The International Writers Magazine
Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy
Amber Turnau

It’s 5 p.m. in Manarola and a few locals are sitting outside their closed shops. The lady with the glittery braided hair, who owns the pottery store, has a red flower in her hair and is chatting with her friends.

These people have lived in Cinque Terre their whole lives. They are from a different time, when the world moved just a little bit slower. Across from the only grocery store in town an old man is bent down, carefully slathering cement across the bottom of his house. Tourists waiting for the grocery store to open after siesta are watching him with a distracted fascination. He gingerly picks up a slab of the grey muck, then applies over and over with his work-worn hands – back-breaking work that he’s probably done for decades to protect his house from wear and tear.

Further down the hill, trattoria waiters are setting their tables; slowly because the dinner rush won’t come until 9 or 10, but there is always a Westerner who wants to eat early. Down at the fishing wharf, a cat is stalking birds; the orange glow of the setting sun reflects in her eyes and on the white parts of her fur as she comes purring to our feet. Life moves at a turtle’s pace in this town, and the other four that make up Cinque Terre (“five lands”) - a string of fishing villages positioned along the west coast of Italy, south of Genova.

The towns span between Monterossa and Riomagiorre, and, like most Italian seaside communities, their brightly coloured buildings are practically built right into the cliffs. Bound together by a scenic hiking trail and a long stretch of jaw-dropping coastline, the modest villages-turned tourist havens, have something for everyone – from the romantic honeymooner to the adventurous backpacker.

Hiking buffs descend upon Cinque Terre to conquer the trail, which takes about six hours for a person of average fitness. Just beware of the hikers with ski spears. The trails vary in difficulty and are best divided into sections. Bring a huge bottle of water, enough money for a slice of pizza and a gelato and leave your watch at home. Stop at each town; visit the shops; wind in and around the narrow streets and smell the mouth-watering aroma of hearty Italian cooking.

If hiking isn’t your thing, you can also take the Trenitalia between the towns, which will cost EUR1 per trip or EUR5 for a day pass. The steep countryside that joins the towns is filled with sloping vineyards and tiny homes decorated with flourishing gardens. On one side, the rolling hills are green and fertile, on the other, sharp cliffs dive into the calm Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of tourists visit Cinque Terre every year, but the national park and UNESCO world heritage site is still teeming with authentic and unassuming Italian culture.

Visiting the villages is not so much about the formulaic sightseeing by day and partying by night, but about relaxing, observing, and absorbing by osmosis all that towns have to offer. Italy, in general, is about watching people, seeing the sun set while drinking a Peroni beer or eating a traditional midday Italian meal, with fresh seafood linguini, local red wine and tiramisu for dessert. Aside from the food, part of the country’s charm is its people. Whistling while they work, joking and laughing at all hours, locals thrive on their social lives. Every Italian has an old friend on the street, at the bank or bakery and will be happy to catch up on old times, regardless of whether there’s a queue of people waiting to be served. They seem to be born with the inherent knowledge that life is too short and food, drink and family should never be taken for granted or lightly.

The men, who have a worldwide reputation for their Casanova ways, are truly a spectacle to see when in action. We saw young Italian man literally walk on his hands to grab the attention of a coy beauty, who was reading her book nearby. She barely glanced at him. Apparently, in Italy, it takes a lot more than gymnastics tricks and witty jokes to get a girl’s attention.

Italians also have a sense of national pride that is unparalleled. During our stay, we took a day trip further down the coast on a local bus filled with 50 senior citizens. As soon as we gave up our seats for two of the elderly ladies, they started to chat to us in Italian all at once – they spoke no English. From what we understood, they told us we Canadian girls were “belissima”, but we needed to eat more and recommended all sorts of Italian dishes for us to try. Although most of them were well into their 70s, they had a refreshing youthfulness. Using the Italian trademark of wild hand gestures and expressive vocal inflections, they eagerly boasted about their country with swelling pride and when they hopped off at their stop, each one shook our hands and wished us good luck and a safe journey.

Later that night, my friend and I watched the sun set for the last time in Italy. When the orange globe disappeared below the horizon, we walked back to the main drag, where we ate our last gelato, savouring the creamy, tart taste of our favourite flavours.

Manarola is the kind of place you would see in the movies. A stereotypical Italian fishing town, with laundry hanging from the balconies and children casting for fish at twilight. But, as I licked the last bit of gelato from my cone, I realised that I was not dreaming, nor was I in a movie. Cinque Terre, which smells like fresh flowers, olives and the ocean, has been preserved; survived the Age of Information unscathed. It is a timeless world where, even after all these years, things still do move just a little bit slower.

© Amber Turnau April 2006

Amber Turnau is a Canadian freelance journalist currently living in London, England. She was bitten by the travel bug at birth, having been born into a nomadic family. So far, she's backpacked through Australia, Costa Rica and Western Europe. One day she hopes to make a decent living travelling the world and writing about it.

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