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Five Lands - Cinque Terre, Italy

Travel is nothing if not a learning experience. So much to take in and experience. New ideas and new people. One thing I learned is that I am not a man. I am a coward.

I also learned that the wild-eyed man who admonished me as I strolled through the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza was actually not a man as he appeared. No, he was a god. “You are not a man. You are a coward. I am a god!” went the tail end of his mostly unintelligible rant. Seeing as some lessons are more relevant than others, this is one I’ll just file away in the  “Italians Have Idiots Too” department.

After nearly a month in Florence, the end of our Italy trip was near. We decided to close out our Italian adventure with a trip to the almost mountain clad seaside towns of Cinque Terre. They’d taken on almost mythical status to me since every time I mentioned that my itinerary included this Italian version of Big Sur, folks’ faces would lights up followed by their proclamation of love for the area.

Before coming here, I really knew nothing about the place. Although Jen arranged the travel plans, I eagerly signed on, ready for something different. Getting there isn’t easy however. From Florence, it took four hours and three train transfers to finally emerge through the last rocky tunnel of our journey to the southern most Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore.

Cinque Terre is made up of five small fishing villages that hug the steep mountains of the Italian Riviera. They’re 1,000 year old splashes of reds, yellows and oranges against the deep greens of the sea and vineyard covered mountainsides. They’re small, quaint and, as to be expected in this modern era, overrun by tourist hordes.

30 years ago, they were no doubt the land that time forgot. Now you can just forgeddabout any notions of peaceful village life. Today, visiting Cinque Terre is something like number four on the list of things that every American college student must do before getting a real job. (The three ahead of it would be 1) get laid 2) Spring break road trip and 3) get laid on Spring break road trip. I’m sure that tequila body shots are in there too.) Basically, this is the last pilgrimage of educated youth before selling out to the man.

Then there’s the masses who sold out to the man long ago and now have exactly 45 minutes to reclaim their youthful innocence. The senior citizens come en masse from far and wide to follow the well-worn tourist paths before being herded back onto the train for their next shuffle-and-run stops.

And finally there’s the ubiquitous Italian junior high school kids. These noisy, self-involved packs are like cast-off chewing gum. They’re a nuisance that’s hard to shake no matter how hard you try once you get step into the midst of a pack (or find yourself swarmed).

If you’re looking for a true small town Italian experience, don’t go to Cinque Terre. Or go when it’s snowing outside and a tidal wave is on the way. The good news though is that it’s fairly easy to get away from the throngs. The tour groups are like an old trail horse - they never stray from the well-worn path to the barn.

Here’s another piece of advice: when offered the room with the view, don’t take it. Don’t take it unless you’re ready to hike half-a-mile up 400 quaint-but-cockeyed stairs to a room at the top of a far mountain. I like climbing mountains and stairs and such, but it quickly loses its appeal when it’s required every time you want to stop in for a pee. (The public toilets are, as Jen put it, “gross.” I should mention that public toilets in Italy do not have a seat. Yuchie for girls; not such a big deal for guys.)

On our first afternoon, we took a walk from Riomaggiore to the next town over, Manarola. Truly magnificent. It’s called the Via dell’ Amore - the Lover’s Walk. The ocean crashes onto craggy rocks a hundred feet below. Tradition calls for romantically inclined couples to initial a padlock and attach it to a railing somewhere along the trail. Ah yes, a padlock with the key missing - the Italians even managed to invent the perfect metaphor for marriage.

The next morning, we woke to low clouds and softly falling rain. Fortunately, the air was cool, but not cold. We took the train to Vernazza, the second most northerly town, so that we could walk to to the northern most town of Monterosso al Mare. Since our previous walk had taken maybe 30 minutes including time to stop for photos and a beer, I didn’t think much of what the map claimed was a two hour hike.

But I was sandbagged. I’m a climber. I’ve day-hiked 13,000 foot peaks. Bagged most of the local peaks in Southern California and regularly train on a nearby peak just to stay fit. But this three-and-a-half hour hike with about a 1,000 feet of elevation gain kicked my butt.

It’s a beautiful hike - kind of like a spaghetti western Big Sur. Mountains disappearing into the crashing sea. Steep hillside vineyards. Ancient country gardens. Quaint stone walls and Mediterranean vistas that extend almost to the Roman era. Just don’t take it lightly. Like the rest of Cinque Terre, it’s all uphill - both ways.

Dinnertime is primetime. The tour groups have all moved on leaving the little towns to the locals and the few tourists hardy enough to make the ascent to their hotel-room-with-a-view. But the best thing about dinnertime is dinner. The only thing better than the views here is the food. Like all food in Italy, it’s fresh and it’s local.

