THE CINQUE TERRE, Italy
When it comes to Italy, top billing goes to Rome, Venice and Florence — and rightfully so. But a trip away from those biggies, and the scads of tourists those biggies draw, can be sublime.
I learned this firsthand when, after a few days in Rome and a stop in Florence, I arrived in a region so picturesque that its colorful images grace virtually every Italy calendar you've ever seen: Cinque Terre.
Nestled on the Ligurian coast between Tuscany and France along the Mediterranean Sea, the Cinque Terre is composed of five villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Each has its own personality, and each is breathtakingly beautiful in its own way.
Because I was traveling in the winter off season, when many of the hotels are closed, and because I put off booking a room until about two weeks before my trip, accommodations were limited. (There would be no seaside stay for me this trip. Maybe next time.) I settled on Affittacamere Sull'Arco, a lovely place in Monterosso, the northernmost village. I had reserved the room for one night but left open the possibility of extending that to two nights. Less than an hour after my arrival I added that second night.
The sea is the lifeblood for the villages of the Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kweh TEHR-reh -- and roll those Rs if you can). Fishermen's colorful boats line the streets, waiting to be launched. Fresh seafood is plentiful at local restaurants, where anchovy dishes are the specialty. I'm not a fan of the anchovies I've had in the United States, but in Monterosso I had stuffed anchovies and a soup with anchovies, and both were excellent. Grapes, olives and citrus also flourish here, and it is said to be the birthplace of pesto.
With five villages, each worth a visit, you may be wondering how to see them all.
There are two popular options:
1. Catch the train for a nominal fee.
2. Take a hike. Depending on trail conditions and your stamina, you can walk among the villages. Hoofing it to all five will take the better part of a day. Consider picking one stretch, walking it, then hopping on the train. If you're looking for something short and sweet, try Via dell'Amore ("Pathway of Love"). In about 20 minutes you can travel between Riomaggiore and Manarola. (There is a fee to use some of the trails. Passes for the trails and the train can be purchased at information centers near the train stations.)
Here are some of the highlights of this UNESCO World Heritage Site from my too-brief stay:
This larger-than-life statue of Neptune, appropriately the Roman god of the sea, lords over the rocks at the northern end of Monterosso just beyond the popular sunbathing beach. Weather and Allied bombs have taken their toll on the nearly 45-foot giant, which is said to have been built by Arrigo Minerbi, a well-known Italian sculptor, in 1910 to decorate the seaward edge of the Villa Pastine. Over the years, Il Gigante, once a symbol of the town and a fixture on postcards, lost his arms, his trident and the giant seashell he had held aloft.
Pasta and prawns, and those anchovies, were as fresh as could be. I ate dinner at La Cambusa Ristorante, which was a few hundred feet from Affittacamere Sull'Arco, two nights in a row. (As with the hotels, because it was the off season many restaurants were closed.) The food was good both times. Olives, seafood, pine nuts ... what's not to like? And don't forget to leave room for tiramisu.
Before setting out to hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, I dutifully packed a knapsack: camera, iPod, water, cellphone. About 10 minutes into my walk I realized that bringing the iPod was silly. Crashing waves, chirping birds and small waterfalls provided the perfect soundtrack. The vistas during my one-hour-plus journey, which would have been hastened had I not stopped to take nearly 200 photos (yes, I have a problem), were spectacular. Because I set out early, I had the entire trail, which gets narrow in some spots, to myself. As Vernazza came into view and I patted myself on the back for a walk well done, I promptly bit the dust after losing my footing on loose gravel. Thankfully I didn't fall off the footpath and down the steep embankment. I simply slid down a few stairs and skinned my shin. Only my pride was wounded (and there were, of course, no witnesses).
The Cinque Terre isn't gussied up for tourists. These towns are lived in. Laundry lines are draped across the streets, there is peeling paint, the stucco is coming off, stray cats vie for attention. The authenticity is part of the charm. Let yourself get lost in it all and just wander. You never know what you'll stumble upon, or where you'll end up. I had a moment when, on my way up a hill, a man motioned for me to move to the side of the narrow road to make room for a vehicle. I was a bit confused about what was happening and realized there was a church at the top of the hill. The man crossed his arms across his chest, made a face and said, "Morto." Once the vehicle went by I continued my climb and explored an area next to the church. As I went to leave I saw more than 100 townspeople heading toward me, single file, dressed in their finest. They were headed up the hill to pay their respects to the decedent. Life and death, beauty and pain.
Church of San Giovanni Battista
This church, which dates back to the 1340s (its facade was rebuilt in the 1800s), is found in the highest part of Riomaggiore. It was built in the Gothic style by the bishop of Luni, Antonio Fieschi. The interior is divided into two side aisles and a nave, and its highlights include a beautiful wooden crucifix and an organ dating from 1851. On Corpus Domini (60 days after Easter) there is a procession from the church down to the sea, where there is a boat with an altar on it and Mass is conducted.