We first heard about Cinque Terre in the Rick Steve’s “Europe Through The Backdoor” guidebook. He described it as the authentic, untouched, Italian Riviera. Of course, it's no longer untouched because Rick has quite the following. But the views were stunning nonetheless and the towns still possessed lots of charm.
We took the train from Florence to Monterosso (the first of the 5 towns that comprise Cinque Terre). As good ‘ole Rick described, we enjoyed flashes of the Ligurian Sea as the train whipped through the Mountain tunnels along the coast.
My heart raced a little as a true California girl that loves the coast and sights of the ocean. After weeks of staying in big cities, the sights were refreshing and lifted our moods.
The five towns, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, dot the coastline of the region, each with their own special charm. A train that runs about once per hour connects the towns or you can hoof it on the trails if you prefer, which we did.
When we arrived in Monterosso, the busiest and most touristic of the towns, we had planned to take the train to the next town over, Vernazza (Rick’s recommendation). However, the line for purchasing train tickets was so long that we opted to hike to Vernazza with our packs in tow (we figured it would be good conditioning for the Camino de Santiago which was also on our itinerary).
About an hour and a half later, we arrived to our destination with an unplanned workout under our belt for the day, now sweaty jeans that needed to be washed, and no room reservation to our name. Luckily, the social network in this town (and I’m not talking about Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram), works flawlessly.
We asked a bartender for a room. She referred us to a guy down the street that owned a juice bar. When we asked him he called three of his friends who own rooms for rent with no success. Then we showed him an email from a gal named Gemmy that said she had a room. “Ahh, Gemmy! I know Gemmy” was his response. He then proceeded to walk down the street to his friend’s shop to get Gemmy’s phone number for us.
Within 5 minutes Gemmy was showing us to our room for 65 euro per night.
The next day we met Sean of “#SeanWasHere” fame. Sean is a photographer from Miami and not only did we enjoy his company, but also his artistry. He explained that he likes to capture a reference to time and/or culture rather than just taking a landscape photo or a picture of a pretty building. By including a car or a person, for example, it creates such a reference. I fell in love with his photos because they actually capture the feeling of the moment. Some of the photos on this post are Sean's. Check out his impressive photography at SeanWasHere.com.
In Cinque Terre, I think the importance of Sean’s photographic style becomes increasingly necessary because Cinque Terre is changing culturally. Unfortunately, as tourism increases in the area, the very culture that attracted tourists in the first place begins to diminish. More and more young people in these small villages are opting for jobs in the growing tourist industry. For example, it’s easier and more lucrative to work as bartender, waiter, or hotel proprietor, than to grow crops on the challenging hillsides surrounding the region.
It got me thinking, how do you visit a place without changing it? It seems like so many of us want to see places that are untouched by tourism. We seek out places that are authentic, original, and genuine, but by visiting the place we contribute to it becoming touristic.
Then we learned about “voluntourism.” This is when tourists volunteer a portion of their time to help locals so the locals can afford to keep industries and traditions of their past alive amidst the rising temptation of a more lucrative tourism industry.
Vernazza suffered greatly from extreme flooding in October 2011. So I was reading up about the town and its recovery on the SaveVernazza.com website when I came across a “voluntourism” opportunity.
Our first day in Vernazza, we helped Bartolo and Liza, owners of Cheo Winery to harvest their grapes. These hard workers and brave souls feel a calling to preserve the original way of life and industry of the region. They remain dedicated to preserving their vineyards along the difficult and rigorous hillsides of the Cinque Terre despite additional challenges created by the recent floods.
Although the voluntourism opportunities began in this town to help locals recover from the flood, I think it could be a way of a more sustainable tourism in Cinque Terre and elsewhere. As an added benefit, we the tourist, get the opportunity to really experience life as a local and not just observe it as a tourist. The volunteers of the Save Vernazza organization even provided us a homemade lunch with dishes typical of the region. What a treat!
If you plan to visit Cinque Terre, here are a few additional tips:
1) If you don’t like crowds of tourists, avoid staying in Monterosso and Vernazza. Just visit them during the day or for dinner. Watching sunset from the harbor area of Vernazza is worth a visit on its own. We stayed our first two nights in Vernazza and our last night in Corniglia. We found Corniglia to be much less crowded with a more authentic charm. Manarola felt similar, although we did not stay the night there.
2) If you want to swim after a hot and long hike, you basically have two options: the beach at Monterosso or a swimming area in Manarola. Monterosso’s beach was so crowded it was hard to even find a spot to lay down your towel and the beach was really rocky and hurt your feet. The swimming spot in Manarola was much cleaner, refreshing, and less crowded. As an added bonus there are some great boulders on which to sunbathe.
3) If you come to Cinque Terre, plan to hike! You are in for some beautiful views! If you are hiking from Corniglia to Manarola, there is a short, easy walk along the water, but if you are up for a more challenging hike, take the longer walk that goes up the hillsides. You will walk through vineyards and get some really amazing views. Its well worth the extra effort. And when you are finished you can refresh yourself with a dip in the water in Manarola.
4) As for places to eat, we recommend Il Pirata Della 5 Terre. The proprietors are two brothers. They look like twins and one of them acts like Mr. Bean and will make you laugh all the way through your meal. It’s a great place for both breakfast and dinner.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!