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.

Travel Details

Sara Paolini

For a guided visit, Sara Paolini is excellent (mobile 347-888-3833, sarapaolini@hotmail.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, info@albergobarbara.it.

Script

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 the 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 “the five lands,” was first described in medieval times as “the five castles.” Tiny communities grew up in the protective shadow 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, and can be crowded in peak season, 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.

Rick: Very nice. What do we have?
Giovanni: Okay, is triniti, ravioli, pansotti, trofie con spinaci, normale trofie, spaghetti, tagliolini con spinaci, and tagliolini con seppia.
Rick: En seppia. That’s octopus ink.
Giovanni: Yes, small octopus.
Rick: Americans love pasta.
Giovanni: Italians also love but is big problem.

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. Locals brag that while nearby big time nearby Riviera resorts have sold out, the Cinque Terre is still locally owned. People actually got together and blocked the construction of a major road to keep out the modern world. 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 its own heritage and a distinct dialect.

Beppo: Yes, it’s true, every village has a different dialect. For example, for to speak “me” and “you” in Vernazza: “meh,” “the.” In Monterosso is “mee,” “tee.”
Rick: So if you listen carefully, then you know what village they live in? Beppo: Sure.

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 in the fields or fishing. When the pirates came, the women and the children would flee to castles like this 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, now they come Sirocco from Egypt, it’s a hard wind and tomorrow will be the Libeccio and it will put the storm in Vernazza.
Rick: From the southwest.
Local: Yeah, from the southwest, yes. And after the storm wind will change again, will be the wind from the mountains called tramontana.
Rick: What happens when the tramontana comes, what does this?
Local: The temperature go down and the...in the sky, it is good weather. 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: Buonasera, good evening everybody. What shall I bring you to drink?
Rick: Solo acqua.
Valerio: So, you are not going to have fish tonight?
Rick: Yes, fish.
Valerio: With fish you must have wine because if fish find water in your stomach they are going to swim again. You must drink wine. I suggest some from Cinque Terre.
Rick: Yes.

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, like, catched just out here, or the pesto cauces you know is born in this area? So 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 and cooked in a variety of ways.

Rick: How do you say anchovy in Italian?
Valerio: Anchovy? Ceviche acciughe. Acciughe. And they are just caught out here. Do you want to know how they catch the fish? The fishermen goes out while eveybody is 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 it. 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 and the fish are captured. When the sun comes up, they 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.

Rick: Okay, beautiful.
Tomasina: [Italian]
Rick: Vino de la Cinque Terre!
Tomasina: No, de Corniglia.
Rick: Vino de Cornigla!
Tomasina: De Tomasina! De casa!
Rick and Tomasina: De casa de Tomasina de Corniglia de Cinque Terre de Italia.

Perched on a hill and less visited; Corniglia has fewer tourists, cooler temperatures, a couple of 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 lots of ups and downs, but with these views it’s worth it.

The hike comes with surprises…like munching on a cactus fruit.

[Italian exchange]

Don’t try this without help. But if you know how to peel the fichi di India...delicioso...

[Italian exchange]

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 they’re reluctant to take reservations long in advance. But 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.

[Italian exchange]

A cappuccino and a pastry or a piece of focaccia — served at any bar and you’re ready to roll.

You could spend your entire vacation 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. And since transportation around here is basically by train, schedules are posted everywhere. We’ve got a departure 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 togther 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 goes back before the Roman time. The people living here in Carrara they used these wood wedges to split the rock from the mountain. They wet the wood wedges would expanded and the block split from the mountain. In the Roman times the slaves worked just by hand using hammer and chisels and they cut the blocks here inside the mountain.
Rick: This was cut by Roman slaves?
Sara: By Roman slaves by hand using hammer and chisel yes. So here you see this old handsaw that was used from the Roman time until the beginning of the last century. And so if you help me we can try to cut the block. Just sing to have rhythm.
Rick: So how are we doing — have we cut anything?
Sara: Yes, we cut, but you see here the iron plate, you don’t see any teeth on the side because water and sand came from the top and sand was abrasive and cut the marble. And in this way these two workers cut three inches a day.
Rick: So if we cut all day today how much will we cut?
Sara: 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 bandsaw but the abrasive in this case is not the sand, it is these great big, these industrial diamonds.
Rick: These are diamonds?
Sara: Yes, industrial one.
Rick: Oh, O.K.
Sara: And it works faster, much faster. They can cut many feet in an hour.
Rick: Much better. So what is so good about this marble here?
Sara: Here it is the finest quality of the white marble here in Carrara. It is so good to be worked here.
Rick: So the sculptors like this, they cold work it easier?
Sara: Yes, they love this marble and Michelangelo too loved the marble here in Carrara. And he came every time alone to Carrara, he came on foot to the quarries on the mountain to choose the best block. And when he saw the block he sit in front of the block and just looking at the block he knew what was inside. So if the David was inside he revealed it just chipping away the extra marble.

The marble of Carrara remains in demand throughout the world. Huge slabs — marked with the 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.

[Italian exchanges with Monica and Rick]

In this quintessentially European scene, every generation is out together sharing the moment.

[Italian exchange]

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.

Credits:

Valerio: Those are the canned and stay in can under the salt for two months and then ship it to America. Those are just for Italians. We don’t ship many of those to you because they are too good.

For me the best picks of Italy are traffic-free. The towns of the Cinque Terre, what am I doing, I need a drink!

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