Overhead view of Vernazzo, on the trail towards Monterosso
What is Cinque Terre?
Cinque Terre, or “five lands,” is a series of small seaside towns in the Italian Riviera, in the Liguria region. It is widely known for being one of the most beautiful places on earth, and is recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Visitors can hike the trails between the five towns and be rewarded with gorgeous cliffside views of the sea. Unfortunately, the booming popularity of the region has turned Cinque Terre into something more akin to Disneyland, particularly during the high summer season. The influx of American tourists toting Rick Steve’s guidebooks, kitschy souvenir shops and high prices has warped the towns into a bit of a tourist trap, where more English is spoken than Italian.
Where do we get a terrible night’s sleep?
I highly recommend the apartments at 9 Via Visconti. When we were looking for rooms (about 10 days before), this was literally the last room left in town, and at a rather pricey €45 per person to boot. However, the apartment was centrally located, and we’d wanted easy beach access which is available in Vernazza. Good thing our money was going towards a friendly landlord, who told us he was “very busy” when we asked if he could replace the broken fan, and that we could leave if we didn’t like the apartment because there were “lots of other people waiting for the room.” Cramped beds and stifling heat aside, there is a dance party on the beach till 1 am on Saturday nights, so you can toss and turn to the pulsating beat of Lady Gaga. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded this (I’d be out on the beach dancing), but we had decided to go hiking the next morning at 8 am…After the DJ sent everyone home, the neighbors came trooping in. As it turns out, our central hall was also the hallway leading to two other apartments, and those doors were not storage closets after all. There’s nothing like meeting the neighbors as you lie sprawled out in bed. And for the finale, a flock of curiously nocturnal seabirds began squawking noisily at each other. This symphony continued for the rest of the night, as I dreamed about the number of ways I could roast the seagulls.
And the food?
Generally unremarkable and overpriced, particularly in the heart of Vernazza. €3 for a small piece of focaccia? Surely you jest. However, the lasagna and octopus we had at La Torre was solid, and the sunset views of the town made it worthwhile.
So wait, don’t go to Cinque Terre?
No, go in the spring or fall, before the mad stampede of tourists guarantees that you will be essentially visiting Florida. It might be better to stay in another town besides Vernazza (the smaller towns seemed nicer). Also, don’t get me wrong, there are some perks to being in a ‘tourist hellhole,’ like English language menus and signage. However, having lived in Bra, I can say with confidence that Cinque Terre is not a true small Italian town experience.
Clockwise: Ceiling mural at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre cafe, Languid Cat sprawls out on a picnic table, the rocky shores of the azure Ligurian sea, a green door in the side of a cliff
How’s the hiking?
Forget the beach, the trails between the towns are the best part of Cinque Terre. Sweeping ocean vistas, crisp sea breezes, and rocky cliffs combine to give your legs a serious workout, before you descend into town to grab gelato. The hikes from Vernazzo (#4) to Monterosso (#5) and Vernazzo to Corniglia (#3) include lots of ascents and stair-climbing, and take an average of 90 minutes (unless you are like me and hike like a German). The path from Corniglia to Manarola (#2) is relatively flat in comparison and can be done in about half an hour, and the route from Manarola to Riomaggiore (#1) is a paved 15 minute cakewalk. Thus, if you are hiking all five towns in one day, you should start in Monterosso and work your way towards Riomaggiore. The trails are well-marked with red & white blazes and dual-language signage for trail no. 2. It costs €5 for a one-day pass to hike the trails, and the fine if you get caught without a pass is €150. However, the checkpoint booths aren’t open before 8 am or after 5:30 pm, so I managed to get away with not buying a pass my first afternoon.
How do I learn Ligurian cooking?
First, you must seek out the Best Lemonade Stand in Italy. On the way out of Monterosso, at the top of the first long ascent, I was panting with heat and wiping the sweat out of my eyes, when a voice emanated to my left: “Signorina, vuoi una limonata?” Turns out it wasn’t the voice of God, but a grinning gentleman under a green tarp with dangling lemons. Sweaty and vulnerable, I readily agreed to fork over €2 for a lemonade and began chatting with the vendor, who began telling me about his lemon grove, his honeys and his wines. “The food in the restaurants down there is no good,” he said dismissively. “It is not vero. Here try this, it is my limoncello!” I mentioned that I was a student at UNISG and his eyes lit up. “Ah, so you are interested in food? Come back in the fall, I will teach you how to cook the Ligurian way, there is a place for you here!” Since there was no paper on hand, he ripped off the top of a sugar box and wrote down his name and phone number for me. That’s right, 2 hours in Cinque Terre and I’m already collecting numbers. To my new buddy Arpe: if you are reading this out there, I’ll be back someday.
I’ve hiked through all five towns and now my legs feel like mozzarella. How do I get home?
There are two non-ambulatory options for returning back to your starting point: the train and the ferry. Clearly one of these is cooler than the other, but the train does run a bit more frequently than the ferry. Train tickets cost €1.30 and are valid for 6 hours afterwards, but if you hop on the ferry, you can see the towns from the water and also yell, “I’m on a BOAT, motherf***ers!” The ticket from Riomaggiore to Vernazza costs €6.50 and the journey lasts about 20 minutes.
Clockwise: UNESCO sign juxtaposing Cinque Terre with the Great Wall of China, the Best Lemonade Stand in all of Italy (outside Monterosso), sunset over Vernazzo, the ferry between the five towns
Ok, I’m sold! How do I get to Cinque Terre?
After analyzing the time and cost needed to take the train, we opted to rent a car and drive from Bra. Now, if getting there is half the fun, then I hope you enjoy driving along winding, one-lane bi-directional cliffside roads with lots of blind curves, and being forced to back up when another car comes careening around the corner. However, the most fun to be had is at the parking lot above Vernazza. We carefully maneuvered the car into a space the size of my desk. Unfortunately, the bumper attached itself to the cliff and stretched out behind us with a sickening crunch as the car pulled away. Good thing bumpers are made of plastic these days and we were able to pop it back into place…
Alternatively, you could take the train, which will probably save you some white-knuckled driving.