Cinque Terre like a local… sweet, boutique, unique
Eschew the Tuscan countryside villa for a home in the hills of Liguria, a stone’s throw from the region’s coastal superstars, to truly experience the simple life in Italy. Writes Quentin Long.
While a villa in Tuscany is a fine thing, a B&B just over the border in the Ligurian hills with magnificent views – and not far from the jaw-dropping coastline dubbed the Italian Riviera – is perhaps even finer.
Living not like a local but with locals is the genuine dolce vita.
We are in search of our own slice of the sweet life as we leave the freeway just after Carrara, an hour and a quarter out of Florence, and begin an ascent that would make the peloton of the Giro pause for thought.
Every hairpin bend helps to create a sense of anticipation. What are we going to find at the end of our climb?
The GPS becomes a little confused by some classic Italian road planning; a forked road presents the quandary of both prongs having the same name, Via Marciano. Welcome to the quirky nuances of local life in Liguria.
Naturally we venture along the wrong Via Marciano until our little Fiat 500 ends up on a dirt road where we are one small wheel width away from a fast descent.
After a call to our hosts, we correct ourselves and head along the right Via Marciano, and continue to climb.
Arriving around one more bend, parting yet more picturesque olive groves and vineyards, we arrive at Casa Colleverde.
An unpretentious abode, it sits snugly on the hill surrounded by the greenery of small shrubs and trees (Casa Colleverde directly translates as ‘house on the green hill’), and looks out to stunning vistas of hilltop villages and the great, endless expanse of the azure Mediterranean.
Simon and Carmelo greet us cheerily from the top of the garden stairs, guiding us into the open-plan kitchen and plying us with a chilled glass of wine.
The house is a stylishly modern light-filled home, scattered with pieces collected during the couple’s travels, making for a cosy milieu: an ornate and grand chandelier hangs over the main stairwell; a print of Michelangelo’s David’s face with red overprint is a feature in the dining room; African art pieces are dotted in nooks and crannies throughout.
Before the second glass of crisp local white is poured, Simon has us organised; dinner reservations at a few local haunts he knows we will love and some time at a private beach club is booked.
And that’s it. There’s nothing more for us to do but head to the pool.
The early summer sun is unseasonably hot; fading the Ligurian countryside into a bleached version of itself.
Everything slows down in this heat. Except for the swallows.
They dart energetically overhead and then surreptitiously dive to scoop a beakful of water from the surface of the pool, occasionally coming so close I instinctively duck.
To the right of me, about 500 metres as the crow flies, is the village of Castelnuovo Magra.
It sits like a crown atop a limestone pillar that rises from the valley floor.
The bell tower of St Mary Magdalene church and the tower of the Bishop’s Palace stand at opposite ends of the village; their stout defiance reminding onlookers that this village has survived more than 700 years of human pettiness.
The village of Nicola is a similar distance to the left, perched atop its own slender column of limestone.
Each of the houses in the town are colourfully painted, made more striking by the terracotta roof tiles so synonymous with Italy and the faded green olive and bay trees surrounding the village.
In the distance the Magra River snakes its way towards the Mediterranean Sea just north of the port of Carrara, where for centuries the world’s most sought-after rock – white marble – has begun its worldwide journey.
Our fellow guests are two couples from the Netherlands: Anne, an actress from Amsterdam who tells enthralling tales of flying to Athens to assist refugees, and her partner Dan, a successful surgeon; and Claire and Frank who are deliriously happy in their second marriage.
Simon’s generosity with Limoncello guarantees the conversation flows into the morning hours.
The next day we head to the Eco del Mare Night and Day Beach Club, just south of La Spezia in Lerici, the hangout for the well-heeled in these unpretentious parts.
The beach is typically Mediterranean, sandy and pebbly.
The restaurant under a thatched roof and with driftwood furniture is chic and simple, like the club itself.
It is such a different experience to Australian beach days, luxuriating in the curious local concept of making beaches exclusive and private.
