Cinque Terre offers serenity from the noise of Italy

by Kevin Pang

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

17 July 2007

Visitors walk the path leading into Vernazza from Monterosso in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT) 

RIOMAGGIORE, Italy—Far from the spinning postcard racks, the camera-wielding tour groups, the blare of the train whistle and the lyrical background noise of everyday Italy—far from everything, but not too far—there is silence.

In this Mediterranean seaside village, one of five towns that make up Cinque Terre, the silence fills an alleyway so narrow you can touch both walls with outstretched hands. No one is around, no birds or airplanes above, no white noise, no Vespa scooters with their ubiquitous rumble. It is a moment to stand, be still and absorb.

What looks to be another home at 84 Via Santa Antonio is, in fact, a church. It is a modest place of worship, the size of a small living room. It has a marble altar, checkerboard floors, two chandeliers, an organ and 16 wooden chairs—and four more in the cramped balcony. In the middle of this space stands a row of candles, some lit and some not, with a coin box asking for donations. Something, I’m not sure what, compels me to insert 40 euro cents and pray. I ask for safe travels (and a favorable exchange rate). This is a church you won’t find in a travel guidebook. You stumble upon it after getting lost in a tangle of alleyways as confusing to navigate as stairs in an Escher painting.

And yet, this method seems to be the best way to explore Cinque Terre: stumbling upon things.

Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kway TEHR-reh) is “five lands” perched upon a stretch of lush, terraced hills on Italy’s western coastline halfway between Genoa and Pisa. It is a place of unrivaled beauty, a national park, a United Nations World Heritage Site.

On the southbound train that brought me from Genoa for a four-day visit in April, the shimmering Ligurian Sea was on the right while the five towns—the “lands” of Cinque Terre—appeared one after another on the left as pastel jumbles dotting the rolling slopes of green.

Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore—each punctuated by the railroad tunnels in between.

A church and the day’s wash decorate a plaza on Vernazza’s waterfront. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

I spent the first two days in Riomaggiore, then went to Vernazza for the next two. But you can base yourself anywhere and move between them as you wish by train, boat or hiking trails—only 7 miles separate the five villages. You just can’t drive beyond Monterosso.

Roads as we know them don’t exist here, and even the few residents with vehicles have to park their cars and motorbikes behind gates that separate the villages from the outside world. There aren’t many museums here, either, but why should there be? The five villages are living, breathing museums of the Italian essence.

No matter what village you’re in, you’ll walk the narrow pedestrian ways among apartments, trattorias and olive-oil purveyors that could be no place else. Nearly all the buildings stand five stories tall, with green wooden shutters and well-worn pastel facades of pink, yellow, purple and orange. Time has faded the paint, leaving a rustic warmness behind.

Strolling down the passages of Vernazza one morning, I recall an Italian phrase: ” Il dolce far niente.” The sweetness of doing nothing.

I walk and watch as women hold conversations four floors apart. Three elderly men sit on a bench—talking, laughing, people watching. Linens dry in the Mediterranean breeze, a few cats stray down the Via Roma. Every 15 minutes, the bells at the 700-year-old Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia break the quiet with their toll.

The big news this morning is a wayward duck that had flown into the center of town and waddled into a clothing store. Minutes later, I see the owner walk out with the duck cradled in her arms. The sweetness of nothing continued.

Yet, on this April day, everyone knows what’s coming: summer—and the hordes of tourists. Last year, more than two million people visited this area only 4,500 locals call home.

Cinque Terre has become both the victim and beneficiary of one man, Rick Steves, who did for these towns what Ernest Hemingway did for Pamplona.

Giulia, 70, ties vines in her terraced plot near the village of Volastra, high in the hills above Manarola. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Giulia, 70, ties vines in her terraced plot near the village of Volastra, high in the hills above Manarola. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Steves is the genteel, wildly successful travel guide writer credited with introducing Cinque Terre to American tourists in 1980 in his book “Europe Through the Back Door.”

Twenty-five years ago, there were no more than a handful of restaurants and lodging options here. The towns’ industry was wine, with vineyards producing a strong dessert wine called sciacchetra.

