Cinque Terre, five lands, five towns, strung together like pearls on a necklace along Italy’s rocky north-west coast. For years we had seen photos of these little, colourful towns clinging to rocks in the sea. I think we’ve even made jigsaw puzzles of these towns where houses look more like beehives, stuck together one on top of the other. The string of the necklace is the railroad. There are some roads in the upper hills but mostly you can only reach these villages by boat, train or on foot. They are only a few kilometers apart but long tunnels have been blasted through granite to reach these towns.
We planned to spend 5 days here and spent many hours on the internet finding the right spot to stay. We didn’t want to sleep in a different place each night but decided to book one place and explore from there. But where? We looked at staying in the most southern town: Riomaggiore. But it seemed the most touristy, busy one. We read all about the most northern town: Levanto. But it seemed the most expensive, least attractive place to stay.
So we settled in the middle, near Vernazza. But these towns have few hotels or B&B’s and most are impossible small and very pricey. Finally we found an entire house on AirBnB in a settlement near Vernazza: San Bernardino. A whole house to ourselves. Fabulous photos of a small patio overlooking the sea. A kitchen so we could make our own meals… 40 euros a night. There must be a catch. We would find out once we found the place…
From Florence we took the train to La Spezia. Easy enough. We stopped by the station the day before and bought 2 tickets. In La Spezia we transferred to the Cinque Terre train headed to Levanto which, we assumed, would stop in Vernazza. It did.
There we immediately went inside the tourist information office at the train station where a lovely young man went out of his way to answer all of the questions we had. He told us how to take the bus to San Bernardino. We wanted to buy a hiking pole. No problem! He had one right there in the lost and found – why not take it? A supermarket? No.. you have to take the train to Monterosso for that.
He also sold us two very expensive tickets to Cinque Terre National Park for the next three days. But the steep price does include all transportation within the park on trains and busses, the use of internet (if you can find it), the use of toilets (priceless) and admission to all hiking trails. It turned out that having these passes made travel between the towns of Cinque Terre incredibly easy.
We found the bus, up some very steep cobblestone roads through town. Everything is steep here. During the ride, which resembled a rollercoaster ride, we started to get suspicious about the AirBnB location. The bus went straight up the mountain sides, and up and up. Hairpins wide enough for one vehicle. When we encountered a vehicle coming the other way, the driver threw the bus into reverse and backed down the mountain until the two vehicles could scrape by each other. Up we went. Around more hairpins. At one point we disappeared into the clouds. The sea and villages below were tiny, way down the steep green slopes.
Finally, after 40 minutes, we reached a ridge to which a hamlet clung, like a cowboy on the back of a bronco. One old church and about eight vacant houses. Well, perhaps someone lives here but we seem to be the only living souls as we climb more stone stairs. There are no street names or house numbers here. The owner had emailed us 5 photos with arrows on them: climb these stairs. Turn right at the yellow wall. Look for the stone house with shutters and turn right. Climb more stairs. Pass an olive grove and keep climbing (with luggage!).
As we climbed, surrounded by ancient stone walls, all hopes of wifi faded.
So did hopes of a shop or a pub. There is nothing up here. However, the owner had warned us: bring food, there is no supermarket. He had also told us that San Bernardino was five minutes from Vernazza. Maybe, if you had a car. Or a hang glider. But you’d be nuts to drive here.
We finally found “our” house. Nothing between us and heaven…. There is deafening silence on our mountain top. No partying tourists, no honking of cars. It is actually quite wonderful to go unplugged.
In Monterosso, we find a shop and buy ingredients to make our own breakfasts and dinner. Instant coffee and wine: a bottle of Lambrusco is 3.50 euros here! In our backpacks we haul it all back up the mountain in the bus. It was market day in Vernazza and the bus was full of older, local women chattering loudly in Italian. Obviously they only saw each other on market day and had to catch up on lots of stories, including the driver who talked with wild hand gestures the entire time.
The next day we hiked the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare. Glorious views but a very narrow, treacherous trail. I don’t know that I’ve ever hiked a steeper trail. We only met people walking the trail in the opposite direction.
Then we tried walking from Vernazza to Corniglia but it had poured during the night and the trail is closed because if it too muddy, too slippery. So we took the train to Lavanto, a big and unattractive town. We like Vernazza best with it crooked main street, little patios and a nice square by the water.
Over the years, when I heard stories about taking the train from village to village in Cinque Terre, I always pictured some tiny wooden touristy train which you could hop on and hop off. However, the trains connecting these villages are normally, big trains. We spent a lot of time waiting on platforms. Busses to the upper regions go less frequently. If we miss the 9:20 AM bus – which so far has departed at 9:15 each morning – we’d have to wait until 3:30 to catch the next one…
Don’t come to Cinque Terre if you have bad knees. And, let’s face it since we’re grandparents, if you have good knees when you start here, you might have bad ones when you finish your visit. We’ve seen several people with scraped legs and bandaged knees here.
On our last full day, we wanted to hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola but the trail was closed. Then we decided to take the shuttle boat from Riomaggiore to Vernazza because it would give us a lovely view of the villages from the water on this blue sky, sunny day. However, the boat was not going due to… bad weather. The Italians here are not overly friendly. I can sympathize with them since this is the end of tourist season and each town is over run. But still. The boat clerk shrugged and looked at me like I was nuts when I wanted to know why the boat wasn’t going on such a sunny day. One clerk in the grocery store today was swearing at those inconvenient tourists. Over-tourism is an obvious problem here. I saw a paper sign in a small plant pot by a house that said ‘please don’t take clippings’. The place is choked with visitors from France, Germany, Australia, USA and many from Asia, traipsing in hordes after a guide with a number sign. If I lived here, I’d be annoyed, too. Except that tourists now are the main source of employment and income for most people here. Even the lovely girls in our favourite Vernazza coffee shop are from the Dominican Republic because they can readily find work here. They served me lovely dolce di frutta and moccacino.
And that’s the problem, see. You can lose 5 pounds in 5 days by walking. But the minute you stop, you gain those same 5 pounds right back.