We were in Cinque Terre (which is actually a grouping of 5 towns) for three days.
This is the town we stayed in, on the recommendation of a blog post by a woman who met her husband here. It turns out that a number of local boys had married women from outside Italy – and brought them back, resulting in the first generation of locals who are bilingual from childhood. The town is about a thousand locals, our tour guide said, and a gazillion tourists* (my estimate). It’s fairly touristy, which is not how the blog described it, suggesting significant changes in the past few years.
There are little B&Bs, whose ambiance is ruined by the dozen teenage girls milling out front, next to a sign that reads ‘Wi-Fi Point,’ fervently studying their phones as if telling everyone else how amazing Riomaggiore is on Facebook will make up for the fact that they haven’t seen any of it. There are little food shops, in which the proprietors are surprised when someone tries to speak to them in Italian; they respond in English in a sort of resigned tone. There are white paper cones of fried seafoods (like calamari), sold as ‘local’ fast food to satisfy visitors. There are American voices all around, commenting on the difficulty of the town steps (did they read nothing about this region?) or the nerve of some restaurant to already be booked up for the night. (I heard a hostess – who could have been the restaurant owner, for all I know – tell some obnoxious, self-entitled tourists who said they’d take a table overlooking the water for four immediately that they would be lucky if any table was available that night. I thought her response quite mild.)
However, once you leave the ‘center,’ it’s much more isolated. Going up the hill seems to reveal a slightly more mundane way of life. There is the town’s church and a pretty chapel, being cared for by an older gentleman. There are remnants of a tower or ramparts at the very top, likely from medieval days. Next to them, there are two benches and a large cross: I imagine that the former are new, and the latter much older than everyone in my family combined. There are small winding paths and steps, past little yards with gardens or small apartments built into the hill. Voices come from within, as do the smells of dinner, and it’s all you can do not to ask if they’ll feed you too.
There is also a marina area in this town, which is pretty much every tourist in the world smashed into one small area. Some rocks jut out, from which to jump into the small amount of water that passes for a swimming hole. On the other side, the ferry picks up tourists. And all around, people do that thing that New Yorkers hate most: stop in the middle of a road, blocking all traffic, usually for some insanely selfish reason, like the need to photograph something from exactly that point on the narrow thoroughfare. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Overall, a fairly good place to stay – if you’re set on sleeping in Cinque Terre – because it was accessible and had grocery stores and restaurants open late.
This town was even more touristy* than Riomaggiore, and I could see how it would be pretty easy to pickpocket someone here. They had a similar rocky outcropping to the one in Riomaggiore, but we opted for the other ‘beach,’ through a small tunnel of rocks. There was a little rope blocking the entrance, as if the Italians wanted to cover their butts in case of overzealously litigious tourists.* But everyone ignored the little blockade, as if it were no more than a rock to step over. The beach was made of pebbles, which got quite hot in the sun and weren’t particularly fun to step or lay on. B says the water was nice, though I mostly people watched and relaxed in the sun. (And then I relaxed in not-the-sun because I got dizzy from too much.) This beach reinforced that unless you’re 65+, a one-piece bathing suit – no matter how cute, is not appropriate attire.
When I walked into a few stores to see if they had bikinis for less than $100, I overheard a Russian couple discussing a long-sleeved striped shirt she wanted to buy. ‘How does it look?,’ the 30-something woman asked her husband. ‘It looks like absolutely nothing,’ he responded. I tried not to snicker as I left the store. The bikinis were not outrageously-priced, but hideous, by the way.
We came to this little town just to meet up with our tour guide and fellow hiker. It was so small and we walked through it so quickly that I really can’t say much of anything about it. I believe our guide said that it was a hundred people big. We then hiked past Grappa and hiked up to Velasco, two towns likely considered to still be part of Manarola. Velasco isn’t even a one traffic light town: it’s got a butcher shop and a few houses where you can see villagers crushing tomatoes or growing pumpkins. Put another way: I was a bit worried to cough here, lest I disturb someone. We came upon their church right after mass ended, meeting a few older ladies as they filed out of the roman-style chapel. (That means it wasn’t fancy: just stone walls and an altar area, without rabid ornamentation and complex marble statues.) Next to their little church was a small soccer/tennis/sports field, built by the town because they currently had an explosion of children: ten of them! The population is older, our guide explained, so they realized they needed to build something so the kids could have fun.
We went to this town because they were supposed to have the best beach – and the only one made of sand. This was true, but it was also completely covered in rented beach chairs, so that seeing the sand was near to impossible. This was another touristy town, but at least big enough to accommodate the hordes. Plus, we got to ride the ferry to get here.
We enjoyed a light lunch in the courtyard of a well-rated cafe. It was so experienced with Americans that when I only ate one of my two pieces of fish (because I was full), the waitress asked if everything was okay! While we were sitting there, an American family came in: two dads and a little boy. One of the dads took the little boy to sit on the patio, and the remaining man wandered around the entire courtyard, clearly looking for a bathroom. After he had opened pretty much every possible door and was close enough for him to hear me, I pointed him toward the bathroom, in English. His inane response to my directions was simply, ‘I have to pee!’ – as if that wasn’t evident from his scurrying about.
What differentiates this town is its more limited accessibility. To get there, you need to walk up 370+ steps from the train station, or wait for the bus that comes every few hours. They say that this height makes the town prettier, but I didn’t think it was any more picturesque than any of the other towns’ high spots. What it was was glutted with younger tourists, able to climb the steps. And if you think American tourists are obnoxious, wait until you’re around only younger American tourists.* But, our friends were staying here, so we visited. And there is a great little cafe here that’s worth going to. And the steps are not that bad.
The bigger mystery is how to reach the hidden beach between Corniglia and Vernazza. We tried several different times and mostly ran into rusty fences, crumbling bridges, and other safe things. I didn’t mind, because I found all of the beaches in Cinque Terre underwhelming, but B was hoping to go. At first, because it was rumored to be a nude beach (I had my doubts), and then because it was so hard to find. Mystery!
What We Missed
- Kayaking/Boat Rental: The seas were rough, our time was limited, and we rode the ferry instead.
*Yes, I do realize that I am also a tourist and therefore also obnoxious.