By the early 1990s, non-Italian tourists—especially Germans and Americans—were arriving in Cinque Terre in droves. Monterosso received the first wave—with its sandy beach, intimate guest rooms and access from the Autostrade, it feels closest to a resort.

And so, the economic engine changed from agrarian to tourism. The younger generation who would have tended the vineyards now runs Internet cafes by the harbor. Many older residents sold their homes and retired into the hills. Today, roughly 40 percent of the housing in Cinque Terre is hotels, guest rooms and vacation homes.

The Rick Stevesification of Cinque Terre has produced two schools of thought: One laments a fragile cultural bubble burst by outsiders, the other praises the godsend of money that maintains the parks, restores hilltop terraces for agriculture and gives everyone a comfortable standard of living. The latter point of view by far outnumbers the former.

On another morning, still jet lagged, I stumble into Il Pirata, a Sicilian pastry shop at the top of Vernazza. Twin brothers Massimo and Gianluca Cutropia serve me a croissant that’s 30 seconds out of the oven, half with ricotta, the other half Nutella—that chocolate hazelnut spread. Massimo juices blood oranges into a glass. I eat ravenously, and notice a picture on the window of a smiling Rick Steves.

“You know what I do every morning? First I kiss my wife. Then I kiss Rick Steves,” Massimo said, pointing to the photo. Ninety-nine percent of the travel books he sees, he said, are Steves’ iconic blue-covered guides, clutched by white-knuckled Americans.

You can see them rolling their cart luggage into the Blue Marlin Bar, the watering hole in Vernazza where Americans seem to congregate. Young, hip rock music by bands like Radiohead and Gorillaz plays from the speakers. The staff speaks impeccable English. What could be more appealing for us Yanks?

“When the train comes in, it’s like an avalanche,” said 23-year-old bartender Stefano Cato, who hands me a plate of the town specialty, acciughe—fresh-caught anchovies with lemon juice and olive oil. “But for my generation, the tourism is a good thing.”

One thing seems for sure. However many visitors crowd these narrow streets, Starbucks and McDonald’s will not be coming to Cinque Terre. When McDonald’s opened a restaurant last year in the nearby port city of La Spezia, there was much resistance. In Cinque Terre, there would be a revolt.

Riomaggiore, the easternmost of the Cinque Terre villages,
seems to tumble into the water. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Next spring, progress will arrive in the form of a cable car taking visitors from Riomaggiore to the hill towns above. The way to alleviate overcrowding, a national park spokesman told me one day, is to take visitors to the Cinque Terre beyond the picturesque waterfront.

So on a misty and overcast Sunday, my last full day in Cinque Terre, I headed into the hills.

Hiking trails are one of Cinque Terre’s main attractions. Most known to visitors is trail No. 2, a scenic route that stretches through all five towns with gasp-inducing sea views. Earlier I’d walked two segments—a precipitous two-hour portion from Monterosso to Vernazza and an easier 20-minute paved stretch from Manarola to Riomaggiore known as Via dell’Amore (the road of love). It was altogether challenging and relaxing, rugged and steady. This time I took a friend’s suggestion to hike trail No. 8, unknown to most visitors, which begins in Vernazza and leads several miles up.

The climb, steep but smooth, passes a lonely cemetery (“They’ve got the best view in town,” a local told me). Vernazza soon becomes a colorful speck below—from up here, the gorgeous ramshackle towns look like collections of colorful wooden blocks about to tumble into the sea.

A mile up, the tiny towns on the hill emerge through the haze as if they were from another time. I came upon a church 1,150 feet above sea level—Santuario della Madonna di Reggio—that looks like something from a children’s fable. It is peach and pink, with black and white horizontal stripes rising up the clock tower. Not a person was in sight.

I walked behind the church, found a bench near the bluff and stared into the sea. I looked left, at the clusters of pastel buildings speckling the hills.

Be still, I told myself, as I walked on.

Sometimes, the destination is unknown until you’ve arrived. I knew this was it. Because save the crunch underneath my shoes, all I heard was silence.



GETTING THERE: Milan is the best international gateway to Cinque Terre. From Milan’s Central Station (Milano Centrale), it’s a three-hour train ride to Monterosso for $30. Add another $10 for First-Class comfort. More information at www.trenitalia.com/en/index.html. Consider Genoa, halfway between Milan and Cinque Terre, a good rest stop, if three hours on a train is too much after the long flight.

