During the late 1980s, before they popped out a kid (me) and got boring, my parents actually did a lot of traveling. My mom even lived in Algeria at one point! Go mom! Anyway, in their travels, one of their favorite destinations in Italy was a place called Cinque Terre. I arrived in Italy pretty directionless, so their vivid descriptions of discovering these beautiful seaside towns along the Italian Riviera, completely void of tourists, were enough to sell me. Of course, the world has gotten a lot smaller since the '80s, but the fact that I had never heard of Cinque Terre was enough to convince me that this would be a relatively untouched destination. It was an easy train ride south down the coast from Genoa, so early one morning I got a ticket and left. I had a full day ahead of me.
"Cinque Terre" is Italian for "5 lands." That's right, Cinque Terre is not 1 place, it's 5 places. A few hours' train ride south of Genoa, there are 5 particularly beautiful fishing villages, similar to Genoa's Boccadasse. Going north to south, they are as follows...
(feel free to click on one to zoom down the page)
Here they are on a map for you:
From Genova Piazza Principe (train station), I left around 8:00 am and went to the Monterosso station. To get here I had a 1-way ticket. Once I was actually in Monterosso I was going to need to buy a day pass for Cinque Terre National Park. This would allow me to get on and off of the train to go between the towns in Cinque Terre an unlimited number of times for that day only. This would cost 10 EUR (10.99 USD).
Back in my parents' day, the only way to get from one town to another was to walk. These paths still exist (the whole thing is very hike-able) but I opted to be lazy and do it all by train. Hiking these trails is also covered in the cost of the day pass for Cinque Terre. You could spend endless time hanging out here, as there are accommodations and dining in each town. If I could do it again, I probably wouldn't have even bought the day pass. It didn't get checked a single time the entire day. That frustration aside, let's pick up with me walking out of the Monterosso train station.
Monterosso al Mare
"HEY STEVE!" a fat man in a Mississippi State shirt yelled to the rest of his clan down the beautiful cobblestone alleyway. Sticking his finger in his mouth, he gave an obnoxiously loud whistle to get their attention, and everybody within a 10 foot radius grimaced. Ugh, dude, don't y'all have a Trump rally to be at or something?
Clearly things had changed since the 1980s because my reality was falling miserably short of my parent's description of a tourist-free paradise. The town itself was absolutely stunning, but I was literally swimming through an ocean of tourists. To an extent though, I had expected this. People don't come to Italy as explorers as they did in places like Kashmir's Leh and Burma's Shan State; they come as tourists, and I was one of them now. I had to embrace that.
After some irritated wandering, I sat down for some over-priced lunch. I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, and then walked back to the train station to get the hell out of Monterosso. Maybe things would be better in the next town.
Nope. Not any better. I wriggled my way free of the crowd, out through the cracks between entire families of oblivious Chinese and American tourists. I know that I'm a tourist too, so maybe it's a little hypocritical to complain, but I prefer to think of myself as a "traveler" or an "explorer."
Setting all of that aside, Vernazza is actually a gorgeous little town. Tucked into a rocky little crevice on the coast, it made Monterosso look like a dive in comparison. The only problem was that there was nowhere you could go to get a view of the whole town, short of a climbing one of the nearby mountains. Vernazza was tucked into the rocks in a such a way that it was impossible to see the big picture of where I was, which was clearly amazing. In retrospect, I don't know what was stopping me from climbing said mountain. Why not? I should have. Later on, I did some snooping on the internet and found some aerial drone photography of Vernazza. Before I show you ground level, take a look at this for some context:
It's very small, probably the smallest of the 5 towns. In fact, it only takes about 3 minutes to walk from one side of it to the other. Here are some pictures I took at street level:
Yup, it was pretty picturesque, minus all those blasted people of course. I don't want to sound like too much of a snobby travel Grinch, but there were so many of them that they were ruining my day and sucking the authenticity out of this beautiful place. Not used to being among so many tourists, I had a pretty bad attitude about it all. But then I got an idea.
I was going to take the train directly to the last town, right that very instant. I figured that since we all seemed to be going the same direction that this would help me break away from the flow of the crowd. Once I got to Riomaggiore, I could start going backwards.
Okay maybe this idea wasn't anything that groundbreaking, but I thought it was worth a shot.
My evil plan worked. I walked out of the Riomaggiore station, which was almost completely submerged in the cliffs' rock, completely alone. I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go though. I didn't see the typical brightly colored building fronts anywhere, so I just started walking, hoping that I was in the right place.
I walked up a steep staircase off to my right. With small Italian houses to my left and a sheer rock face on my right, I walked through the narrow passageway and up towards the lookout. The path leveled out at a large platform that protruded out from the rock face. I found myself looking out at a beautiful panoramic view of the Mediterranean. The water was such a deep shade of blue. To my right, I had a spectacular view of the textured, mountainous Italian coastline that stretched northwards.
