By Margaret Hedderman
When all roads lead to Rome, take the back way to the small coastal region of Cinque Terre in North-western Italy. Candlelight and distant music filter pleasantly through small stone alleyways, past two table pizzerias, sidewalk cafes, and eventually to the booming sea below. While congestion and exhaust clog the strade of major European capitals, the five small villages that constitute Cinque Terre luxuriate in la dolce vita, the good life.
Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore careen dangerously from sharp cliff edges and bask lazily in small harbors under the Italian sun. The rickety connecting train from La Spezia chugs through the mountains and finally crests a hill to reveal Monterosso. 14th Century stone buildings, painted cheery oranges and yellows as though tanned by the sun, line narrow streets and alleys. And there’s not a five-star hotel in sight. Though there are several small, locally owned hotels, do as the Urchin and book a vacation rental for five… then hide the remaining three from your party by the beach until the landlady disappears. It’s not dishonest – it’s thrift.
None of the five villages in Cinque Terre (which translates into “five lands”) are known for their nightlife, but there are one or two bars in each town, overflowing with Aussies, Brits, and a stray American here and there. The real nightlife is found dining late into the night at one of the many sidewalk cafes. But be careful! Many restaurants will charge a “seating fee” for use of their tables and chairs. Rather than punch the waiter and make a run for it, shop at the local market the next night and cook your own meal using fresh pasta, local olives and vegetables.
The real adventure in Cinque Terre is not, however, feasting on pasta and baking on the beach (amazing as that is,) but hiking town to town along cliffs above the Mediterranean. Small vineyards slope toward the booming waves and lemon trees shade the trail. While sherpas aren’t mandatory, be sure to bring water, snacks and good hiking shoes because the trail is rocky and steep at times.
As you schlep into each village, slightly damper and hungrier than before, invest a Euro or two in a scoop of gelato and explore the ancient churches (some decorated in a delightful Purgatory décor.) Hopefully you won’t go to Hell for eating gelato in a church before you can experience the unique and minute differences of the five lands.
Arriving back in Monterosso, known for the best beaches in Cinque Terre, rinse the sweat and trail off by diving into the sea. Half-naked Italian bodies brown on the beach next to bright red Brits and Americans. No one can compete with an Italian tan, but you may as well join them for an afternoon nap. What’s the saying? When in Cinque Terre?