Wanting to visit Italy’s Cinque Terre — the Five Lands — has hung out in our wish list for as long as we can remember. But we can’t quite remember why. Perhaps a Rick Steves video? Some conflation with storied Italian destinations like Positano and Portofino? Someone’s telling us about long hilly hikes among the vines above the sea?
Well, the Cinque Terre were perfectly positioned along our return trip from northern Italy, so we arranged for two nights in Vernazza, one of the five villages that comprise the Cinque Terre.
As it turned out, our way to experience this territory was not the hoped-for energetic village hopping and vineyard trekking. In the days just before our visit, we both had “enjoyed” bouts of gastric distress — loss of appetites and much more. So, we were sluggish and tired. And then, for our full day in Vernazza, rain storms piled up over us. That was OK: a day of forced recuperation, reading, napping, and looking out the window was exactly what we needed. In a rather picturesque place.
Some background about the Cinque Terre:
The five villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. They cascade down the hills to the sea, or stay perched high above sheer cliffs.
The shiny tourist description goes like this:
Few places in Italy are as memorable as the Cinque Terre, a land and culture so unique that it has been protected as a national park and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps what travelers like best is its almost complete lack of traditional must-see sights such as important artworks, churches, palaces, museums, and castles. Instead, the ambience and natural beauty are the attractions. Popular things to do include walking the breathtaking paths along the cliffs, pausing over gelato in a café surrounded by candy-colored houses, cooling off with a swim, capturing pictures of some of Italy’s best views, and just absorbing the Old World charm. (source)
But the history and today’s reality are a bit different:
The charms of the Cinque Terre have not gone unnoticed. Though the area was always beautiful, it was poor for centuries, since there was no access except by foot, boat, and, later, a small train line designed to handle local traffic. “It was wonderful,” recalls Amabile Milani, a summer resident who has owned a home in Monterosso since 1958. “There were no cars, no people except the summer regulars. You got to know everyone, and the town was charming. You bought the local fish and shopped the local stores. If someone got sick, you would flag down the little train and transport the patient to the nearest hospital in Levanto.”
The first road connecting Monterosso with its larger neighboring Ligurian towns (Levanto and La Spezia) was constructed in the 1960s. And by the 1970s the tourists began to arrive.
At first they were Italians, and they came the Italian way — for the month of August if not for the entire summer.
Then came a few backpackers, European and American. They spread the word, and more and more arrived to partake of the views, the 25 different walking trails up and down the coast and the cliffs, the fresh fish, the unique ambience. In 1996 the Consorzio Turistico Cinque Terre (Tourist Consortium of the Cinque Terre) was born. That year the number of non-Italian visitors was 52 percent of the total, with Germany leading the pack, followed by Switzerland and the USA.
A year later, in 1997, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site, followed, in 1999, by the creation of the National Park of the Cinque Terre. The UNESCO designation was supposed to protect the area from the tourist hoard but it did the opposite, encouraging more visitors to “come and see” rather than “come and stay”.
This wasn’t the only damage. With the UNESCO listing came limitations on fishing, and the few remaining fishermen in the Cinque Terre became fewer still. Today there are only 10 fishermen operating classic fishing boats (10 meters or less) in this area. They struggle to survive against large industrial vessels fishing further offshore and for longer periods due to their size. One of the 10 stalwarts, Davide Soldani, predicts, “Fishing will be finished here in 10 years if things don’t change.”
Meanwhile, the tourists keep coming, increasingly from outside Europe. Today the five communities host up to three million visitors a year. Eighty-six percent are non-Italian, and about half are not European. Americans contribute to the largest number of visitors, followed by Australians and Canadians. The antiquated train system linking the five towns is completely engulfed. Not only is there no space on the trains, the stations are so crowded that you need to allow extra time to elbow your way to the platforms. The risk of someone falling into the path of an oncoming train is ever present. The stairway leading from the town to the trains, especially in tiny Vernazza, rivals Hong Kong harbor at rush hour. The foolhardy few who come with a suitcase (because they may want to stay for a week or so) will be scarred by the experience of trying to get their luggage up or down those stairs. (source)
We were two more of the non-Italian “come and see” types. But this was late in October and under a few rainy days; we didn’t find hordes of visitors. There were pairs and groups of intrepid poncho-clad hikers, and a few other lazier visitors like us.
The hillside vineyards that are the trekkers’ targets:
On the afternoon of our arrival, the storms hadn’t quite yet arrived. We had the opportunity to take the boat from Vernazza south to Rio Maggiore and back. Friends who had visited the Cinque Terre had said that we must take the boat: the way to appreciate the picturesque villages was from the water. The views were certainly very attractive, as you’ll see in the photos that follow. (A little like aurora borealis, photos of these landscapes are sometimes more stunning than the actual in-person experience! Curious.)
Our home base was a rented flat at the harbor of Vernazza: a great location for our lazy day. Views from the apartment:
We watched the wind and rain churn up the harbor and quiet the cafés.
Our day of rest and reading helped clear up our systems. By dinner time, we were ready to eat local. The restaurant, Gianni Franzi, was just downstairs from our apartment. Simple tasty food — and wine, of course.
By the morning of our departure, the skies had cleared. A very nice final postcard with which to remember Vernazza and the Cinque Terre.