Ah, Cinque Terre, the “little gem” of Italy as it is so aptly named by the countless blogs, books, and bumbling tour operators. But this little gem ain’t so little anymore, no sir. By now, the infamy of Cinque Terre is about the size of all the two-bit diamond retailers the world over; and it shows no signs of stopping. But what else can you expect when you see photos of an idyllic Italian coastline, sprinkled with colorfully brilliant seaside homes? To the untrained eye, this is the sort of old-fashioned, nostalgic Italy that people travel from miles around to see: where everyone knows everyone, and the townspeople all run little shops that have been in their family for generation after generation after generation; like a scene straight out of Mama Mia. This is not the Cinque Terre I experienced.
Of course it’s beautiful, that cannot be denied. However, the difference between what you see on Google images to what you experience when you get there is stark. In fact, this same bait-and-switch happened to Kug, my Cinque Terre travel buddy. Having only seen the jaw-dropping photos, he was expecting these quaint little villages to be as isolated as the photos. Alas, this was most certainly not the case.
Now, Cinque Terre was a day trip I had originally planned to take during the early organization stages. Then, after talking to a few different people about it, I learned that since it’s discovery, Cinque Terre had become extremely touristy. As such, I decided that I’d rather spend more time in Tuscany looking at other, more authentic places so I cut the day trip to the coast. But, with the unforeseen extra time I had in Italy due to the cancelling of my flight to Croatia, Cinque Terre again became a possibility. Arriving in Florence the first night, I began to do some recon on how I might make this trip fit into my schedule, and I have to say that it was actually a lot easier than I expected. Just in case the internet was wrong though, I did do a bit of asking around. With my assumptions confirmed, Kug and I set off!
From Florence, getting to Cinque Terre is a bit long, but not quite as bad as it sounds. You need to take a train out of the city heading for La Spezia, the station just outside the first of the “cinque”, Riomaggiore. This train ride lasts about two and half hours, but after getting off at La Spezia, the next connection is only about 10 minutes so you’re practically there already. The only downside is that in between the connections, there is about an hour wait for the regional train into Cinque Terre. Kug and I killed time by walking around the surrounding area, buying a few snacks for the day, and getting our agenda down so we could hit the ground running. Once the train arrived, we were ready to take on The Terre!
Whether you do Cinque Terre as a day trip or decide to stay the night in any of the towns, it is a fairly easy trip to navigate. The regional trains arrive about every hour in both directions and are instrumental in facilitating smooth transitions between towns. You can also hike between them if you’d like, but with only so much time, we couldn’t afford to spend the whole day hiking if we wanted to explore each one a little, starting with Riomaggiore.
Getting off the train was a cinch and the signage from the platform to the “center” of town was beyond adequate, but again, we’re dealing with five very small metropoles (meant in the most satirical fashion, of course). Not exactly sure what we wanted to see, we decided to follow the crowd through the quaint, cobblestone streets and head towards the water. Though we hadn’t planned on hiking between the towns, we had read online that you could ferry between them; this I found most appealing! Unfortunately, as we approached the ticket booth perched over the dock, we were made aware that due to the undesirable weather conditions, the ferry was out of commission for the day. Bitterly bummed out, we continued walking along the seaside trail until we came to an uninhibited stretch of beach were we didn’t have to fight for a view, or pay €2 for the bathroom (the latter I’m not particularly proud of, but hey, I’m a girl on a budget!).
After spending a good 20 minutes just admiring the sparkling teal blue sea before us, we decided it was time to hit the tracks and carry on to Manarola. This was where our trouble began. First of all, I will admit that we may not have been quite as prepared as we should have been for our arriving train, and when I say not prepared, I mean we bought our tickets as the train screeched over the tracks above us. Sprinting up the stairs, we were met with a monsoon of what felt like one thousand tourists shoving man, woman, and child in front of them out of the way in order to either board or de-train. Needless to say, it was a mosh pit of chaos! I grabbed ahold of Kug’s backpack as he navigated us through the maze and on to the train, with just milliseconds until departure. Once safely on board, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation that had just befallen us. I have never experienced anything like that, and I doubt I ever will again. If you consider yourself a bit of a claustrophobic, may I suggest you not rely too heavily on train transportation through Cinque Terre. You may not live to see the next villa.
Manarola was really similar to Riomaggiore in my opinion, not a whole lot of reason to spend more than an hour or so there. Leaving the train station, you head down the street, once again following the crowds and once again heading for the sea. Now, don’t be mislead; there is not real beach in either Manarola or Riomaggiore, but this won’t stop crazy people from hopping in anyways! Instead of handing in our sanity, Kug and I opted for a little light people watching as we sat by the water’s edge and enjoyed our assorted snacks. I can’t say I’ve ever had cheese and crackers in a more beautiful place. As we munched, we conversed a bit with a few of the swimmers (apparently it wasn’t quite as cold as it looked, but I wasn’t going to “see for myself”) and then we packed up our things and headed back to the train station. The next destination, if we were doing all five towns, should have been Corniglia, but we decided to skip it due to time constraints. Instead, we headed straight for Vernazza.
