It’s hard to believe now, but five years ago I had never heard of Cinque Terre. My friend and I were sitting in the dining area of our hostel in Florence, going over our itinerary for our jaunt down to Rome and the Amalfi Coast, after which we’d head up to Milan with a pit stop in Pisa before returning home. We were trying to decide what hostel in Milan to grace with our presence when a guy plopped down across the table from us. We’d never seen him before, but that didn’t matter because in youth hostels everyone becomes instant friends. It is a law of the traveling backpacker. So we told him where we were headed. “No, no, no,” he said in dismay. “You have to cut out Milan – it’s just fashion and business people, anyway – and go to the Cinque Terre.” To which we responded in confusion, “um…Chingkay what?” He explained that it was five small coastal towns located a very short train ride north of Pisa and if we spent a day hiking between the towns, it would be the most beautiful thing we’d ever done. Since he was our new friend, we listened to him. Never talked to him again, of course, but I will never forget him for giving us that piece of advice.
We arrived in Cinque Terre tired and hungry after a long day of train rides and trudging around Pisa. As we departed the train in Riomaggiore, the southern most of the five towns, an old man approached us and told us there were accommodations at the bar. We smiled, dismissed him as a potentially crazy old guy, and told him we were fine. We approached the tourist help desk where we were told there were no accommodations left anywhere in the five towns. “Great, now what are we going to do?” I moaned as visions of sleeping on the rocky cliffs ahead of us flitted through my head. Suddenly the old man appeared before us, once again insisting there were rooms at the bar and that we should follow him. Coley and I looked at each other and shrugged. What did we have to lose? He probably wasn’t going to kill us. After all, we had to remind ourselves, this was Italy, the land of hospitality. Skeptically, we followed him a short distance and sure enough, there was a bar, albeit more of a coffee than an alcohol one. He gestured for us to go in. That’s when we noticed the ‘Rooms’ sign hanging in the window. With a glimmer of hope that we wouldn’t be sleeping under a tree, we hurried inside. “Do you have a room available?” we asked with a point toward the sign. The man stared at us for a moment and then hollered something out in Italian. A young teenage girl appeared. “My father doesn’t speak much English,” she explained and then took us to our room located above the bar. It was huge! A kitchen, two bedrooms, and our own bathroom – and it was cheaper than our hostel in Florence. We jumped around, giddy to have our own space after weeks of sharing dorm rooms and bathrooms with others. We each took a long shower and then ran out to explore the town.
We ended up at Bar Centrale, a fun and lively place with excellent drinks. The bartender was friendly, amusing, and spoke perfect English. He filled us in on the five towns and made us practice the correct way to say Cinque Terre. “Chink Tear,” we’d confidently proclaim. He would shake his head in despair. “No. Cheen-kway tehr-reh.” By the time we left, we had it down. Well, for the most part.
The next morning we woke up to fog, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. We went down to the bar for a cappuccino and ran into one of the locals, who took a look at us in our hiking boots, and assured us the fog would lift soon. Feeling better that we weren’t going to miss out on amazing vistas, we ate a leisurely breakfast and then set off to the first walking trail. For the next five hours we walked along winding, cliff-hugging trails and up and down many stairs. We would occasionally pass another hiker, but for the most part it was just us and nature. It wasn’t always an easy hike, but it was worth the physical strain. No matter what part of the trail we were on, we had amazing views. To our right, were orchards and vineyards and lush green trees. Down below to our left was the sparkling sea, and on many parts of the trail, one wrong misstep to the left would leave us spiraling down the cliff into its depths.
We would take a break at each of the adorably picturesque towns to explore. Manarola, the town after Riomaggiore, is extremely picturesque. Pink, white, orange, and yellow buildings march down the side of a hill like pretty dominoes. Corniglia, the third town, is built up on top of a hill and also has quaint, colorful buildings. Vernazza is the most breathtaking town to behold from the walking trail. With warm muted colors, it juts out below the trail into the bright blue water like a mini peninsula. It has a fabulous little harbor that is the home to Bar Baja Saracena, where we ate the best pizza of our whole trip in Italy. When we finally reached the fifth town of Monterossa – the only one with a beach – we were too tired to explore. Instead, we collapsed onto the pebbly beach and napped.
I recently returned to Cinque Terre a few months ago at the end of June and found it to look exactly the same, although it was much more crowded. I wasn’t sure if that was because I had been there before in May, right before the start of the high season, or simply because word on this magical place is spreading. A bit of both, I would imagine. One thing stayed the same. No matter how many people were milling about, everyone looked happy to be there.
Tags: Cinque Terre, Italy