lodges; all are fresh-white and stylish, all have killer sea views. It’s the vision of Nicola Cosciani Cunico and his wife, Anna. Originally from Padua, they holidayed often in Framura and dreamed of making a permanent move. After happening upon a glamping site overseas – the concept is yet to take off in Italy – a seed was planted. Nicola asked Framura’s mayor if he could build something similar here, and the mayor said no – unless he bought and transformed the rundown campsite. Challenge accepted, Sesta Terra opened in July 2019.
‘We call it a “natural resort” rather than glamping,’ Nicola explained, over a plate of trofie pasta and pesto – a Ligurian speciality. ‘We’re striving to be elegant and respectful – to nature and to the community.’ Around 90 per cent of staff are local, and Nicola encourages guests to explore beyond Sesta Terra’s infinity pool, small spa, bar and dreamy terraces.
I was glad: on his recommendation I ate at L’Agave, a restaurant squashed into the cliffs overlooking Framura’s small harbour. From my table, I gazed across the bay to watch the sun sinking behind Monte Serro while owner Marco delivered dish after dish and glass after glass of deliciousness. Butter-soft prawns, cuttlefish ragu and perfectly charred octopus came with local wines – Marco is president of the Enoteca Regionale della Liguria so knows, well, everything about the region’s viticulture. The first, a simple bianchetta, was “the expression of the sea”; this is the stuff, he said, that fuelled the hardworking dockers of Genoa, who’d start each day with a litre of bianchetta and a kilo of focaccia.
The next morning I met guide Britta and hopped on the train. The game-changing Genoa-Pisa railway opened in 1874 and kept Liguria alive, linking the isolated coastal villages with the outside world; roads only arrived in the Sixties. We travelled south from Framura to Vernazza: population 850, but visited by around 2.5 million tourists per year. Catastrophic floods devastated Vernazza in 2011 but, miraculously, its squeeze of pastel houses, medieval castle and tiny harbour are pretty as a picture again now.
It was still early when we arrived; old Italian gents gesticulated over the day’s first espressos in the main square while trolleys wheeled newspapers and crates of tomatoes into opening shops. Britta’s favourite cafe was still closed, though we managed to chat to its owner, Massimo. During the flood, Britta later told me, Massimo had knocked through his wall with a small hammer to a bricked-up staircase, providing an exit route and saving the customers that were trapped inside.
As Britta and I climbed out of Vernazza, we bid goodbye to the slowly accumulating crowds, winding up via drystone walls, skittering lizards and vineyards so steep and awkward it’s amazing that anyone would bother – indeed, many of the old terraces have been abandoned to rampant Mediterranean maquis plants. Climbing higher, Vernazza became more and more like a toy town; on one side, the sea sparkled, the other was an explosion of green. It was hot walking, and we were glad of patches of fragrant pine and holm oaks, and of the hilltop sanctuaries that provided water, shade and stories. At the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Soviore, a painting retold the legend of how the church’s Madonna statue, long buried and lost, was rediscovered by a pigeon shooting a rainbow out of its bottom.
We saw barely a soul on our hike, perhaps due to the mad-dogs-and-Englishwoman insanity of hiking in July, but also because the majority of Cinque Terre hikers tramp the coast trail between Monterosso and Corniglia (the extension to Riomaggiore is currently closed) – for which you have to pay. Our walk was free, and free of people. And from the Punta Mesco we could look south along the entire Cinque Terre: the hills diving seaward, the villages clinging on for dear life.
We finished in Levanto, just outside the national park. Settled in Roman times, part of the Republic of Genoa from the 13th century, it was a wealthy trading town and stop-off on the Via Francigena pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. I was happy to noodle along its medieval alleys and fragments of old walls but, sweaty and hungry, I was glad not to be pilgrimaging further. Luckily, hotelier Silvia Moggia was waiting with sustenance – she was going to teach me to make the most Ligurian dish of all: pesto.
‘Frank Sinatra made it famous,’ she explained, as I tied my apron. ‘He insisted on having fresh handmade pesto from Genoa.’ Officially it should be made with local ingredients such as Genovese basil, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil and Vessalico garlic, and pounded in a white Carrara marble mortar. ‘You can tailor it to your tastes, though,’ Silvia assured me, as I pounded the mix, sending pine nuts flying. ‘I started making it on my grandma’s balcony when I was five years old and have my way. But everyone’s pesto is different.’ Mine was pretty good, though given these quality ingredients, I’m not sure you can go too wrong.
