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Cinque Terre, Italy

February 19, 2012

Seeing Rick Steves’ show on the Cinque Terre is what propelled us to Italy in the summer of 2010.

My mom had given us the Rick Steves Europe DVD set for Christmas a couple of years before, and we used to watch an episode or two after dinner on weeknights. It was like taking a mini-vacation from work and the humdrum of day-to-day life.

     

I’d wanted to go to Italy for a long time, even before I’d tried (and failed) to take Italian my freshman year of college. I figured it couldn’t be that difficult since I’d had 4+ years of Spanish. I was wrong. It turns out that I am not a language person. So I switched my primary major to one that did not require foreign language, picked up my original field as a double major, and that was that.

The parts of Italy I most wanted to experience were the seaside towns stacked on hillsides, like you see in pictures. The Cinque Terre did not disappoint.

     

The Cinque Terre are five (cinque) villages along the northwest coast of Italy, south of Genoa and Milan and north of Florence. They are sometimes called the Italian Riviera.

All five towns are connected by coastal, hilly, hiking trails, as well as trains and boats. Sadly, a torrential rainstorm caused hundreds of landslides in the Cinque Terre last October. They disrupted some of the walking paths, devastated parts of the towns, and took the lives of three people. You may want to double check the recovery before you plan your trip. If you’d like to contribute to the rebuilding efforts, one place to do so is SaveVernazza.com.

The hiking trail between the first two towns, Riomaggiore and Manarola, is called the Via dell’Amore. It is an easy, mostly level, 20-minute walk on a paved path along the Ligurian Sea. There was fun graffiti on tunnel walls, a musician playing Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never” on an accordion, and hundreds of padlocks. Couples close a padlock on a railing or cable to symbolize locking their hearts together forever in love.

I liked Manarola- there seemed to be flowers on every restaurant table, and its streets were lined with little shops and pretty displays of colorful decorated pottery. Riomaggiore was hilly and less flashy. It felt the most like a working town, not just a tourist destination.

We continued on the trail to the third village, Corniglia, which was a longer and more rugged hike (about 45 minutes). The town sits atop a steep cliff, and to get up there from the train station or trail, you have to climb 382 stairs or take a shuttle bus. The stairs were fine for us, but I would advise against hurrying down them when you realize that the train you hoped to catch leaves in 7 minutes. That is not enough time to run down the stairs, through the train station, and onto the train. (Silly American tourists. :))

There was an excellent, tiny restaurant in Corniglia with a chalkboard menu written completely in Italian and a waitress who was willing to translate it for us. I think the walls were made of stone and it had a rustic feel to it. I cannot remember the name, but there were not many restaurants in this town, so you may be able to find it by peeking inside a place or two.

At that point we went back to the hotel to shower and change, so I can’t tell you how the hiking is between Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. Both of the latter towns were gorgeous though.

You may want to hit Monterosso at an off-time or when it is overcast, so it does not seem so crowded and overwhelming. Unless you like the energy of touristy crowds, of course! I much preferred seeing it early one gray, cloudy morning, when we had the beach scene and shops to ourselves.

Find your way all the way down the promenade and through a little walkway to the Monterosso old town, which is much more charming than the waterfront and has enjoyable shops, restaurants, and an incredible, memorable, black and white striped chapel.

I bought some adorable handmade tiny Asian-style tea cups at an artsy shop, and we loved Pizzeria da Ely, where everything seemed to be made from scratch by the waiter’s mother-in-law, wife, sister, etc. The bread was above-average, the desserts were incredible, and the staff was friendly and welcoming.

Vernazza was lovely and enjoyable, and perhaps my favorite of the five villages. (It is the picture above with the cream-colored church tower, brightly colored restaurant umbrellas, and harbor.) You can climb up into an old stone castle to get a bird’s eye view of the town. We ate dinner at one of the umbrella-shaded restaurants near the harbor, and it was lively and fun, especially when bats started circling the church tower after dark.

Our hotel was Al Terra di Mare in Levanto, a bigger town only a 6 minute train ride from Monterosso. Initially we were disappointed not to stay in the true Cinque Terre, but it turned out well to have a less crowded, quieter, larger city as our homebase. Pay close attention to the train schedule though; not all trains stop at all towns, and you don’t want to miss the last one!

The hotel itself was gorgeous: a modern, well-appointed, Mediterranean-style building nestled in a hillside above the Levanto. It was the kind of romantic and luxurious place where you could have a delicious buffet breakfast at a table for two on the terrace every morning and take lazy swims in the pool every afternoon. However, the walk into town was up and down a very steep hill, and probably at least a mile. We love walking, but after doing it once we decided it was best to be at the mercy of the hotel van’s schedule. The staff were incredibly friendly and it was easy to sign up for seats, but you could not just stroll from your room to dinner and back again on your own timetable. Because of the steep hillside location and the sophisticated adult vibe, I wouldn’t think this would be an ideal choice for families with young children.

We were happy to have a hotel reservation because we are Type A like that, but there did appear to be individual rooms for rent in the towns, like this one pictured below in Manarola with a phone number on the small white card out front.

The most amazing minestrone of the trip and one of the very best meals was in Levanto, at a little trattoria called Da Rino. If you make a reservation you may nab one of the few outdoor tables.

As we walked from the van drop-off point to Da Rino, we passed dozens of delightful pictures created with flower petals in the middle of the streets. They appeared to be honoring a religious occasion, but we were not able to ascertain which one- possibly First Communion? In any case, the petal art was charming and fanciful, one of my favorite memories of the trip.

Another favorite memory from the Cinque Terre specifically was the focaccia, which originated here in the Liguria region. It was amazing. I could have subsisted very happily on it and gelato alone for the entire vacation.

Other culinary specialties of the area include lemons, seafood, anchovies, farinata (a rustic chickpea flatbread that seemed to usually be gluten-free), basil liquor (which is worth trying and really does taste like basil), and pesto. The pesto was good, but didn’t bowl me over like the foccacia did.

Speaking of gluten, if you avoid it, you’ll find Italy a welcoming place despite all the pasta and bread. The word for celiac disease in Italian is celiachia (pronounced something like “chee-li-aca”). Even small shop-owners seemed familiar with the concept, and hotels appeared willing to have breakfast options available if they were notified in advance. Several Italian foods (like farinata) were naturally gluten-free.

To put your feet in the beautiful blue Ligurian Sea without all the crowds, stroll down to the beach after dinner in the evening. We had it almost all to ourselves one night in Levanto.

This may seem very obvious, but let’s talk about weather for a moment. We traveled in late May and the very early part of June. I knew it would be warm, but it was hot. Personally, for me, it was too hot to enjoy the beach in the daytime or long and challenging hikes. The sun beats down on you and the air feels heavy. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a heat/humidity person, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt. But, if you are not an educator and have more flexibility to travel before summer, you may want to consider a spring visit. Also, if I went to Italy again at that same time of year, I would not pack jeans or long sleeves. I did wear leggings with a light dress and thin rain slicker one rainy day, but the rest of the trip it was far too warm for that many clothes.

Overall, I loved the Cinque Terre, and would go again in a heartbeat. It was charming, lively, delicious, scenic, and relatively easy to navigate.

I had to work hard to narrow down the photographs that I wanted to show you in this post, and even still I feel like I am leaving out many pictures and stories. The area just had so much character, and attention to aesthetic details like potted flowers and eye-catching decorations.

If you visit the Cinque Terre, I hope you enjoy your time there. Ciao!

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