International Writers Magazine:Italy
the Ligurian Sun
Italy's Cinque Terre region has the patent on charming beach towns
soft, papery petals of a bougainvillea plant brush past my right
shoulder, their vivid purple glowing in the sun. On my left, a dense
tangle of blackberries and fig trees fails to obscure the sudden
dropoff to the Mediterranean, several hundred feet below. Sunlight
on the turquoise water winks invitingly at me. But I can't be lured
by the hypnotic blue; the dusty stone-and-dirt path below my feet
is disconcertingly narrow, with room enough only for one person
at a time.
One foot in front
of the other, steady as she goes. When I meet another hiker, we take
turns balancing precariously, hugging the scrub on either side of the
path, laughing at our awkwardness. We're not really worried. They may
be precipitous, but the pathways of Italy's Cinque Terre region are
far too enticing to inspire dread.
Literally the "five lands," the Cinque Terre are a string
of pastel villages clinging to the steep slopes of the Ligurian coast,
less than 60 miles southeast of Genoa. For hundreds of years, before
the train punched its way through the mountains, the zigzag footpaths
were the only way to traverse the hills between the towns. Not surprisingly,
with the relatively flat sea at their feet, the locals became boaters.
But the medieval laborers who gouged out the Cinque Terre's walking
trails did not neglect the land. They moved rocks and built walls and
created a plunging landscape of terraces, green with grapevines. Before
tourism came to the Cinque Terre, fishing and winemaking were the region's
mainstays. Now visitors come for the sun, water and views as well.
In the town of Vernazza, a reproduction of a medieval tower keeps watch
over the tiny harbor and houses a small, impromptu museum. (I followed
the signs for the "Bar Self Service" to the glowing
Pepsi machine in the tower basement, where the "museum" consists
of old prints of the town.) Postcards from the early 1900s document
a more decrepit Vernazza, as well as a nascent Italian tourism industry.
Today, the entire region has been designated a national park, which
means no cars (although motoring visitors can park their cars at the
top of each town and walk down) and a daily fee to access the many trails
snaking across the hills. In summer, Italians, Germans and Americans
all head to the Cinque Terre, often with families in tow, for the epitome
of the sun-kissed Mediterranean holiday.
Near Genoa, and along the coast towards France, the Italian Riviera
plays host to glitzy harbors and upscale shops. But the Cinque Terre
towns are too small, too rustic and too quiet for much late-night swinging.
Instead, visitors hike, sun, swim and eat.
The biggest summertime event is the soccer tournament, played out nearly
nightly on Vernazza's tiny sandy beach. Some nights, kids from different
towns duke it out; other nights, Vernazza's own barmen, waiters and
waitresses take each other on. Adoring small boys patrol the harbor
side of the minuscule court, ready to plunge into the dark water to
rescue wayward balls. Locals and tourists alike line the stone walls
above the beach, cheering madly each time a team scores and ducking
when a wild ball ricochets off a pink house wall. Somehow, the balls
always miss the green-shuttered windows.
By midnight, the scene is winding down. Not until the church bells above
the harbor begin to bong at seven a.m. does the town start to get ready
for another day of vacation.
possible to walk between all five towns in under six hours, but
it's better to stop and savor each town instead. Monterosso al Mare,
the northernmost town, is the Cinque Terre's best imitation of a
luxury resort, with a long, sandy beach lined with shady umbrellas,
plush hotels and bars that stay open late. Vernazza, the next town
south, has a large piazza right on the water and the best natural
Corniglia is the
only town that shuns the waterfront, clustering instead atop a hill.
Manarola is perhaps the most picturesque, with vineyards creeping down
into the town and spectacular rock platforms in the harbor for daring
divers. And unassuming Riomaggiore has the most Cinque Terre pride,
with enormous murals eulogizing the nameless workers who painstakingly
turned the terrain into a stairstep landscape.
Connecting all the towns via mountain tunnels are the local trains,
chugging along the coast a few times each hour, offering an easy way
to backtrack or skip ahead when tired. Only the most intrepid
and impatient visitors hike the Cinque Terre in an afternoon
and call it a day.
Being lazy, I bunked in Vernazza and made it my base. I emailed one
of the few hotels in town, the Albergo Barbara on the main piazza, and
made a reservation months in advance. But simpler and easier is to do
as most tourists do: get off the train and ask about renting rooms.
