Cinque Terre: Italy's Hidden Riviera
In these five idyllic port towns, we sample village life: fishing for anchovies at midnight, savoring the best pesto, picking grapes, and cheering cliff divers as we hike the "walkway of love." Each pastel town is a delight, but Rick's favorite is Vernazza — where Giovanni makes pasta and Granelli sells porcini mushrooms at the tiny street market. We side-trip to Carrara's historic quarries where Michelangelo selected his marble, then return to Vernazza to stroll its only street (with the entire village) as the sun sets.
For a guided visit, Sara Paolini is excellent (mobile 347-888-3833, email@example.com). She is accustomed to meeting drivers at the Carrara freeway exit, or she can pick you up at the train station.
Where Rick Stayed
While filming, Rick stayed at a private apartment in Vernazza. The apartment requires a minimum 7-night stay and can be booked through Albergo Barbara, tel. & fax 0187-812-398, mobile 338-793-3261, firstname.lastname@example.org.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
 Hi, I'm Rick Steves. And we're travel partners once again as we explore more of the best of Europe. This time we return to my favorite stretch of entire Mediterranean coastline — Italy's Cinque Terre.
For me, the best bits of Italy are traffic free — and in the towns of the Cinque Terre there's not a vespa or Fiat in sight. While we won't be visiting any art galleries, we will dive headlong into Italian culture.
We'll explore five dreamy port towns, ride a little wine train to pick grapes, night fish for anchovies, savor trailside delicacies, dive from spectacular cliffs, and hike — soaking up more sun and scenery than you can imagine. Then we side-trip to the quarries where Michelangelo personally selected his marble.
Italy is about the size of Arizona. The Cinque Terre is nestled between Genoa and Pisa. After exploring its villages, we'll side trip to the quarries of Carrara.
The Cinque Terre, which means "five lands," was first described in medieval times as "the five castles." Tiny communities grew up in the protective shadows of their castles — their people ready to run for refuge at the first hint of a Turkish pirate raid. As the threat of pirates faded, the communities grew, with economies based on fish, olives, and grapes.
Each rugged little town is a variation on the same theme: a well-whittled pastel jumble of homes filling its ravine. These days the castles, which used to protect the towns from marauding pirates, guard only glorious views.
This isolated stretch of the Italian Riviera is the traffic-free, rustic alternative to the resorty Riviera nearby. There's not a museum in sight. Just sun, sea, sand (well, pebbles) and people. This is Italy at its most relaxed.
For a home base, choose among the five villages. Each has a distinct personality — gently and steadily carving a good life out of the difficult terrain.
It's a seductive mix of human activity — well-worn locals, sunburned travelers, and family friendly lanes. While the place is now well discovered, I've never seen happier, more laid back tourists.
You'll approach by train through a dark tunnel. Explosions of Mediterranean brightness hint at wonders to come.
On the platforms the bell — sounding like a cartoon alarm clock — and a blast of cold wind shoved out of the long tunnel announces the passing of an Intercity Express — a reminder of a fast-paced world beyond. Then, suddenly, once again, the air is thick, warm, and quiet.
The town of Vernazza has one main street running from its train station down to the sea. Of the five towns, Vernazza has the closest thing to a natural harbor — overseen by a ruined castle.
The old castle no longer says 'Stay away;' instead, it seems to welcome excursion boats. Grab a comfortable hollow in a boulder. Study the arrangement man and nature have carved out here over the last 15 centuries. Crumpled hills come with topographical lines: a terraced, green bouquet of cactus, grapevines, and olive trees.
The action is at the harbor, where you'll find a kids' beach, plenty of sunning rocks, and a wealth of cafés and restaurants.
Like a breakwater keeps out the waves at the bottom of town, a gate stops traffic at the top where the tiny access road dead ends. No cars enter this village of 600 residents...except early on Tuesdays when trucks and vans roll in for the weekly tailgate-party street market.
While most tourists are still in their rooms, villagers who've never set foot in a mall do their shopping. The mobile market sets up in a different town each day. The flower shop is a family affair.
