I wanted to travel to Italy and bask in sunshine, away from doing the ‘tourist thing’. I wasn’t ready to ‘do’ Rome, especially after getting a hint of lovely, tourist-besieged Venice. My sister-in-law recommended the Cinque Terre in the northwest corner of Italy on the Italian Riviera. Two years ago she and my brother were on their way to Venice and got no further than the Cinque Terre’s Vernazza. They arrived, liked what they saw and stayed put.
The five villages of the Cinque Terre cling to cliffsides and are primarily linked by rail. The villagers dug and carved and raised their towns and vineyards to dizzying heights. They lived off the land and off the sea for hundreds of years. It was a hard life and when the railways came in the late 1800s a lot of them left. In many ways it is still a hard life, though tourism now supplements it.
From northwest to southeast, the five villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The two most popular villages with tourists are Monterosso and Vernazza: consequently they are more expensive. I chose Riomaggiore for my four-night stay as it was much cheaper and I also liked the fact that it was the most eastern village. I had read on a blog that one of the best walks in the Cinque Terre is the five-hour clifftop walk from Riomaggiore to Portovenere further east. More on this false advertising later.
For four nights, from Thursday through to Monday morning, I was able to get a self-catering flat in the centre of town for 40 euros a night. This is about as cheap as it gets, almost hostel prices, though it was also at the end of March which I was expecting was still out of season. The reviews on most of the lower-priced accommodations were very mixed, everyone agreeing only that the roadways are steep.
And here is my alarm bell: the Cinque Terre, or at least Riomaggiore, is no place to visit if you have any mobility issues. (Monterosso and Vernazza are on flatter river basins but the buildings are still stacked.) I do physical work cleaning rooms and do lunges and squats and twists and turns all day. I love hiking and walking but the rates of difficulty of trails and walks in the Cinque Terre seem to have been set by Amazonian Olympians. I am 5 ft. 1 and was lifting my legs almost a foot on many of the steps that link everything everywhere. Not a single walk was rated more than moderately difficult, yet I would venture a section of my walk to Portovenere was downright dangerous. Unfortunately, while I was there, all the shoreline walks between the villages were closed. These are the most popular and probably relatively easier than going into the hills. However, my warning still stands unless all you are going to do is take the train into a town and then leave again.
My train from Genova arrived in Riomaggiore around 5:30 in the evening and according to my hotel’s website if I didn’t arrive by 6:30 p.m. there would be no one available to give me my room, so I set off through the pedestrian tunnel to the town’s main street. Via Colombo is narrow and as I emerged from the tunnel I felt the eyes of a group of older Italian women watch me with what seemed like bemusement as they took their evening repose. My suitcase had wheels, bought in preparation for what I had read about the steep climb to my hotel’s front desk.
I couldn’t find corresponding numbers on the street for my hotel and put to use, for the first time, phrases I would use very, very often: Buon giorno. Mi scuse. Non parlo italiano. Parli inglese? (Good day. Excuse me. I don’t speak Italian. Do you speak English?) Most would say ‘a little’ and we would begin a fruitful exchange, mixing gestures and a little of the two languages. My hotel was further up the hill by a little church.
The proprietor of my hotel, the Locanda dalla Compagnia, was a brusque man in his late 30s, early 40s sporting a version of a mohawk hairstyle. He probably also had tattoos. I knew I wasn’t staying at the hotel itself and we set off back down the street, he at a brisk pace. I was practically running behind him, my luggage rattling over the stones. He stopped abruptly to greet a woman he hadn’t seen in awhile and gestured for me to halt as well. We began again and as he asked if he could assist me with my luggage, he took two quick steps away from me, before I had a chance to reply.
We reached the point on the street where I was to enter to go to my flat and he quickly pointed out the bank across from it as a marker. With the first unpracticed words that I heard from him, he said, with genuine respect: ‘an old fisherman used to live here.’
The homes of the people of the Cinque Terre, and many of the bed lettings, are built into the cliffsides, in tower-houses. It is a complex system hidden behind the facade of the main street, where stairways lead to smaller walkways, up one or two or more levels. Through a doorway off the Via Colombo, we went up stairs to a smaller street, made a small turn to the left, then a small turn to the right, up another short set of stairs to the outside door of the building I was staying in. My flat was up twenty very, very steep, narrow stairs made of marble that made a 90-degree turn midway. I had to walk up them sideways, pulling my bag a foot high with each step.
He showed me how to lock the door, told me I didn’t have to return to the hotel when I left but to leave the key inside, and off he went. And, except for the stairway, I loved this place. I had a finely finished modern bathroom, a new small kitchen, an old couch, an Ikea-looking table and chairs for dining, a big double bed and a little alcove room for storing luggage. I had windows everywhere along the seaside of the building (though no seaview) — large, new windows with green shutters that I could open and close in varying degrees to let in air and light. I had never used shutters before and decided I liked them quite a bit.
I could hear people greeting each other in Italian below my windows, look outside over the inner alleyways and see their heads as they passed below, see the laundry hanging, as it does everywhere in sun-drenched Italy, outside their shutters — and all the walls in warm shades of yellow and terracotta.
I was stunned by the weather. It was the last week in March and all the forecasts I had seen before I left the U.K. did not predict this lovely heat. And though the vineyards and some of the trees were not yet green, everything else was. Every garden had a lemon tree and every lemon tree laden with fruit.
I left my flat to get a sense of the town. The marina and sea is reached via another tunnel (and more steps). There were a couple of restaurants there and blue fishing boats and rocks and a patio on which to drink on another rise. Returning to Via Colombo, I now saw the various restaurants, all with a tourist menu as well as the menu in Italian.
Upon entering Via Colombo from the pedestrian walkway there is a little grocery store on the right with fresh fruit and vegetables outside and pasta, cheese, meats and everything else you’d need inside. It was expensive though and I thought it must be mainly for tourists. Surely there is a modern grocery store at the edge of town where the locals shop? I walked up Via Colombo, which is not long — probably only a few city blocks in length — but which has a steep gradient. Three-quarters of the way to the top of it, as it peters out to a parking lot, there is an ambulance permanently parked.
There was no modern plaza strip. There were a few municipal buildings and a Cinque Terre park information centre. Walking back down I noticed a co-op grocery store, set up much like the store at the foot of Via Colombo. There were some local people inside and I bought a bottle of pear juice and a roll of chocolate-almond cookies. (These are probably the best cookies I have ever had, like a biscotti — I haven’t been able to find anything like them here in the U.K.)
I wandered up by the main church in the heart of the town and could hear singing coming from inside. Following another walkway up and back towards the sea I found one of the town’s high points by an ancient castle and old chapel. A simple wooden cross stood between two conifer trees, silhouetted against the sea and setting sun, with benches set along it. This became not only my favourite spot in Riomaggiore, but is probably one of my favourite spots anywhere in the world: stunningly meditative and beautiful.
With the sun gone down and the town quiet, I followed Via Colombo back down to where the street for my flat opened to it, almost at its bottom. A cocktail-coffee bar was invitingly open on to the street with modern music on the radio and cushioned chairs outside. They had a limited menu and I ordered a pesto pizza to go, which the young bartender made as if for the first time. He opened a jar of pesto sauce (pesto is a regional specialty) and spread it on the dough. I was dubious as to how good this pizza was going to be but was not disappointed. I enjoyed it back in my flat accompanied by pear juice and chocolate-almond cookies.
This little cafe was a meeting place for tourists and locals and did a booming business from early morning until its relatively early closing time of 9:30 p.m.