Another scorching day followed, and another scorching hike. Britta and I walked down from Sesta Terra into the lower hamlets of Framura. In the first, Setta, we stopped for cappuccino and focaccia – a proper Genovese breakfast. And when the cafe-owner realised we’d inadvertently eaten yesterday’s stale bread, he refused to let us pay. We continued between the archways and narrow alleys to Anzo, where fine villas stood around the neogothic chapel of Our Lady of the Snow and the 15th-century watchtower. Then we picked up a spectacular cliff-hugging trail, just us and the mountain goats, with the sea shimmering alongside.
Winding amid thyme and rock rose, myrtle and strawberry trees, we gradually came into Montaretto, population circa 100, and so-called last communist village in Italy. A Che Guevara flag flapped outside the Casa del Popolo – the People’s House. ‘Many villages once had one of these – they were places people could unite without the church,’ Britta said, as we walked into the hall, with its free-to-borrow books and Marxist icons on the walls; there were also photos of the village men who, denied government help, took matters into their own hands and built their own road.
We used that road to meet Davide Zoppi, the boundlessly enthusiastic owner of nearby Ca du Ferra. The winery was founded 20 years ago by his parents, who painstakingly hand-cleared four hectares of overgrown vineyards along the coast. After studying to be a magistrate, Davide decided to return home instead, making it his civic duty to revive the landscape. He makes wines – the sea-salty Bonazolae (“it tastes like an infinity shore”), and the smoky-sweet L’Intraprendente.
But he also wants to make a difference, from increasing the vineyard’s biodiversity to forming creative partnerships. I tried the delicious heather honey he produces in collaboration with a local beekeeper, sadly not the wine sorbet invented by a gelateria in Bonassola. He is also working with geneticists to resurrect ruzzese, an old Ligurian grape thought extinct since phylloxera decimated the Cinque Terre vineyards in the Twenties. Showing me around his vines, he pointed proudly at the rows of reborn ruzzese: ‘My babies!’ All being well, they will be ready to drink in 2022, for the first time in a century.
Sitting under a parasol, tasting Davide’s wines with a platter of organic cheese and a view out to sea, I raised a glass to his project, his passion, and to discovering that the pleasures of the Ligurian coast extend far beyond its famous five.
5 ways to explore the Cinque Terre
By train: Trains run all along Italy’s west coast. Genoa-Framura by train takes around 90 minutes. From Framura, it’s just seven minutes to Levanto, and around 16 minutes to Vernazza.
By boat: From April to October, ferries connect the Cinque Terre villages (excluding Corniglia). A one-day ticket costs from euros 27 (about Dh110). There are also connections to Levanto and La Spezia.
By car: The Genoa-Livorno highway is the main artery; off this, roads to Framura and surrounds are narrow, steep and hair-pinned. Cars are largely prohibited in Cinque Terre villages.
By bike: Parts of the original 19th-century railway tunnels, abandoned in the Thirties, reopened in 2011 as the MareMonti cycle path, providing a cool, flat, fast link between Levanto, Bonassola and Framura.
On foot: More than 100 hiking trails lace Cinque Terre National Park, with many more in the surrounding area (see framuraturismo.it). Most popular by far is the seven-and-a-half-mile (12km) Blue Path between the five villages, currently open only between Monterosso, Vernazza and Corniglia. It costs euros 7.50 (Dh30); a Cinque Terre card, covering the hike and one day’s train travel, is euros 16 (Dh65). All other hikes are free.
Getting there: Genoa and Pisa airports are both around 90 minutes’ drive from Framura.
Where to stay: Sesta Terra has lodges and wooden cottages; rates from euros 225 (Dh906) per night (sestaterra.com).
What to do: Pesto-making classes in Levanto cost euros 40pp (Dh160, oasihotel.eu/pesto-cooking-class). The menu degustazione at L’Agave costs euros 60 (Dh240, lagaveframura.it).
More information: lamialiguria.it; framuraturismo.it; visitlevanto.it/en
The Sunday Telegraph