We loved our visit to the Cinque Terre but we left with mixed feelings.
When we arrived in Vernazza by train from Siena in the late afternoon the weather was drizzly and cold so it was back to woolly scarves and raincoats. Vernazza is a small village, with one main street and only about 600 inhabitants, about 80k south of Genoa. It forms part of the Italian Riviera called the Cinque Terre.
The five little Cinque Terre villages are strung like jewels along the Mediterranean coast, The road between them is narrow and winding to navigate by car but they are linked by rail making it easy to get from one to the other. Each of the villages clings to the rocks around a ravine with the river covered over to form the main street.
Our apartment was four stories up and to hang out the washing I had to reach out of the window to peg it on the outside clothesline. It was rather amusing to see our t-shirts and undies fluttering high above us from street level.
It was not yet the height of the tourist season but during the day Vernazza was overcrowded with hordes of tourists arriving by rail and bus and the cruise ships berthed at La Spezia just to the south of the Cinque Terre. It was not until late afternoon that the day trippers were gone leaving the streets clear.
We had planned to do a lot of walking here but unfortunately three of the four easy treks were closed for maintenance after landslides. So it had to be the hike from Vernazza to Monterosso (the hardest of the ‘easy’ walks).This hike started and ended at sea level but went over 200 metres in height over the journey. The first part proved especially challenging, up uneven steps and rocky and slippery in parts. But there was no looking back and we managed to complete it.
For the remainder of our stay we found walks that were easier and less crowded. In Vernazza we took the uphill walk to the cemetery from where there was a spectacular view over the blue Mediterranean Sea. It was well cared for with bright flowers and faded photographs of the dear departed placed on many graves. On another day we climbed the steps to the old Vernazza tower which was once a lookout for pirates.
From Levanto to Baranassola we walked for 2.2 km along the coastline through some almost deserted but reasonably well lit tunnels. The Manarola Vineyard walk was charming, an almost flat walk along dry stone walls overlooking lemon groves and vineyards. On the roadside grew wild red valerian flowers used for insomnia since Roman Times.
In Riomaggiore we walked the scenic uphill walk to reach the town from the railway station and were rewarded with some spectacular sea views. At lunchtime we perched on a bench outside Il Pescato Cucinato, a little family run fish and chip shop where they cook up the catch of the day. We ordered a paper cone filled with a mixture of battered and fried seafood including anchovies, octopus, squid, prawns and potato. It was absolutely scrumptious. The batter was light and crisp, more like a tempura. This was my first taste of fresh anchovies; they were melt in the mouth.
Fortified by lunch we then headed for the marina walkway for some great views of the harbour and the pastel coloured houses. It led down to a rocky beach. We had been forewarned. Travel writer Ric Steves wrote in our guidebook how he wonders how Europeans ever manage to look relaxed when lounging on football sized pebbles at this particular beach. He was right; we did not linger for long.
The long walks were a great way to build an appetite and there was plenty of good food to be had. At the Tuesday morning market in Vernazza we loaded our bags up with fresh vegetables and strawberries and splashed out and bought a tiny stovetop stainless steel espresso maker, thinking we’d got a bargain (only to discover later that it would have been cheaper to order it through Amazon.)
Focaccia originated in this area so from the bakery we bought loaves still warm out of the oven for lunch.
We dined just up the road from our apartment to sample the local speciality consisting of layers of baked potatoes, anchovies and tomatoes and washed it down with a bottle of the local white wine. Dessert was a decadent tiramisu presented in a small straight sided glass dish.
One day in the early evening towards the end of our stay there was a political meeting by the harbour for the forthcoming local body elections. The speeches were over by the time we arrived but there was a small group of locals still standing around a table laden with fava beans.
Noticing that I was intrigued, a local lady handed me a handful to try. They were home-grown she told me and a favourite local snack. We chatted about life in Vernazza. The tourists have become a huge problem she said. Her children won’t be able to find or afford a house in Vernazza as they are all being turned into tourist rental apartments. The few shops are always overcrowded with tourists. The village no longer feels as if it belongs to them.
Plans are being made to limit tourist numbers, but this is no easy task. I apologised and said we loved being here but we hadn’t meant to be a nuisance and had not expected it to be so overcrowded.
“I used to love travelling too,” she said. We parted amicably.
Our son had been to the Cinque Terre in 1999 – at that stage it hadn’t even made it in to the Lonely Planet Guide and it was easy to just turn up at any village without a booking and to get a bed for the night. How things had changed in just two decades.
In retrospect I rather think we should not have come as we added to the tourist numbers. But it was too late so we made the most of the rest our stay. And we did love the magnificent views over the Mediterranean Sea, the walks and the food.
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveler, writer & passionate home cook