GETTING AROUND: Buy a Cinque Terre Card at the train station the minute you arrive. A three-day pass costs $12 (one day is $6), which covers unlimited train rides between the five villages, and access to the hiking trails and museums (by “museum,” they mean small rooms with glossy photos on walls). Revenue from the card helps maintain the national park. The card does not cover boat rides, which run between the villages and beyond during spring and summer; one-way tickets begin at $9 (www.navigazionegolfodeipoeti.it).

WHEN TO GO: If you’re into shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, sold-out guest rooms and sticky humidity, then visit during the peak summer months. Or go between September and early April (avoid Easter weekend, when Italians bombard the place), and you’ll likely have the place all to yourself. Bring a windbreaker and expect high-60s temperatures in the early fall and spring.

THE VILLAGES: Like five sisters, each village in the Cinque Terre has its own personality. Monterosso is the big sis: a resort with cars and a beach, and the town with the most modern amenities. Vernazza is the pretty prom queen; with its town square and natural harbor, it’s the most picturesque and the favorite Cinque Terre town among tourists. Corniglia is the quiet sister who keeps to herself; perched high above the water, it doesn’t feel like a tourist trap (it’s a grueling 365-step stair climb from the train station to town center, or ride the convenient $2 shuttle bus). Manarola and Riomaggiore are the fraternal twins; they’re similar in layout and feel, with a work-a-day rhythm and intimate, homey charm.

WHERE TO STAY: There are plenty of guest room-locating services—to find one, step off the train and throw a rock in any direction. You’ll also find locals soliciting their private rooms at the train station to arriving visitors. Look for ones advertising “camere con bagno ”—a room with private bathroom. In Riomaggiore, I stayed at Locanda dalla Compagnia, a bare-bones but clean guest room located at the top of town ($95 in peak season; [email protected]; beware of steep walk to the rooms). In Vernazza, Tonino Basso, where I also stayed, rents out four immaculate rooms next to the post office—great beds, sparkling bathroom, plus laptop computer with Internet access ($115 and up; [email protected]). Know that many places accept only cash. And if you can’t find a room (especially during the summer months), consider nearby La Spezia home base, 10 minutes by train from Riomaggiore. Levanto, five minutes by train north of Monterosso, is a prettier option.

WHERE TO EAT: In Vernazza, Giuliano and Stefano are just two of the 20-something hipsters manning the bar at Blue Marlin Bar. Ask Giuliano to fix you a “Negroni” cocktail, a local favorite. Gambero Rosso is a sit-down restaurant by the harbor serving top-notch (and fairly expensive) Ligurian cuisine. Look for server Jeff Copeland, a young, friendly and helpful American expat. In Monterosso, Ristoranti Il Gabbiano serves simple, inexpensive pastas (such as the ubiquitous spaghetti al frutti di mare, the tomatoey seafood pasta, for $9), located steps away from the train station. And I especially enjoyed the spaghetti al cartoccio at Riomaggiore’s Ristorante la Lampara—just like spaghetti al frutti di mare, but steam-baked in foil.

THE HIKING TRAILS: Of the 21 official trails maintained by the Cinque Terre National Park, only path No. 2 from Riomaggiore to Monterosso and the “Torre Guardiola” above Riomaggiore require a fee. Purchase the aforementioned Cinque Terre card at any train station. The two segments of trail No. 2 I hiked were on opposite ends of difficulty.

The easy hike was the paved Via dell’Amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola, a leisurely 20-minute stroll.

The two-hour, up-and-down, soul- and sole-testing path between Monterosso and Vernazza involved what seemed like a thousand steps of stairs, precipitous walkways that were at times one-body-width across, but a view above Vernazza that will rob your digital camera of disk space.

INFORMATION: Italian Government Tourist Office, 500 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2240, Chicago, IL 60611; 312-644-0996; www.italiantourism.com. Cinque Terre National Park Web site is www.parconazionale5terre.it.

A man plays his accordion in the early evening in his home near the train station in Vernazza, a town in Cinque Terre, Italy. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

A man plays his accordion in the early evening in his home near the train station in Vernazza, a town in Cinque Terre, Italy. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

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