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Stepping Back in Vernazza

By Rick Steves
Harbor, Vernazza (Cinque Terre), Italy
Boats are a way of life in Vernazza. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Italy's Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh) is a quintet of villages clinging to a bit of rugged coastline between Genoa and Pisa. Long cut off from the modern world, this remote stretch of the Italian Riviera only became easily accessible with the coming of the train.

Each village is a variation on the same theme: a well-whittled, pastel jumble of homes, filling a gully like crusty sea creatures in a tide pool. Locals are the barnacles — hungry, but patient. And we travelers are like algae, coming in with the tide.

Since my mind goes on vacation with the rest of me when I'm here, I think of the towns by number, east to west: #1 Riomaggiore (a workaday town), #2 Manarola (picturesque), #3 Corniglia (on a hilltop), #4 Vernazza (the region's dramatic cover girl), and #5 Monterosso al Mare (the closest thing to a beach resort).

To preserve this land, the government has declared the Cinque Terre a national park. For a small entrance fee, visitors can hike the trail connecting all five towns, a trek that takes about five hours.

You can choose any village for a home base, but Vernazza is my favorite. At the top end of town a little road hits a post, effectively a dead end for drivers. Like the breakwater keeps out the waves at the bottom of town, the post keeps out the modern storm at the top. No cars enter this village of 600 people — except on Tuesday morning, when a few cars and trucks show up for a tailgate-party street market, augmenting the skimpy business community.

Vernazza has the closest thing to a natural harbor in the Cinque Terre. In the Middle Ages, there was no beach or square. The water went right up to the buildings, where boats would tie up, Venetian-style. Vernazza's fishing fleet is down to just a couple of boats. But Vernazzans are still more likely to own a boat than a car. Boats remain on buoys, except in winter or when the red storm flag indicates rough seas. In that case they're allowed to pull up onto the main square, usually reserved for restaurant tables.

Vernazza has a humble little working beach — a pebbled cove littered with scenes of a community that lives off the sea...and travelers who love the views. Well-worn locals fill the benches while tourists sunbathe on rocks. In the summer, the beach becomes a soccer ground, where teams fielded by local bars and restaurants provide late-night entertainment.

The town has two halves. Sciuiu (Vernazzan dialect for "flowery") is the sunny side on the left as you face inland, and Luvegu ("dank") is the shady side on the right. But from end to end, everything's painted in one of the "Ligurian pastel" colors, as regulated by a commissioner of good taste in the regional government. On the far right, a castle — now just a tower, some stones, and a grassy park with super views — served as the town's lookout back in pirate days. Below the castle, houses were connected by an interior arcade — ideal for fleeing attacks.

Vernazza's harborfront church is unusual for its east-facing entryway, rather than the more typical western orientation. Hanging on the wall inside are three historic portable crosses — replicas of crosses that (locals like to believe) Vernazzan ships once brought along on crusades to the Holy Land. During religious processions, these crosses are taken down and carried through town. Located in front of the church, a tiny piazza — decorated with a river rock mosaic — is a popular hangout spot. It's where Vernazza's old ladies soak up the last bit of sun, and kids enjoy a patch of level ball field.

Beyond the town, vineyards, with their many terraces, fill the mountainside. Someone — probably after too much local wine — calculated that the roughly 3,000 miles of terrace walls have the same amount of stonework as the Great Wall of China. Wine production is down nowadays, as younger residents choose less physical work. But locals still maintain their tiny plots and proudly serve their family wines.

Evenings in Vernazza are well-spent sitting on a bench and enjoying the scene, either with a gelato or a glass of local white wine (borrow the glass from a bar; they don't mind). Observe the passeggiata (evening stroll), as locals meander lazily up and down the main street doing their vasche (laps). Or gaze at the people looking out the windows of the faded pastel buildings, like a gallery of portraits hanging on ancient walls. Here in Vernazza the generation that didn't grow up with television spend time posted at their windows, watching over a world as reassuring as the Mediterranean tide.