Twenty minutes down the road, the stunning towns of the Cinque Terre offer up more Mediterranean magic.
Living with locals allows us to indulge in the real essence of living like a local; not in the affectatious way many big hotels peddle ‘local experiences’ these days, but in a genuine, humble way.
We spend lazy days moving at the same considered pace as our Ligurian neighbours and eat at excellent restaurants populated solely by locals from the surrounding towns and villages.
Ristorante da Fiorella in Nicola is a Ligurian delight; nothing but local produce, as you would expect in Italy, the birthplace of slow food.
En route to the simple unadorned restaurant we pass the vineyard where the wine we will drink later is grown.
The menu makes no concession to out-of-towners looking for the pasta and gelato cliché.
Instead the mixed antipasti is classic, the frutti del mare a delicately translucent collection of local seafood given a zesty tang with a squeeze of lemon (local, of course).
In Castelnuovo Magra, Trattoria Armanda is another authentic find.
Dining alfresco, with views to the Magra and the sea, the menu is slightly more sophisticated: tagliatelle with truffles, stuffed veal and gnocchi with pesto. It is Liguria in a meal.
Dessert is goat’s milk ice-cream with orange sugar and an olive oil emulsion.
In three simple days our understanding of la dolce vita became authentic and genuine.
This wasn’t a caricature of the idyllic Italian life that visitors are desperate to consume, no matter if it is delivered in the most unauthentic way, but the real thing, as lived by locals every day.
Details: Liguria, Cin
- Emirates flies to Bologna via Dubai from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane; it also offers two-stop routes to Pisa via Dubai that connect to local carriers in Europe.
- Merrion Charles is a globally renowned private travel consultant specialising in Italy and in particular villas; positioned to help you discover the insider’s Italy.
- Casa Colleverde has three rooms each sleeping two. It is also available for exclusive use. Price on request. Casa Colleverde is 55 minutes from Pisa airport and 2 hours 30 minutes from Bologna airport.
Want to get the Insider's secrets to the Mediterranean? Check out Insider's Secrets: Lucio Galletto of LUCIO'S restaurant, Sydney
5 picturesque villages and hamlets to visit in Italy
Italy isn’t defined by its cities alone; its impossibly picturesque villages and hamlets are big on beauty, drama and history.
For centuries travellers have flocked to Italy to experience its headlining cities and be mesmerised by their seemingly endless beauty and rich history.
But the true soul of the country can perhaps better be found away from the hustle and bustle, in the exquisitely picturesque small villages and tiny hamlets that are dotted across the country.
Here a more relaxed, traditional pace of life pervades, as time is metred out in lazy hours spent wandering cobbled streets or lingering over a meal of time-honoured local dishes.
But there is also no shortage of sights to take in, nature to experience at first hand, and history and drama to trace in their small but evocative surrounds.
1. Castellaro Lagusello
Sitting between Verona and Mantua in the dramatic Lombardy region, Castellaro Lagusello is perched on the edge of a small heart-shaped lake and has an exquisite sun-bleached beauty to its proud stone buildings.
Time here can be spent getting lost in the maze of narrow streets, witnessing the charm of local life, or exploring the countryside of hills and lakes by bike.
The local cuisine honours its ancient farming traditions: try capunsei, bread dumplings, the recipes for which dates back centuries.
Located 80 kilometres south-west of Palermo on the island of Sicily, Gangi was voted the most beautiful village in Italy just a few years ago.
Visitors here will be lavished with palaces, castles and the kind of atmospheric cobbled streets that would constitute most people’s fantasy of what Italy should be.
Plan your visit for summer and take in the annual Memories and Traditions event, when scenes from ancient life play out on the streets.
Just a few kilometres from the Riviera dei Fiori (Coast of Flowers) in the Liguria region, the colourful houses of Apricale, many of them festooned with murals, crowd around a lovely piazza, the focal point for the many festivals celebrated here every year.
After visiting the Castle of the Lizard, with its compelling museum, indulge in the other local attraction: food.
