The second stop on our Northern Italian road trip was Cinque Terre. I had some trepidations knowing how popular of a tourist destination it was but I’d heard great things and my grandfather was born in La Spezia, the port city just outside of Cinque Terre. I had to like this place. It was practically in my blood! Also, hiking between five idyllic fishing villages sounded appealing even if I happened to be joined by a few other like-minded travelers. I figured hiking would eliminate at least two-thirds of the cruise ship contingency and we were visiting off season, so it couldn’t possibly be that crowded.
After about three hours of driving, we arrived in Cinque Terre and made our way to Manarola, the smallest of the villages. Manarola is a picturesque town in a slightly ramshackle sort of way. Brightly colored buildings mingle with tourist shops, restaurants, tiny fishing boats and cafes leading up to a very small natural harbor.
Cars are not allowed in the village and there are very few hotels. If you ever visit, be sure to book early and pack light. We booked a private room in an apartment through AirBnB. The apartment was four steep staircases up a narrow pedestrian pathway. Inside, it was tastefully renovated and simply furnished in keeping with the apartment’s original detail. It had four floors, each consisting of one or two small rooms. (No need for a stair-master in this town) The best features of this apartment, however, were the very kind host and her ridiculously cute, tri-lingual five-year old girl. Yes, I said tri-lingual.
That night at the recommendation of our host, we had one of our more memorable dinners at Billy’s a three story restaurant on the outskirts of town.
We stuffed ourselves with huge plates of squid ink pasta and fresh seafood alongside groups of rowdy travelers and Italians alike. Then we washed it all down with local wine and homemade shnaps before stumbling back to our AirBnB.
The following morning we started our hike between the villages. Prior to massive flooding in 2011, a relatively flat path close to the water’s edge connected all of the villages. These paths were badly damaged and have yet to be completely restored. A different, steeper path now connects the villages ascending through vineyards and densely packed woods. To our delight, every few meters, breathtaking views of the coastline and villages were revealed.
After about an hour we arrived in Coniglia a tiny village on top of a hill, and then on to ___ where we were just in time for a light lunch and apertif.
From there we hiked on to Vernazza, Rick Steves’ favorite villages. As we got closer to Vernazza, the path become more and more packed with hikers of all ages and nationalities. Once we got to the town, we were somewhat disappointed. I was correct in my assumption that the entire cruise ship contingency would not be hiking, however, I hadn’t considered that boats and trains easily connect one village to the next. It felt as though an entire, army of camera touting tourists had descended upon this tiny town. And the town responded to this constant influx with a generous number of souvenir stands and tourist restaurants.
After stopping for a quick gelato, we hopped the train for the next village, Monterossa, with the hope that we would find something a little more quiet and remote.
After the crowds in Vernazza, Monterossa felt like a reprieve. It was touristy yes, but was less tacky tourist shop and more beachy resort. Umbrellas and beach chairs lined a long stretch of sand. For five euro we rented two loungers and an umbrella, quickly freed our tired feet and went for a swim.
That night over dinner we pondered the evolution of Cinque Terre, an undoubtedly remarkable place but showing the tell-tale signs of decades of day trippers and tour buses. I appreciated the natural beauty that it offered as well as the hospitality and graciousness of its occupants.
But I couldn’t help but wonder what Cinque Terre was like before the tourist boats, the cruise ships and even the trains. I imagined the remoteness, the mom and pop shops that preceded the souvenir stands, and the simple but difficult life afforded by fishing and farming in these small, interconnected towns. Then, I imagined my grandfather, walking the streets and steep steps of Manarola. What would he have thought about Cinque Terre and what it had become?