It is pouring rain in Monterosso, and all the shops and tourist sites are closed. Tyler has just returned from a mission to locate sustenance and is dripping wet, proudly clutching a cup of melty gelato in each hand. We are now holed up in our hotel room snacking on smuggled-in sweets, writing, and occasionally using a borrowed beach towel to soak up the rain seeping through the window. The tides have risen and now cover the beach we sunbathed on two days ago. Most of the restaurants have boarded up their doors in response to flood warnings posted around town. Today will give us some down time to reflect on this not-so-hidden-gem: the Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre is a protected Unesco World Heritage site that spans 5 main villages along the North West coast of Italy. Visitors take pleasure from hiking town-to-town, stopping in each for food, wine, a peek at the pastel colored abodes that tilt charmingly in every direction, and perhaps a bit of swimming. We arrived by train to the village of Monterosso mid-afternoon, finding our hotel with a seaside view just five minutes from the station. The town is, well, a town. A village, more like. One main street, a few shops, and the question of whether or not there is a working bank machine. Fortunately, we have in our possession, a recently published edition of Rick Steves’ Best of Europe which describes, in detail, each village, its facilities, restaurants, and accommodation options.
That night, guide in hand, we set out to find one of Rick’s recommended restaurants, Via Venti, admittedly situated on a narrow side street, somewhat removed from the main drag. After walking self-consciously past the same row of restaurants for the fourth time, we were ready to give up. “No”, Tyler said. “If it’s in the guidebook, it must be worth it”. His determined words lent strength to my weakening resolve and we persevered, sauntering casually into the front doors half an hour later as if it hadn’t taken us forever to find it. A peek at the menu, slow meandering steps, hands behind our backs as if to say “We definitely didn’t look in a guidebook to find this place. We were just being adventurous and happened to stumble upon it by luck”. Right. I noticed immediately, three separate copies of the Rick Steves travel guide in the restaurant. One tucked under a jacket, one in a purse, one gentleman had his nose thoroughly immersed in its pages. Rick Steves was posed with the restaurant owners in a framed photo on the wall, his smiling face presided over the restaurant like the Patron Saint of Monterosso. Ah yes, we were in good company. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” Tyler said after. He had Faggiolli stuffed with pears and cheese. I had gnocchi – my absolute favorite food – with a crab and oregano sauce. Dee-lish. Rick Steves, you rarely let us down.
The next day we set out to hike the famed Cinque Terre. The guidebook said it’d take about 6 hours if we stuck to the low lying seaside hugging route that would take us from town-to-town. Stepping from our hotel into the street, there was a woman singing woefully in the distance, a man speaking in turn from a megaphone, and a long procession of people moving along the main street. October 25, 2011 unusually heavy rains caused a devastating wave of water, earth, mud, and rock to slide down the mountain like a solid wall, killing four people and putting many proprietors out of business indefinitely. A similar mudslide occurred in the nearby village Vernazza around the same time. After exactly a year of clean-up and reconstruction, the town was in mourning. As we came upon this sombre memorial procession, clad in hiking shoes and day packs, I felt as though I’d shown up to church in my underpants.
Subsequently we found that the low lying trails from town to town were still closed, due to the damage and slides that occurred a year earlier. This closure, despite assurances from online sites that the trails had been re-opened and were definitely in use. We hitched up our backpacks, strengthened our resolve once more, and took the high road out of Monterosso to the village of Vernazza. The high road was definitely the high road, and one that was far less travelled than the rest. After pondering the zigs and zags on our map, we found ourselves on a road in the middle of a construction zone with no trail in site. “Cinque Terre?” I asked the two construction workers, who seemed to be pondering their gravel-digging task with as much confusion as we were pondering our map. They briefly discussed with each other in Italian. Then, the younger one pointed left. The older one pointed right. We looked on without comment, more confused than before, as they argued in gruff Italian back and forth for a few intense minutes. Finally the older one shrugged his shoulders, deferred to the younger one – who seemed quite sure of himself, and we went left. Three hours later we were ready for lunch and finally within sight of Vernazza. Gnocchi for me (again), and pizza for Tyler, along with a glass of wine, a seat along the sea wall, and a refreshing ocean breeze smelling of salt and fresh air.
We visited four of the five cities during our Cinque Terre tour: Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, though we cheated and let the train carry us the rest of the way. All are colorful little gems perched along the rocky coast with terraced vineyards and orchards at their backs, a train tracks running through their middles, and the endless ocean horizon facing sandy shores morning, noon, and night. The people here are genuine – if they don’t speak English, they are still gracious and helpful. The food is simple, real, and delicious. The scenery, spectacular. When the trails re-open, I think I just might find an excuse to return.
PS In Venice for our 12 year anniversary…how romantic!