And for 22 years of Tuesdays, Granelli has parked right here to sell his porcini mushrooms, dried cod, and Parmesan cheese.
Up the street, Giovanni runs a pasta shop. He tried running the family pension but ended up making pasta instead.
Giovanni has clearly found his niche and is now a favorite with the town restaurants. Each trusts him with their own recipes, which remain uniquely theirs. These special ravioli are for Trattoria da Sandro.
The people here are proud of their heritage. They brag that while nearby big time Riviera resorts sold out, the Cinque Terre is still locally owned. Locals even stopped the construction of a major road into the region to keep the modern world out. Families remain tight and they go back centuries.
Until the coming of the train and tourism, the towns were very remote. But even today, traditions survive, and each of the five villages comes with a heritage and a distinct dialect.
Beppo: Yes it's true, every village has a different dialect. For example in Vernazza you would say ' meh' for me, and ' the' for you; in Monterosso you would say 'mee' and ' tee..
Rick: So if you listen carefully, then you can tell what village a person lives in?
Narrow stepped lanes — called carrugi — zigzagged up from the main street. In the densest parts of town, these lanes became interior passages. You could pop in at the bottom of town and pop out at the top near the castle — ideal for fleeing attacks.
The castle — nicked named "the place of loud screams" — for the warnings it made back in pirating days — has stood guard for a thousand years. Visitors climb to the top for the view and to imagine past raids.
Locals here like to tell stories of a town empty of men — who were out fishing or in the fields. When the pirates came, the women and children would flee to the castle fearing a life of slavery somewhere far to the east.
Today, the lowest deck is perfect for a romantic glass of wine. For a sweet dessert wine, sip the local sciacchetrà. It's served with biscotti...ideal for dunking. Enjoy the view and the sunshine.
But this submarine-strength door hints that the weather's not always calm. Mammoth waves can slam into this wall. And, as photos inside attest, winter storms can engulf the entire tower in waves.
The people of the Cinque Terre know the weather by the wind.
Rick: The weather is changing, I think.
Local: Yes, it is a wind called the Sirocco from Egypt, it's a hard wind and tomorrow will be the Libeccio and it will put the storm in Verrnaza from the southwest. Then the wind will change again after the storm it will be the wind from the Tramontana.
Rick: What happens when the Tramontana happens?
Local: The weather is good. If you know the weather in Vernazza, you don't need a weatherman.
Vernazza's main square has some of the region's finest restaurants. My friend Valerio works at Trattoria Gianni Franzi.
Valerio: Buena sera, good evening everybody what shall I bring you to drink?
Rick: Solo aqua.
Valerio: So you are not going to have fish tonight?
Rick: Yes, fish.
Valerio: With fish you must have wine. If fish find water in your stomach they are going to swim again. You must drink wine. I suggest some from Cinque Terre.
While antipasto is cheese and salami in Tuscany, here you'll get antipasti di mare, lots of mixed seafood.
Valerio: We are done with the antipasto. Would you like to have some pasta now?
Rick: Yes, what would be good pasta here?
Valerio: What would you like? Would you like something with seafood that is caught in this area or would you like pesto from this area? If you want pesto, we have very good pesto sauce.
Rick: Pesto, si.
This is pesto country. Basil, which loves this temperate Ligurian climate, is combined with fresh garlic, a generous grab of pine nuts, and sea salt before it's mashed into a fine paste. Like so many Italian dishes, extra virgin olive oil is mixed in. The pesto is finished when Parmesan cheese is added. And then it's poured over pasta. Try it on trofie, a special pasta made of flour with a bit of potato, designed specifically for pesto.
The most typical main course here: fish. Accuighe are anchovies, a regional specialty — served the day they're caught. If you've always hated anchovies (the harsh, cured-in-salt American kind), try them here, fresh — cooked in a variety of ways.
