Cinque Terre is the quintessential Summer Riviera spot.
For those tired of the French coastline, its crowded beaches and uber expensive real estate, the Italian coast line next to it is very appealing alternative. They may share the sea but not much else, from attitude to cuisine to lifestyles.
While I was living in Italy, my friends and I decided to make a day trip from our apartments in Reggio Emilia in the mid-central Italy to the North-Western coast where the stretch of the riviera is. A quick research on the place told me it was a hot spot for visiting Americans. Somewhere I read that it had been featured in a 70s Hollywood movie and had since become a bucket list destination.
Truth be told, when I read that, I was less enthusiastic about the visit. Nevertheless, the idea of a day in the cool breeze of the seaside (at the time, Italy was going through a HEAT WAVE in May which made life within the city of Reggio Emilia fairly unbearable) and spot of carefree fun with friends won me over.
Am I glad it did!
We drove from Reggio to La Spezia after which it is best to take the train and go hopping through the 5 districts of Cinque Terre - Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. We took the train directly to Vernazza, the fourth of the 5 districts because of the time we had and this was recommended as the prettiest of all with a healthy mix of colorful houses, old historic church, some ruins and lots of water around. Plus, they had beautiful patio restaurants with views of the water and island!
We reached around lunch time and promptly sought out a restaurant with a balcony. I don't remember the name of the one we chose but climbed a few stairs, it had red and black umbrella and was entirely packed. The first waiter we approached for a table said there was no chance we would get one at the time without a reservation. Not to be daunted, I continued on to the "front desk" lady and she graciously said we three ladies could be seated outside, if we could only wait a few minutes. Of course we did!
My one pet peeve with seaside places is the prices of the food - for freshly caught fish just off the dock, there is usually a view-premium added. So, hesitantly, we picked up a menu while waiting and to our delight found the place to be rather reasonable after all! Once reassured, we were really looking forward to a relaxing lunch. Our table which we were seated at shortly after, was perfect! Settled in a nook, it was the perfect people watching spot, to watch young, yes Americans, leap off the cliff into a dive. Older, yes Americans, waiting to take the ferry to another island, the ferry dropping off and picking up tourists ... and, also watch the other tables and entertain ourselves! LOL
The food was lovely.. Fresh, tasty, very Mediterranean without fuss and perfectly relaxing served with all the Italian charm. A tanned (ahem... very brown) girl speaking Italian and being vocally expressive about her love for food, goes a long way in warming the hearts of the Italians! Post that sumptuous lunch, we walked around town, got some photos of the abandoned train station, people kayaking in open water, and that 14th century church.
Next stop was on the way back to La Spezia to the hill town of Corniglia, which is the only Cinque Terre town without a harbor and stands 182m above sea level. We hiked up from the train station into the town and in the heat, it was quite some hike! That was well rewarded with the freshest most amazing lemon gelato at a tiny spot in town. We wandered without particular intent just to explore.
At Corniglia, we did not see many tourists, possibly due to the hike needed to get into town and if you like a town quieter and to yourself, this would be a good choice. And, as we walked we thought back to the long lines of older (retirees) tourists we saw at Vernazza. It was a moment of gratitude we reflected upon. For many tourists, this was the bucketlist visit - people who had dreamed about vacationing here, saved up for it, and made those dreams a reality, even perhaps, it was a little late for the more exerting excursions of the land. While, here we were, young, full of health and able to enjoy and appreciate the place in our youth. It was a sobering yet happy inducing thought. We were indeed lucky. It only took a day trip to a place that is potentially too-touristy to bring home that point on a sleepy and satisfied drive back to Reggio Emilia. :)