Finally we reach Moneglia, the 8th and final destination in this series of profiles of our favorite towns along the spectacular Riviera di Levante. If you include the articles on the Bisson winery and focaccia street food there are now ten great reasons for visiting this coastline and if you're not yet convinced by our words and pictures then perhaps Italy's not the right country for you.
It's also entirely possible that we've saved the best for last because the fact that Moneglia is harder to reach then all the others keeps some of the crowds at bay. It really is a fabulous little Ligurian town with a nice sandy beach, any number of challenging walks and good seafood restaurants, two of which we can enthusiastically recommend. All contained within the dramatic scenery that you’ve now come to expect from the Riviera di Levante.
Moneglia is the last worthwhile stop traveling south-east before the terrain becomes too difficult for a coastal road and heads inland. After Moneglia there’s only the tiny hamlet of Bonassola before you reach the underrated town of Levanto at the northern end of the Cinque Terre National Park.
We’ve spent a couple of long weekends in Moneglia in recent years and have come to more fully appreciate its laid back charms as we compare it to the various other new places we visit every year. It has one big advantage or perhaps drawback, depending on whether you’re in a hurry or not, though being in too much of a hurry is always a bad idea in Italy.
Driving to Moneglia along the coast from either the north-west or south-east requires you to go through a long series of narrow tunnels that are one-way only and governed by traffic lights. To accommodate both those arriving and leaving there are only three times every hour for about 10 minutes each that the tunnels are open in either direction. These times are fixed and published so you can plan around them, but inevitably this arrangement can result in longish queues and delays in the summer.
And herein lies the advantage, for us at least, because the tunnels act as a big disincentive to the day trippers who swarm onto the Riviera di Levante every warm weekend. If you’re staying the night in Moneglia you will find that however busy it gets in summer it will be less crowded than elsewhere, and this difference was brought home to us with great clarity on a Sunday this summer when we spent part of the day in Sestri Levante and the rest of the day in Moneglia.
Both the town and beach at Sestri Levante were overcrowded (visible in the Sestri photographs) whereas just a few miles away, with a much nicer beach, Moneglia was pleasantly quiet. The railway line has its own tunnel of course so this is yet another town on the Riviera di Levante where traveling by train can improve the holiday experience.
In fact our first visit to Moneglia years ago was by train from our hotel in Sestri when the owners of the restaurant La Ruota told us that they would be happy picking us up at the station and dropping us off afterwards. We saw nothing of Moneglia on that occasion but we did have a memorable dinner that we write about below.
The first thing that you notice about Moneglia when emerging from the tunnel is its aspect, beautifully situated on a small bay surrounded by mountains with a downtown waterfront area overflowing with tall majestic Canary Island date palms, clearly thriving in the microclimate of the Riviera di Levante. And thankfully, here at least, unaffected by the fungal disease that is decimating these gorgeous trees throughout the Mediterranean.
The second thing you notice immediately about Moneglia is the absence of traffic because for most of the time there is just a stationary line of cars waiting for the tunnel lights to change (visible in the photo of the view from La Ruota a little later in this article). Even in the middle of summer (and we were here once at Ferragosto) it feels different and less frenetic than all of its neighbors along the coast; a place where you can truly relax.
You can happily spend at least one full day at the beach here and as you can see from the people in the above photograph, all the way out to the line of breakwaters the water is shallow enough to not even need to venture out beyond your own depth when swimming.
As we only seem to manage a few days at the beach each year, one of the things we look for in a beach resort at the weekend is the presence nearby of a good restaurant for a long lunch. Somewhere close enough to be able to eat in flip-flops and barely dry swimming trunks because everyone else is similarly attired.
Very often a good beach and an equally good restaurant are a difficult combination to find, but in Moneglia the beachfront is simply an extension of the downtown area so the restaurants serve both the beach and the town and are built under the road with patio space outside on both the town side and the beach side. In fact having the main road overhead adds to the appeal of Moneglia and minimizes traffic as much as the tunnels do.
The restaurant by the beach that we like here is called Monile (above) and it has a good seafood menu and local wine list and is always full.
The second restaurant, La Ruota, is a completely different dining experience with a fixed price, multi-course seafood menu and views (above photo) to match the excellent food. It's a short drive up into the hills, but I think the owners must be nervous about foreigners driving up to their restaurant on the narrow twisting roads or perhaps it's the drive back down in the dark after dinner that concerns them, but they often seem prepared to personally provide a taxi service for their guests.
For us the road doesn't seem unduly tricky for Liguria and there are many much worse, including the very steep and narrow route up to the b&b Sussurri di Mare from where the top photograph in this article was taken.
We could write a review of La Ruota from memory because it was such a memorable dinner, but it's much easier and better to let the restaurant critic of the Financial Times, Nicholas Lander, do it for us because it was this review in 2014 that first prompted us to go to the restaurant ourselves. In his description, the final flourish of the large steamed shrimps hanging from sticks of celery was also a feature of our dinner when we went a few years ago. All we would add to his review is to advise you to go easy at lunch that day and arrive at the restaurant for dinner with a very healthy appetite.
While we're on the subject of food, a habit that we've got into in Italy is to forgo the dessert in a restaurant after lunch and instead head to the nearest gelateria. Next door to Monile on the beach is Qualcosa di Buono where not only is the regular gelato superb but they have a range of non-lactose gelati, not an easy thing to make and in fact not yet possible with certain flavors.
Moneglia sits on bay marked by two headlands, Punta Moneglia and Punta Rospo (toad) and it's these two promontories that made the tunnels necessary. But they also provide great hiking opportunities and there are many sentieri (trails) of various degrees of difficulty but if your starting point is in Moneglia itself then all of them will involve a fair amount of uphill walking.
However, the reward for the effort is some of the best views of sea and mountains that any hiker could wish for and perhaps even as good as the Portofino Regional Park.
There's a two hour coastal walk to nearby Deiva Marina over the Punta Rospo or for the less adventurous who would like to limit the amount of climbing we'd suggest getting a ride up to the Via Aurelia and then east along the ridge line over the Passo del Bracco. The owner of our b&b kindly gave us a ride up to the via Aurelia when we did this walk ourselves.
Just before reaching the hotel Baracchino there's a right turn off the Via Aurelia towards Deiva Marina. At the side of the road at this junction there's a large board with information on the various trails (above photos) and then you'll see this small unimpressive start to the path (left photo). Beginning the walk at this point you will already be at an elevation of about 2,000 feet.
It starts with some gentle up and down sections through woods and then (following the red line on the map on the photo above right) passes Monte Incisa at 1,700 feet. You then emerge at the top of Monte Crocetta at 1,500 feet with all of Moneglia laid out below you (photo below). The walk to Moneglia from this starting point on the Via Aurelia will take about two hours with hardly any uphill sections.
All that remains from Monte Crocetta is the descent through the village of Lemeglio (bottom left on above photo) and then back into the center of Moneglia to admire the ancient church of Santa Croce with its stunning interior.
In the context of the above hike we suggested taking the only road up the mountain from Moneglia to Via Aurelia. In fact this is a good alternative to the tunnels for entering and exiting Moneglia and it's the route we often take ourselves. It's a good road used mostly by the residents of Moneglia whose houses stretch all the way up the mountain and it's not at all challenging to drive, but for some reason nobody else seems to use it or perhaps visitors just don't know about it. The Via Aurelia at the top is also a very good driving (and cycling) road and the autostrada exit is easy to find from this route in and out of Moneglia.