Valerio: The fishermen work while we are sleeping. They use boats with lights to attract the fish. Then, they slowly move the boats together, the lights become one and the fish follow. Then, the biggest boat lays a net into a big circle around the light. When the bottom of the net is pulled tight the net becomes a big bag. The fish are captured. When the sun comes up, the fish are already in the market.
As Valerio says, you need wine with your fish. It's mid-September and the ingenious monorail wine train — called a trenino — carries workers high above the villages where small family vineyards are tended with knowing care. The Cinque Terre takes pride in its white wine. Traditional farming techniques are complimented with modern know-how. This device measures the sugar content of the grapes to help determine the best time for harvesting. But ancient Roman methods still work.
These hillsides have been terraced for centuries. Someone — perhaps after drinking a bit too much of this wine — calculated that the Cinque Terre has the same amount of stonework as the Great Wall of China...over 4,000 miles of stone walls...all built without mortar.
The villages are connected by a series of scenic trails, much enjoyed by visitors. From Vernazza, the trail leads dramatically along the coast and through vineyards to Corniglia — the town most dominated by wine making.
Originally settled by a Roman farmer who named it for his mother, Corniglia's ancient residents produced a wine so famous that painted vases found at Pompeii touted its virtues. Today wine remains its lifeblood.
It seems nearly everyone makes a little wine in their cellar. And you may well be invited in for an education...and a taste. Tomasina is enthusiastic about her wine.
Perched on a hill and less visited; Corniglia has fewer tourists, cooler temperatures, a couple restaurants, private rooms for rent, and a windy belvedere from which you can scout the rest of your trek.
One of the essential Cinque Terre experiences is to get out and hike. The trails are rough...but manageable. There's plenty of ups and downs...but it's worth it for the views.
The hike comes with surprises...like munching on a cactus fruit.
Don't try this without help. But if you know how to peel the fichi di India... delicioso...
There's one main path, so you won't get lost. Now that the area has been made a national park, you'll pay a nominal admission fee and enjoy better-maintained trails and a more pristine countryside.
Whether strolling through shady olive groves, enjoying wide-open vistas, or pausing for a little cliff diving... this is an experience enjoyed by locals and tourists, young and old. From Vernazza, we hiked to Corniglia and are now heading for...Manarola.
Manarola is tiny and picturesque, a tumble of buildings filling its ravine above a dramatic harbor. Cliff diving for beginners is popular here.
Manarola is connected to the next town by the Via dell'Amore, or Walkway of Love. It's the easiest stretch of the hike and a good place from which to savor your own private piece of Mediterranean coastline. Enjoying this stroll, it's easy to imagine why so many artists and romantics are drawn to this region. The next town hides just around the corner.
Riomaggiore, the most substantial non-resort town of the group, is another cozy collection of homes nestled in a valley. The tangle of pastel homes lean on each other as if someone stole their crutches. The colors are regulated by a commissioner of good taste from the community government.
Each town's restaurants are eager to cook for hungry hikers. The specialty here is the aromatic spaghetti al cartoccio — spaghetti with mixed seafood cooked in foil.
While you can hike or ride the train between towns, you can also catch the boat. If the weather's calm, hourly boats link the Cinque Terre towns. After a hike, it's fun to survey what you explored. There's Manarola...and Corniglia — safely on its hilltop. And I can almost see my apartment in Vernazza.
Last stop for this boat, the numero cinque of our Cinque Terre tour, is Monterosso al Mare. This is the most resorty town of the group. With cars, larger hotels, rentable umbrellas, and the best beach around, you'll find plenty of crowds.
If you want the kind of beach scene that leaps to mind when you hear the word 'Riviera', you'll find it here. Warm water, colorful umbrellas, plenty of bodies soaking up the Mediterranean sun, and an inviting promenade.
From the beach action, a tunnel leads under the castle and into Monterosso's old town. This is where you'll find the characteristic restaurants, shops, and small crooked streets.
Rentable private rooms — called Affitti Camere — are the best values throughout the Cinque Terre. Each town is honeycombed year-round with a range of rooms and apartments for rent — generally simple and inexpensive. We're staying here, right above the piazza back in Vernazza.