Nearly every local family in the Cinque Terre rents out rooms or knows
somebody who does; signs announcing affittacamere (rooms for rent) hang
next to almost every door. Nobody home? Go into any open business and
ask; chances are they rent out rooms, too. Some rent out entire apartments,
which are perfect for families or groups eager to cook.
Mornings in Vernazza started with a pastry in one of the town's several
bars: maybe a chocolate or apple croissant, washed down with an espresso
or latte. Next came a trip to the green-painted spina, or public tap,
in the piazza to fill up my water bottles. Then I strolled up the town's
single main street, Via Roma, to browse for a picnic.
Three different grocery stores offer fresh produce, cheeses, olives,
salami and drinks; the bakery, Forno (literally, "Oven"),
sells superb focaccia, the puffy local bread sprinkled with olive oil
and dented by the baker's thumbs. It's always sold plain and, depending
on the whim of the day, dotted with soft stracchino cheese, rosemary,
tomatoes or mushrooms. Equipped with lunch, I was ready to hit the trail.
The two longest hikes, connecting Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza and Corniglia,
are the steepest. But both can easily be done in less than two hours.
Hilltop Corniglia has a lengthy switchback staircase on its south side
that leads to the two easiest hikes, connecting Corniglia, Manarola
and Riomaggiore. The last stretch, between Manarola and Riomaggiore,
is so wide and flat it's paved, and known to strolling lovers as the
The brevity of the hikes, coupled with the warmth of the sun, make frequent
beach stops irresistible. Miles of twisting stone steps, chittering
cicadas and dappled olive groves I forgot them all as soon as
I rounded the bend at Manarola and saw swimmers diving from the rocks
into the water. Ah, bliss. I dropped my backpack and plunged in after
The water was startlingly cool and calm; black sea urchins glistened
on the rocks and tiny silver fish darted below my treading feet. I clambered
out, shook my hair and kept walking. By the time I reached the next
town, I was dry. And ready for another dip.
Within a few days, I had traipsed through all five towns and sampled
gelato in each. (Corniglia's delicate honey-laced ice cream, miele di
Corniglia, won me over.) But at night I liked to head home, for a stroll
(or passeggiata) along Vernazza's breakwater in the golden evening light.
As with all the Cinque Terre towns, Vernazza has plenty of bars and
restaurants to feed the hungry. But once I found Il Baretto ("the
little bar"), I couldn't bring myself to leave. In the off-season
the restaurant truly is a little bar, with just a few linen-covered
tables for diners. But in summer, the staff sets up a dozen or so tables
under an awning on the wide Via Roma, where diners can sit next to swaying
potted oleanders and watch everybody else amble by.
The casually handwritten menu, filled with local seafood specialties,
doesn't do justice to the food. There's squid-ink linguine with chopped
shrimp and lobster. Baby octopus cooked in tomato sauce. Spaghetti alla
bottarga, or spaghetti with salted tuna roe. And the unassuming acciughe
con limone, anchovies with lemon, turn out to be a plate of fresh anchovies,
light and delicate, sprinkled with olive oil and lemon. Not much, nothing
special, but nothing tastes more splendidly of the Cinque Terre's unique
blend of land and sea.
Everything tastes livelier with the local white wines, fruit-fresh and
sun-dry, again labeled blandly as "Cinque Terre D.O.C." (Cinque
Terre Denominazione dell'Origine Controllata). The best grapes of the
region go into a rare dessert wine called sciacchetrà, sweet
like honey; cakes soaked into this golden nectar often finish off an
evening. It's no wonder meals last so long here; there's so much to
On my final morning, I rented a kayak (available on Vernazza's triangle-shaped
beach for 8 euros an hour) and paddled along the coast toward Corniglia.
Small motorboats bounced by; the statelier public ferries that ferry
foot-passengers between the towns churned by at a more solid pace. But
mostly it was quiet, with only the lap of the salt water against the
sides of my small yellow boat.
Gulls called overhead; fish glided underneath. The sun chuckled across
the water. The land was tall and green and the pink towns smaller than
ever. Land, sea, sun. I was ready to stay forever.
Piazza Marconi 30
Via Roma 29
Official tourism Web sites:
© Caroline Cummins
Caroline is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon,
with years of experience living and traveling abroad. Her travel writing
has appeared in inflight magazines for Frontier Airlines, Reno Air,
and US Air, as well as the Oregonian and Seattle Magazine.
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.