It was at this point in our journey that I was once again in desperate need of a bathroom, but as Vernazza is one of the more (if not the most) popular of the five towns, there were no open spaces to be found. Instead, as some sort of cruel joke, there was a free bathroom that was literally a hole in the ground. Talk about culture shock! But if there was one good thing to come from it, it would be the discovery of yet another lover of Rick Steves. While standing in line, I noticed the woman in front of me had the Italy edition of the Rick Steves travel guide. Hearing the early growls of hunger and having no idea where we should find our next meal, I was desperate for a little taste of Rick’s sage wisdom. A true gentlewoman, this lovely lady let me browse her book and take photos of the pages containing the best restaurant recommendations in the next town of Monterosso. When I met back up with Kug, on the other side of nature’s call, I was more than ready to tackle the city, and eat some darn good Italian! But first, Vernazza.
Between the four towns that we visited that day, Vernazza was my favorite. Not that they weren’t all beautiful, but just something about the vibe really jived with me. It felt like there was more to this space than just a path to the ocean. The streets went in more than one direction, and whatever way you went, shops and restaurants seemed to sprawl out before you, inviting you in for a peak at the menu or sales rack. Good deals were few and far between of course because this place is essentially Italy’s Disneyland; but even though you know it going in, you still go anyways. It’s a magic power the two places seem to share.
After walking around a bit, and still having ample time left in the day, we thought it might be a good idea to investigate how the hiking worked. We had one last town to visit, Monterosso, and seeing as how it was only the early afternoon, we thought a nice two hour hike would be the perfect way to work up an appetite for a tasty meal at the end of the trail. I had mentioned earlier that hiking between all five is a possibility, but it appeared that at the time of our visit, this was not an option. Landslides had dramatically affected the state of the trails, leaving a few of them completely closed for the season. As such, should one have arrived for the hiking, they would’ve only be allowed to hike from Corniglia to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Monterosso (or vice-versa). Also, instead of just paying per leg of this arduous journey (as was previously explained to me), you had to pay as though you were taking the aforementioned route, a cost amounting to about €10 per person. Quite a hefty fee for a few hours work in my opinion, but for the sake of new experiences, I paid it nonetheless. And so we were off! Climbing high above the coastal scene of Vernazza and soon looking out above the whole coastline!
The hike itself is nothing too strenuous, especially not for a girl from the Pacific Northwest, but what we didn’t quite account for was the Italian heat. By the end of our journey, I wanted nothing more than to jump in that crystal clear water we had been staring at for the better part of two hours. Looking at it from above, it was just as perfect as I imagined it to be below. Even though we only hiked between two of the five towns, I was satisfied with the overall experience. It was enough of a taste for me and Kug! And we certainly worked up an appetite for a delicious Italian meal After our chance encounter with a fellow Rick Steves aficionado, we knew exactly where we were going for dinner: L’Alta Marea.
A cozy little place just off the main drag, L’Alta Marea specializes in dishes featuring the fruit of the sea, but is also recognized for their pizza and daily specials. So, in what had now become our little routine, Kug and I figured out our four course meal for two and had ourselves drooling by the time we got to dessert. Seeing all the amazing pasta choices, we couldn’t quite settle on just one so we each got our own (and mine was definitely the better choice). While Kug ordered the chestnut ravioli, I decided to go for the slightly more luxurious crab pasta which, I came to find out, included the added bonus of a whole crab “on the side”. It was so amazing that I found myself practically full by the time our main meal arrived. Now, our entree (a sort of cioppino, mussel soup mixture) was the topic of conversation for most of the hike, so we couldn’t leave Cinque Terre without satisfying Kug’s immense craving for it. I had never really had “mussel soup”, so I figured when in Italy, eh? But when that vat of mollusks was placed between us, we both knew there was no way we could eat it all, even given the veraciousness of both our appetites! And especially not if we wanted dessert! So we gave it our best shot; it was hard to stop honestly because it was so freaking good, but eventually we had had more than our fill and had to call it quits.
We weren’t sure if we could handle dessert, but after seeing the dessert menu, we knew we couldn’t leave without having a little taste of panna cotta. This was something new to me, but I am beyond glad that Kug was there to talk me into trying it (to be fair, it wasn’t that hard, knowing me). Although this was my first panna cotta, I would stake my reputation as a food lover on it being the best. Subsequent panna cottas I tried elsewhere in Italy failed to live up to its glorious standards. The only thing I can say is that you have to try one for yourself. It is seriously life-changing. And this coming from a girl who thought tiramisu was the ultimate Italian dessert! All in all, should you find yourself in Monterosso and looking for a place to eat, I think you would be hard pressed to find a better restaurant than L’Alta Marea.
Rolling ourselves to the train station to catch our journey home, we had nothing but good things to say about our day in Cinque Terre. Despite the onslaught of tourists, it is a nice place to visit; but don’t put all your Italian eggs in that basket. Though it is beautiful, so are a lot of other places in Italy, and Tuscany alone for that matter. Of course in the end it is up to you, and while I did enjoy myself when I went, next time I might take the advice of dear ol’ Robert Frost and take the path less traveled by, for as they say, that makes all the difference.