Editor’s Note: Ryan Danz of Amazing Race 21 recently kspent nearly a month in Europe going hither and yon, beginning with his Running of the Bulls in Spain. He’s being gracious enough to share with our readers more of his trip. Below the article is a slideshow of some of his photos, those not included in the article.
Ryan Danz – The infamous five (“Cinque”) fishing villages (“Terre”) adorning the Italian coast is no longer Italy’s best kept secret since the early 1990’s. The past two decades has left the hiking trails connecting the villages well-traveled and the trademark homes and buildings well photographed. But after devastating mudslides in 2011 to the villages of Monterosso and Vernazza and near total destruction of the coastline and its inhabitants, the settlements and its trademark views are almost back to their eye-popping colorful, quaint, picturesque selves. Almost.
The devastation that took place was ruinous. Shops, hotels and homes were blown out with sludge. Debris filled first floors to the roofs and more generally nothing survived in the path of the slide.
Today, along the infamous hiking trail connecting Monterosso and Vernazza villages, remnants of that demolition still exist. In fact, the trail from Corniglia to Manarola remains closed and requires a two and a half hour detour to the high road. The path from villages Manarola to Riomaggiore, while open, is likely to close even under threat of bad weather as what happened to me in July 2013. If walking uphill and downhill on dirt paths, aka hiking, is not your thing, a regional train that runs frequently connects all five villages.
The towns, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore each offer something unique even though from the untrained eye, one could almost be easily mistaken for another.
Monterosso: The largest village of the five, it offers plentiful beach access with multiple private beach set-ups (your own chair, brightly colored umbrella and piece of sandy real estate). Along the main thoroughfare, just below the train tracks, there are more than a handful of cafes, restaurants, tchotchke shops and gelato stands. In addition to the many eating, shopping and beach options, Monterosso is also the stop for many trains making their way into Cinque Terre from neighboring countries and as such the crowds can become a bit overwhelming. If you’re looking for nightlife as well, then Monterosso is your only real option.
Tip 1: While Monterosso’s size, numerous beaches and tourist friendly establishments are accommodating and intriguing, those same factors can be negatives for those seeking the more hidden-gem type destination. This is Cinque Terre’s allure and it’s only found in part here. Absolutely make Monterosso a stop on your visit, but there are better options to succumbing to a fairy tale hamlet.
Vernazza: Smaller than Monterosso, and just a few clicks (kilometers) away, Vernazza has a flavor all its own. At the end of its one main street running through town, rests a handful of restaurants and shops all vying for your attention, but never in your face. Vernazza’s seascape is legendary and while it does not offer the beach access Monterosso’s does, you can do worse than laying a towel on a flat rock just above the sea’s spray under the church and slipping in for a fresh dip.
Tip 2: Hiking through the five villages is no easy feat. Depending on your route of travel, should you opt for starting in Monterosso and ending in Riomaggiore, be ready to face a long, steep set of stairs on your first leg (Monterosso to Vernazza) that ascends from the sea to the heavens in an hour plus long climb. The total hike time is just over one hour and thirty minutes (between Monterosso/Vernazza), with much of that ascending. The lookouts are spectacular, the paths are narrow and your fellow hikers, regardless of their country’s origins will feel a certain immediate bond with you. Use this as my recommendation to finish, not start your hike in Monterosso.
Corniglia: Where Monterosso is commercialized and Vernazza popular, Corniglia is quaint, quiet and exceptional. Set up higher on the cliffs than the other villages and perhaps a less than ideal place to enjoy the sea at the foot of the village’s cliffs, Corniglia can still take your break away. With fewer homes and an even smaller shopping and tourist center, Corniglia is the smallest of the five villages. It also has the least dedicated entry point to the sea.
Tip 3: Tucked away just off the main square, find the Terra Rosa restaurant. Proprietor sisters Eliana and Sabrina have touched the divine with their simple yet majestically appointed café. Just beyond the walk up counter there is a sitting area, its roof composed of local leaves and branches, peering out over the village and the Mediterranean Sea below. Glass mason jar like bottles hang from above, filled with liquid colors of love and adventure. Diminutive lantern lights weave throughout and the blackboard menus, affixed to the lone stone wall, layout perfectly your breakfast and lunch options. I recommend the Insalata Caprese with tuna and an iced coffee. Let Elaina or Sabrina know that Ryan with the green bandana has sent you and be sure to ask for a small bottle of their homemade pesto sauce on the way out. It’s the best I’ve ever had.
Manarola: The sexiest and most romantic of the five villages, with restaurants and lookouts over the protected inlet, Manarola is truly a heavenly place. The setting of the town will quite literally take your breath away, even if just for a moment. With a single dedicated street from the top of the village to the sea, this town has something that can almost not be put into words. So I won’t even try. I think this picture speaks for itself.
Tip 4: For its value more than its location (you will hike approximately 10 minutes up a fairly steep street) the Pensione Da Baranin is a charming, apartment-like property. Included in its nightly fee is the most delicious, wholesome breakfast complete with fresh melon, croissants, cheeses, cereals and the best cup of espresso you’ve ever had. Beyond the delectableness however is the outdoor patio set seating, made up of fine teak furniture and a view of the steep hillside vineyards. Eat early enough and enjoy watching the local farmers tending to their crops. No words.
Riomaggiore: A strong sense of the working-life exists here, more so than any of the other villages. The sea-life, fishing, scuba, and the marine life it encompasses seem to permeate this small village by way of its shops, artwork and delicacy.
Tip 5: Monterosso, Vernazza and Manarola all extend excellent places to dip into the sea or find a flat rock to enjoy the Tuscan sun. Riomaggiore’s cordoned off inlet is replete with boats and fishing poles and nets. If you take the stairs, just above the boat launch ramp, look for a single open door and inside a glass case. In it you will find the best gelato of any of the five villages. You’re welcome.
Rick Steves, the well-known travel guru, deserves much of the credit (or blame) for Cinque Terre’s meteoric rise in popularity after his experience there was captured in an article around this time.