Specialities include sardenaira, a sort of oven-cooked pizza with tomato and sardines, and pansarole, a sweet pancake smothered in warm sabayon.
Filled with medieval charm, the Sardinian hamlet of Castelsardo offers up sea views, pristine nature and a rich history that can be traced through its buildings, from the Gothic cathedral to the imposing castle perched high above the quiet bay below.
Walk to the castle tower before sitting down for lunch of spaghetti with lobster at a family-run restaurant filled with locals.
5. Monte Isola
With the waters of Lake Iseo gently lapping at its edge, the tight little clusters of terracotta-roofed houses that make up the 11 hamlets and villages of Monte Isola in the province of Brescia are home to just 1800 people.
Get off the ferry at Porto (the island is blissfully car free) and head to the medieval castle in Siviano, before strolling the alleys of Masse or Novale.
There are more castles and fortresses at Peschiera and Sensole, while Cure has views out to the lake..
More information: Head to Italian State Tourism Board.
Travelling to Italy soon? Check out:
- Italy's 8 secret travel gems.
- Hitting the Italian slopes with the ‘new’ Club Med
- Rome’s best bars for drinks
All IT reviews are conducted anonymously and our writers pay their own way - so we experience exactly what you would.
City guide to Padua, Italy
This vibrant northern Italian city has a venerable history that has seen Trojans, Romans and some headlining astronomers walk its ancient cobbled streets over the millennia.
Padua is known for
The university, Giotto’s frescoes, galileo galilei
Padua's Eat streets
Pizzeria Al Duomo’s pizza is considered the best in the city, while Gelateria Artigianale da Bruno has award-winning gelato for afters (Via Montà, 83).
For something a little more upmarket, Antica Trattoria Zaramella, is a local institution that has two Michelin stars for its traditional dishes.
Gran Caffè Diemme is another firm favourite for its food and welcoming staff, on the lovely Piazza dei Signori.
Out and about in Padua
Supposedly founded in 1183BC by the Trojan prince Antenor, Padua owes much of its reputation to the frescoes of Giotto, the glory days of the Renaissance, residents of the likes of Galileo and Copernicus, and William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which was largely set here.
When exploring the city, start at Scrovegni Chapel, with Giotto’s masterpiece fresco cycle telling the story of Jesus and the Virgin Mary; there are more works by Giotto, as well as Donatello, in the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.
The Palazzo della Ragione is a vast medieval hall, built in 1218 with a beautiful painted wooden ceiling.
And the Museum of Jewish Padova in the restored ‘German’ synogogue tells the Jewish story in Padua.
On the weekend Paduans escape to the Euganean Hills just south of the city to bask in the bucolic surrounds, scattered with castles, farms and wineries open for tastings.
There have been markets at Prato della Valle since 1775; each Saturday stalls selling everything from fashion to flowers pop up, with an antique market held on the third Sunday of the month (turismopadova.it).
The ultimate experience
The University of Padua, the second oldest in Italy, is steeped in history: take a guided tour of the Palazzo Bo at its heart and see the spectacular wooden anatomical theatre inaugurated in 1595, and the Aula Magna, the great hall where Galileo taught.
Caffé Pedrocchi (Via VIII Febbraio, 15, 35122) is an attraction in itself, with a 200-year history of serving up coffee to the great and good of Padua. The pastries are to die for too!
Caffeine (Via Rome, 94/96, 35122) is a luxe cafe-cum-bar with a big menu and a funky vibe.
Where to Stay & play in Pauda, Italy
A quirky family-run hotel with colour-themed rooms (Red Passion, Orange Life, Blue Dream, White Truth), Hotel al Fagiano is close to the city’s historic heart.
Hotel al Prato is a light, bright boutique hotel of 16 rooms, housed in a restored 16th century building on the Prato della Valle, the largest piazza in Italy.
Beyond its gloriously restored exterior, Methis Hotel & Spa is a haven of muted tones and modern chic.
Free Travel Brochures
Browse our carefully selected brochures from
across the world.