by Joel Mathiason
Are you tired of those typically over-traveled seaside vacation destinations? Hawaii? Bahamas? Cancun? Consider one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, the Cinque Terre, for your next coastal collision.
Located along Italy’s western coast between Pisa and Genoa, the Cinque Terre offers 18 miles of clear blue water, cool sea breezes, water and land sports, which, I think, now includes shopping. But most of all, you’ll find peace and quiet amid the cadence of waves crashing on the rocky shoreline.
The Cinque Terre region (Italian for “five lands”) is primarily made up of five main villages. From north to south, they are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. These ancient farming and fishing villages are built along the coastal hillsides in what is now the Cinque Terre National Park. The villages’ residents have spared no cliff space over the past few thousand years by building their homes upward, creating these picturesque ascending cliff-scrapers.
Getting here, you can drive to Monterosso al Mare or take the train to any one of the villages. On this trip, our destination is Riomaggiore, the southernmost village. Once in the Cinque Terre region, you’ll want to pick up a Cinque Terre Card. This park permit serves as a local train pass and allows you unlimited rail service between the villages. These invaluable passes are sold in single-day or various multi-day forms and allow you access to the park’s miles of hiking trails and its water ferry. So, don’t lose it.
There are a few quaint hotels and hostels in some of the villages; however, the majority of the accommodations here are small homes and condos. We stayed in a cozy seaside condo, complete with full bath and kitchen – and the word “cozy” takes on a whole new meaning here. Not only are most homes built on top of each other, they are literally built into the cliffs. Our bedroom came complete with a queen size and single bed, a wardrobe and a granite cliff façade! Our cave-like condo featured its own private veranda, overlooking the sapphire waters of the Mediterranean Sea. This brings us to an old Italian tradition, grab a glass of the region’s red vino, sit back and allow your stresses to slip into the sea.
Believe it or not, travel between these stair-stepping villages can be effortless. Simply validate your train pass (important tip for all Italian train travel), and hop on board a train that connects all five villages. You can zip from village to village in a matter of minutes by riding the rails. In the warmer, high-tourist season (roughly May through September), you may also ride the water ferry from village to village. The ferry will offer amazingly unique views of the ancient vineyards and olive groves.
On the other hand, if you have some comfortable shoes and a little more time, consider traveling by foot. From Riomagiorre, you and your lover can easily stroll north to Manarola along the Via dell’ Amore or “walk of love,” as if you actually needed the translation. However, hiking between the other villages requires a little more effort. Miles of hiking paths wind along these hillside farming terraces. Each turn delivers a well deserved payoff, in the form of one picture postcard moment after another. You’ll walk along the same centuries-old paths used by the olive and wine growers. However, these days, tourists are the trails’ top traveler.
The Cinque Terre has recently been designated a “World Heritage” site. Park officials have done a fantastic job keeping the Cinque Terre in pristine condition. “No littering” signs, caring residents and ecologically conscience visitors have also played a large part. So, please allow me to borrow a phrase from our Lone Star State, “Don’t mess with the Cinque Terre.”
Locals we met along the way, like Monterroso al Mare café shop owner, Giovanni, were very friendly. Don’t be surprised if you hear George Strait blaring away while he’s on duty. This Texan wannabe claims to own every album the artist has released. But he’s never seen him in concert. Why? Giovanni says he’s always had to work in this “oceanfront property” during Strait’s summer Italian tours.
He offers this translation tip for Americans. Instead of ordering a “cup of coffee,” ask for a “café latte.” This substitute offers very strong coffee with milk, to help take a bit of the edge off.
Just outside Giovanni’s shop, on the beach, we decided to sit down with our usual snack of bruschetta and cheese. Entertaining us were some kids playing a pick-up game of football. This school group was here on a field trip from a neighboring inland town. You don’t need to speak their language to realize Italian kids are no different than the kids in America. Here, the Italian boys also try very hard to impress the girls by showing off and goofing around. And the Italian girls, well, they just sit back, look good, and laugh at the boys. Some things are just universal.
As the sun sets and your appetite is whet, venture into any of the villages to catch some more local flavor. Riomaggiore has several restaurants, but like the revisiting waves along the shore, we found ourselves consistently crashing the dining room of the same bruschetteria. We enjoyed the tomato and mushroom pie and the famed Italian panini.
Be sure to strike up a conversation with the folks at the next table. It’s here that all the best travel secrets are shared. You might even learn a few valuable Italian phrases to help get you through your vacation. And here’s another hint, even though the tips are usually included in the price of your meal, over-tip your waiters and waitresses. They seem to remember you better on the next visit (and their English improves as well). Also, be sure to check the restaurants’ closing times while planning out your daily itinerary. Some are closed on random days and random hours.
Remember that beach-going Italians call the unspoiled Cinque Terre “home” in those popular, higher priced, warm summer months. Just to be safe, book a room several months in advance and double-check that reservation a week or two out from your vacation. We visited in March and felt like we had the Cinque Terre to ourselves. Those cooler temperatures (Highs: 65-70 degrees) were perfect for all the walking, hiking and stair climbing we did. Finally, make sure you stay at least two nights. You’ll need one full day to appreciate this truly treasured Italian time capsule.
For more information on the Cinque Terre region, visit www.cinqueterreonline.com.