Before I came to Italy, I received dozens of recommendations for restaurants. I never made it to one. No matter, the food in Italy is exceptional. It’s more difficult to find a bad restaurant than a good one. So I’m not going to make recommendations either since whatever restaurant you stumble into is likely to be divine.

On our first night here, we enjoyed a  perfectly cooked and seasoned tuna steak bigger than the biggest rib-eye I’ve ever seen. The sun-dried tomatos are beyond fantastic. The caprese salad with mouthwatering capers - superb. And the anchovies; I didn’t know that anchovies could be good given how bad the ones at home are. You’ll fall in love with them here.

The cooking here involves a different palate from Tuscany. I was afraid that, being so spoiled as I was in our Tuscan stay, I’d be disappointed with the food here. I’m happy to report that it may even be better, and, even dearer to this tightwad’s heart, cheaper.

A couple of tips: When you first get here, you’ll want to buy tickets for the seaside trail as well as the train. Not only is taking the train the easiest way to get from town to town, it’s great to take a load off after a long day of walking to and around and up and down your destination.

Although backpacking from town to town each night may seem like a grand adventure when planning your trip back at home, you may well be miserable without the right gear. The hike from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza is steep, long and hot much of the year. Unless you have a serious backpack (not some dilettante travel-pack special), you’ll probably want to follow your inclination to turn around about twenty minutes into the hike. The train is your friend.

Day hiking from town to town is easy. The distances aren’t that far either. It’s easy enough to stay in one town, pick another town to walk to for the day and then take the train back.

The most accessible towns for walking around are Monterosso and Vernazza. They’re also the most jam packed with the tour group hordes so if you want a more authentic experience, book your lodging in one of the other three towns.

Don’t forget the ferry either. It runs during the day, rain or shine and stops at all but one (Corniglia) of the five towns. Nothing like being hot and sweaty after a long hike then stepping onto the boat to feel the cool breeze of the ocean on your face. Plus, unlike the train which goes mostly underground, you get a brilliant view of the mountainous seascape.

Although Corniglia isn’t on the ferry schedule, don’t think it’s not worth the visit. Because it’s a steep hike to access it from the train station and a long hike from the surrounding villages, it’s free from the tour group packs that overwhelm the other towns. The narrow winding path through town is reminiscent of Sienna and there’s plenty of character to boot.

And no one has more character than Mario, the proprietor of the wine shop Enoteca Con El Pirun. He’ll pour you white wine from his own label, treat you to his favorite local music and entertain you with photos and stories of his life in the little town. Upstairs is a quaint restaurant that I recommend you try - and let me know how you like it. In our hunger, we stopped at the first place we saw on the walk in from Vernazza and so missed dining in the actual town. Sometimes it pays to abide the hunger and walk a little further.

Not all the best moments require a long trek however. The hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola is the shortest and flattest of the bunch - just 15 minutes at a fast stroll and infinitely long taken at leisure. Despite its accessibility, it’s among the most scenic of the paths as it clings to the nearly vertical mountainside just out of reach from the waves swirling below.

Midway through the walk is a small outdoor bar. The terrace where it sits looks directly down to the foamy sea 200 feet below. As you sit down and ask for a beer, time slows and comes to a standstill. The endless sea and sky, the sounds of waves breaking onto rocks, the salty air, the remoteness, the lonely seagull circling nearby, the precipitous incline of the mountainside, all cast their spell of blissful contentedness on the heart while the mind goes quiet.

My suggestion is to never leave that spot. For when you do, you’ll want to come right back.


3 Responses to “Five Lands - Cinque Terre, Italy”

  1. Matt Says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, John. My wife and I went to Italy for our honeymoon in Jan/Feb of 2009, and one of our stops was in the Cinque Terre region. Your comment about step-climbing for a room with a view was spot on. We stayed at the very top of the city in Vernazza (the door to our room was directly opposite the entrance to the castle), and it was a work out just to get back up to the room multiple times a day. I do have to say, though, our experience was much different than yours in that there was virtually no one around in late Jan/early Feb. No tourist masses, no teenagers… only a couple other vacationing couples we’d run into each night at one of the few restaurants open during that season. And it was cool but not cold, so we loved it. Thanks for jogging the memory.

  2. Tracy dee Says:

    WoW, so beautiful John! Love your work.

  3. Kathryn Says:

    I just had SUCH a burst of nostalgia! I was one of those post-college backpacker’s that did the summer trek thru Europe. Of all the 28 cities visited, Cinque Terre stands out in my mind as one of the highlights. When we were there (10 years ago) it wasn’t super touristy and actually still had that “small town” feel.
    Thank you for the gorgeous shots… I hiked the towns too and your images brought me back to it all!

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