Any main-street business seems to have a line on rooms for rent. Hosts don't speak much English and are reluctant to take reservations long in advance. You can call a day or two ahead or, bolder travelers simply show up in the morning and ask around.
Our apartment is spacious with three bedrooms, a compact bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen, and a homey living room. And from its window...a smashing harbor view. The adjacent church bells chime through the day — but, thanks to an agreeable town priest, they're silent through the night.
Breakfasts are not included with the rooms. So, you'll eat local style.... a cappuccino and a pastry or a piece of focaccia — served at any bar and you're ready to roll.
You could spend all of your time exploring the medieval intricacies of these little towns, but don't forget, as secluded as you are here, there are some interesting sites only a short train ride away.
Today we're taking a side trip. Since nearly all transportation is by train, schedules are posted everywhere. Our train at 9:26.
In these small town stations, there are two tracks for two directions. All trains are going either "to Genoa — track one" or "per — that's to — La Spezia — on track two." And today, that's for us.
Milk-run trains tie the villages of the Cinque Terre to each other and to the outside world. The first train cutting through this tough, mountainous coastline was an engineering marvel for its day...
...and it helped tie newly united Italy together in the 19th century. We're day-tripping about an hour away to visit the marble quarries in Carrara.
The valleys of Carrara lead away from the sunny Mediterranean into a world of rumbling trucks dwarfed by towering walls of marble.
Man has chipped and cut away at these deposits for centuries. Michelangelo himself came here to personally select his marble. And ever since Roman times, the marble of Carrara has been famous for its quality.
An outdoor museum within the quarries welcomes visitors. And local guide Sara Paolini is giving us a quick tour.
Sara: You have to know that the history of Carrara goes back before the Roman time. The people here used these wood wedges to get the rock from the mountain. They placed the wet wedges in cracks in the rock and when they expanded, the rock split from the mountain. In the Roman times it was all done by hand using hammer and chisels they cut the blocks from inside the mountain.
Rick: This was cut by hand by Roman slaves?
Sara: Yes, by Roman slaves by hand Here you see an old handsaw that was used until the beginning of the last century. If you help me we can try to cut the block. We need to have rhythm.
Rick: So how are we doing — are we cutting anything?
Sara: Yes, we cut, but you see here that iron plates and the sand was abrasive and cut the marble. The workers only cut three inches a day.
Rick: So if we were to cut all day how much would we cut?
Sara: About a half of an inch. And now I can show you the modern technology the workers use to cut the marble. This cable it works like a saw but in this case it is not the sand, it is diamonds.
Rick: So, there are diamonds?
Sara: Yes, industrial diamonds.
Rick: Oh, O.K.
Sara: But it works much faster. They can cut many feet an hour.
Rick: Much better. So what is so good about this marble here?
Sara: Here is the finest quality of the white marble. It is so good.
Rick: So the sculptors like this marble?
Sara: Oh yes, they love this and Michelangelo too, he came every time alone on foot to the quarries to choose the best block. He sat and looked at the marble, he knew what was inside. He revealed it just by chipping away the extra marble.
The marble of Carrara remains in demand throughout the world. Huge slabs — marked with recipients' names or numbers — line the valley and fill the harbor ready to be shipped away.
We're arriving back in the Cinque Terre just before sunset.
One tradition that thrives oblivious to all the tourism is that special time when villagers get out and socialize. Each evening locals do their vasca (that's laps in Italian) — strolling together up and down the main street. A wander here...especially with a local friend like Monica who knows everyone in town...gives a good insight into this close-knit Italian community.
In this quintessentially European scene, every generation is out together sharing the moment. While the Cinque Terre now endures the storms of the modern world, the region's charms are as endearing as its people are resilient.
And even today, when the church bells ring, the fishermen at sea and the grape pickers in the hills look back at their village and know Italy is still Italy. Thanks for joining us. There's lots more Europe to explore. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'. Ciao.