My favorite vacation is typically the next one. I relish the anticipation of every getaway – what to pack? What trinkets to buy? Pondering the uncertainty, evaluating priorities, excitement builds. Move forward smartly with bold dispatch! is a travel mantra. But then there’s this last trip: Cinque Terre, Italy. It been 9 months since I unpacked, but the sounds, images and sweet memories of these five spectacular villages on the Ligurian Sea keep bobbing like dories in the harbor. The brilliant sunsets, tolling church bells, fresh sea bass, cobbled alleyways dotted with boutiques, cheese and wine shops, the friendly German guy who scoured several Monterosso cafes with my sunglasses till he found me, breakfast cafes that opened after 8am, and of course, the glittering azure sea. Waves thundering into rocky Corniglia cliffs create timeless lullabies. No rushing here. Locals go about their business clock free… delivery guys casually share a smoke next to carts full of goods. Aproned ladies chat while sweeping their stoops. Servers take their time wiping down café tables and chairs, coaxing passing tourists to come in for a bite. Who wouldn’t want to?
If Cinque Terre is not a bucket list item, it should be. The five towns are pedestrian domains. Getting there involves logistics, especially if traversing the country to arrive (as we did). It reminds me of an old magazine ad for the Outer Banks: Tides are treacherous. Storms are spontaneous. Beaches are deserted. It’s hard to get here. When may we expect you? For us, it took a boat, 3 trains, shuttle bus, uphill walk, a daylong Sunday trek from Venice via Florence and La Spezia. At last, we arrived in Corniglia, the middle of the five towns, famished and drained. The congenial landlady wisely recommended Terra Rossa café, a few steps away where we were met by a persuasive, engaging server. Eager to eat anything but detestable green olives, she swayed me into trying the local variety. Lucky meeting her! Within two bites, I was converted, devouring a sinful share of the jumbo bowl. Why can’t they taste that succulent here? Yet another reason to leave home for delicious destinations.
Corniglia is the only town without a beach, ergo, no docks or boat stops. We figured it would mean less tourist traffic. Bingo. It’s accessible only by train, bus or hiking. Carparks are located on each town’s outskirts for drivers. Cruise visitors and day trippers typically arrive late morning, perusing local shops featuring gorgeous handmade jewelry, textiles, pottery, and of course, all things lemon. That’s as busy as it gets. Predictably, most are gone by late day when bistros are still lazily serving afternoon quaffs and tapas style bites. We dined in several lovely, moderately priced cafés, most notably trattoria Cucina Casalinga (superb fresh mussels) and Cantina Mananan (fresh caught fish, excellent wine list!). Our most memorable meal came straight out of our own kitchen. The local fishmonger’s visit fortunately coincided with ours. The back of his truck featured a vibrant iced display of fresh catch from local waters. We bought an entire sea bass for 22EUR which he fileted and deboned with surgical precision. That night, we dined on our candle lit balcony with Eric serving up lemon spritzed sea bass, pan fried in local olive oil, fresh pasta tossed with native herbs, tomatoes and greens. With the local white vintage gifted by our BnB host, hands down, it was most divine feast we had in Italy. Being married to a gourmet cook has its perks!
Day Two, we bought an 20 EUR two day hiking pass and began the climb from Corniglia to Vernazza. Though I’m a seasoned runner, the verticals and drops literally took my breath away. The vistas were spectacular; the steps, daunting. Along the way, a trio of troubadours playing guitar, accordion and tambourine provided a hiking serenade. An hour and 20 minutes later, the best minestrone soup of my life was served up at Gianni Franzi, a sprightly Vernazza café facing a shoreline dotted with boats and bathers. Vernazza is a favorite among CT visitors. It has its fair share of accommodations with direct water views, along with countless cafes located on the main walk and side alleys. Its cove is the quintessential picturesque fishing village with colorful boats swaying on the shore.
After a local wine refresher, we were game for more, trekking onward to Monterosso al Mare. This hike was more arduous and longer; more inclines, steps, unsteady descents. Having begun after lunch, the heat kicked in, requiring extra effort. Our proper reward was that view looking down upon Monterosso, bellissimo! The scenery became more enjoyable after eating, hydrating and sampling the local wine. It was here we learned an important lesson: go to a bar or café for adult refreshments only, restaurants if you’re hungry and thirsty. We sat down at an empty trattoria, greeted by a smiling, charming meemaw whose demeanor swiftly changed when we told her we just wanted drinks. She took the menus from our hands and huffily removed the bread basket. May I repeat: we were the only ones there? until the German family arrived. We overlapped long enough for us to play with their toddler and have them witness us hastily getting kicked out of the restaurant, ergo the lost sunglasses. No harm, no foul. Moving on…
Deciding we actually were hungry, we found a cute little café serving delectable pasta with local beer and outdoor seating. Had the chairs been a tad more comfortable, we would have nodded off.
After 3 plus hours hiking with another half day of just strolling around, we headed back. Our hiking pass included local rail and bus transport within CT, so we gave our tootsies a rest and trained it back from Monterosso to Corniglia. The apartment’s balcony featured a sliding glass door with louvered shutters so we could keep the slider open at night and listen to the rolling sea four stories below. I can still hear the waves crashing punctuated hourly by distant church bells. Rest we did.
Our mornings were idly spent drinking robust local coffee with fresh pastries (several local bakeries/wine purveyors), checking on the tide from our sizeable terrazzo ensconced with fiery bougainvillea blooms, listening to local shopkeepers chatting while unlocking their stores. Our days were spent exploring the nearby towns by rail, foot and boat – which turned into an unplanned adventure. More on that next time. For now, just imagine a string of charming stairstep hamlets on an idyllic coastline laced with grapevines and a glass of wine calling your name. That’s Cinque Terre.