Far below me, to my left, waves crashed on forgotten stone staircases, etched into the side of cliffs, that had once served generations of Italian fisherman as they scrambled down to their boats. On the crests of these mountains were terraced fields of grapes and quaint little houses. Around this rocky outcropping I could tell was a more substantial slice of civilization. Ah, that must be where Riomaggiore is.
I hiked back down to the train station, and back up the cliff that had been opposite me. I made the steep climb up the road to the rocky outcropping beyond which I thought I had glimpsed a piece of Riomaggiore. I was heavily winded by the time I reached the top, but what I saw up there did not disappoint.
Carved into the sides of this rocky Mediterranean crevice was, quite possibly, the most picturesque thing I've ever seen. The town of Riomaggiore was a tiny work of art, hidden between the rocks. The bright, weathered paint coating the quaint square houses clashed with the blue of the sky and the green of the hillside in a way that was nothing if not artistic.
I started down a steep staircase down into the heart of the city. This little village was practically void of the tourists that had polluted the previous 2. The only sound was the salty breeze in the air and the distant crash of the waves against the rocks, hundreds of feet below me. The descent through the narrow spaces between the buildings was a little precarious, but eventually I emerged almost at sea level.
On the cobble stone streets, the terraces of the small restaurants enjoyed pleasant shade provided by white umbrellas. People drank wine and had animated conversations in Italian. I went off through the tiny corridors to explore. Instead of describing it to you though, I'll just leave you with these:
It was beautiful, but the sun was starting to slide low in the sky and I had 2 towns left. Once I felt satisfied, I made the hike back to the train station. The trains rocketed through stone tunnels from town to town at insane speeds. Not every train stops, or even slows down at every station, so I had a few scary moments in the 5 feet between the rock wall of the station and the train speeding by me. Finally, a train stopped, and I jumped on board.
Walking out of the Manarola train station, I was, once again, alone. This train dropped me off a stone's throw away from the heart of town, so there was no searching to be done. I strolled down through the main stretch of town, past the cafes and restaurants, to the ocean front.
It was as perfect as the 3 that preceded it, but with one small improvement. Out at the farthest point of the next rocky outcropping, I spied what I thought would be an ideal vantage point to photograph this town from. I hiked over, and sure enough, look at this:
Any great photographer will tell you that taking a great photo is all about light, and the perfect lighting doesn't last long. Sunset was coming soon, so I wasn't going anywhere. I was going to stay close by in order to take advantage of the light changing. There was another town to see, Corniglia, but from what I could tell, it wasn't going to be anywhere near as awesome as this one, so I decided to stay put.
In the meantime, I had some time to kill before the sunset, so I sat down at a little restaurant and ordered a glass of wine. Things were pretty good for me in that moment, but despite my gorgeous surroundings, I remember feeling lonely. You meet a lot of great, new people on the road, but I had been traveling alone for months at this point. I could have used some company :(
All the same, I paid the bill, and went off to kill more time before sunset. There was a dirt road leading up away from the town, so I hiked up it to see where it led. When I reached the top, I found a tiny graveyard for the residents of Manarola. The inhabitants of this graveyard stretched back to the late 1800s. On each tomb was a portrait of its owner, which made for very interesting browsing. There was a time before Cinque Terre was turned into a national park when people actually made a living here fishing. People still live here of course, but there are very few actual fisherman left. Now the main industry is tourism, and folks like me who were "born too late" are left to wonder what these places would have been like "back in the day." I can only imagine, but thanks to my walk through this graveyard, I know exactly what faces I would have been seeing around town. Also, what a place to be buried! This graveyard was high enough to have almost a 180 degree view of the coast north to south. You could even see Corniglia off in the distance to the north. Take a look:
Eventually the sun began to approach the horizon line, and I knew my time had come. I went about finding a perch as early as I could to ensure I got the perfect angle. Before I get into the really beautiful stuff, here are a few other shots I got as the sun went down...
And NOW, here's the good stuff. I'm going to show this to you in roughly 15 minute intervals, so you can see the transition from the fiery last rays of sunlight to the gentle hues of night.
I literally couldn't take this picture enough times. It was ridiculous. I stood in this spot for at least 2 hours. I had been feeling lonely earlier, but that feeling was gone. I just wanted to soak in as much of this view as I could before I left. When I would see something like this again was anyone's guess.
Now, you might be wondering about Corniglia, the middle of the 5 towns. What ever happened to Corniglia?
Yeah, I never made it to this one. Once I got to Manarola, I knew that things weren't going to get any better, so instead of rushing to Corniglia and back in time for sunset, I just decided to skip it. I did manage to catch a few photos of it from a distance standing in the graveyard in Manarola though. Here's those:
Unlike the other 4 villages, Corniglia is up on the mountain top. Here are a couple nice pictures that I found on the internet to show you what it would have looked like if I had visited:
It's definitely beautiful, but I think I made the right choice in staying in Manarola. I got on the train back to Genoa with no regrets.
On my way out of Manarola, I picked up a couple slices of pizza and went to the bathroom. While I was in the bathroom, since it's totally normal to meet dudes in the bathroom, I met a guy who was from Ohio just like me! It's a small world. Ohioans everywhere.