PAINTING HOLIDAY LOOKED GOOD IN THE BROCHURE - BUT A BIT OF A DISAPPOINTMENT IN REALITY
22/02/15Nowadays fully adapted to tourism and very welcoming to visitors, the Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) are 5 former fishing villages perched along the rocky coast, houses spilling down the steep cliffs. They overlook the Ligurian Sea on the west coast of Italy with small, sheltered harbours and brightly painted houses, providing superb views across the sea - wonderful painting subjects. Running from north to south with a range of mountains behind them, these villages for many generations were inaccessible by road. Until the arrival of the railway about 100 years ago the inhabitants lived an isolated, remote existence, earning a living from the fruits of the sea and making the best of the rocky, precipitous terrain by constructing terraces right to the cliff edge in order to cultivate olives and vines interlaced with wild flowers and the herbs used in their traditional cuisine. More recently the area has become the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hence there are no visible industrial developments, supermarkets, chain stores or shopping malls in this area. The Terre are pedestrianised and as much as possible of their ancient heritage has been retained.
We were based in the most northern of the Terre, Monterosso al Mare, the only Terre accessible to motor traffic, with modern hotels, sandy beach, and thriving late-night activities. The traffic-free historic centre emanates old world charm with crooked lanes and hole-in-the-wall shops. We painted in the old town on our first full day. The following days we took the train to a different Terre - respectively:
- Vernazza: considered the jewel of the Cinque Terre with a natural harbour, it is overlooked by a ruined castle and an old church. Restaurants are down at the harbour.
- Corniglia: a quiet town and the only one of the five not on the water. From the train station a footpath winds its way up nearly 400 steps to the hilltop town whilst buses and taxis run between the station and the village along a steep, twisting road.
- Manorola: famous for its many vineyards and its sweet Sciacchetrà dessert wine, there is a cliff edge walk up to a fine view overlooking the harbour where you can enjoy a slice of local focaccia flavoured with pesto and a glass of wine.
- Riomaggiore: a tunnel walk-way from the station cuts thru the cliffs to the centre of town. From here you can follow the main street down to the harbour or turn up the steep street to find a way up to the church with views across the sea and the tangle of pastel coloured houses.
Our hotel in Monterosso, the Villa Adriana, was well appointed and very clean. I’ve been unable to find the star rating for this hotel but I would suggest that it’s a 3 star. The buffet breakfasts were excellent in all respects, with a wide-ranging choice of dishes beautifully presented; however evening meals were not quite so good and our menu choices had to be made at breakfast. On a future visit I would take B&B and enjoy eating out in the evenings - there are plenty of interesting restaurants to choose from along Monterosso’s promenade within easy walking distance and menus offering a splendid selection of seafood plus other herb-perfumed local dishes such basil pesto, focaccia, filled pastas, minestrone, and specialties like stuffed basil leaves.
The locally produced palatable white dry wine (DOC), is simply called Cinque Terre; Sciacchetrà, rare and vintage strong sweet wine, is made from dried grapes; and Limoncino, is a liqueur made from lemons.
As far as the painting element of our holiday was concerned, Authentic Adventures explains in their promotional material that their painting tutors “teach for a total of 6-8 hours per day” for “five full days of painting tuition”. This, sadly, was not the case on this holiday. Few of us received more that a few cursory moments of tuition from our tutor, who seemed to prefer lounging around nursing a bottle of beer in a café, chatting to our excellent Italian tour manager. However, once back at the hotel at the end of the day he was more than eager to tell us during dinner how knowledgeable he was and how he could teach us many painting techniques - but he never actually bothered to do so. He was also anxious to tell us how poorly remunerated he was by Authentic Adventures and that he considered the holiday to be poor value for money!! Which indeed it was, as we had all paid over the odds for the anticipated painting tuition which he totally failed to deliver!!
I felt before I even left that clients aren’t of any great importance to Authentic Adventures once they’ve got your money. This became immediately obvious on the day of departure when a strike of Italian Air Traffic Control disrupted all our flights to Pisa. Several of us called their office to advise them of our flight delays but there was no one there to take our calls. Surely any self-respecting holiday company would make sure that they could be contacted by clients on a departure day, particularly when there was advance notice of imminent travel disruption?
Nevertheless, I would certainly recommend a visit to the Cinque Terre without hesitation - but not with Authentic Adventures. The area is best suited to active, able travellers as in most places you’ll be negotiating steep, narrow steps and pathways. (I’ve forgotten to mention that the entrance to Hotel Villa Adriana is up a very steep path from their car park.) I suffer from mild vertigo and frequently had to make sure I didn’t look out to sea when clambering up and down precipitous paths along the cliff edge! If you plan to travel around using the trains, which run frequently along the coast between Genoa and Pisa, make sure your luggage is easy to handle and manoeuvre as trains are way above platform level and it takes quite an effort getting on and off with heavy, bulky suitcases - particularly important if you’re travelling alone. A weekly rail season ticket is available for around €14 and, of course, there is a good train service from Pisa Airport to Monterosso, a single ticket costing not more than €12. Other places to visit in the area, each one accessible by train or boat, are La Spezia, Lerici, Porto Venere and Portofino. The alternative method of travel is on foot. All the Terre are linked by coastal footpaths, for which you will have to purchase an inexpensive walking permit, so don’t forget your walking boots, sticks and blister kit!
Looking back on it all having had time to reflect, with the wholehearted embrace of international tourism in the Cinque Terre it sometimes felt as if this is how we will all behave once we have adopted an overall European identity. Alternatively, there was a hint of that mid-60s TV serial ‘The Prisoner’.
* My next holiday is painting in Venice in May 2015 - will be writing a review on my return.*