Five days in the Cinque Terre

When I think of the Cinque Terre I shall think first of Andreas’s mother walking down from Volestra to Manarola every weekday to go to school and then walking back up at the end of the day. Volestra is perhaps 800 feet above Manarola, and the walk up takes 45 minutes. Andreas’s mother is now a young 65. Next I shall think of Andreas’s grandmother, now 97, who when young would walk carrying wine towards Turin to trade the wine for rice. She may never have met anybody who wasn’t Italian until the 60s or even 70s. Now Americans, French, Japanese, Germans, and Australians teem past her house every day. “Does she mind the change?” I ask Patricia, Andreas’s wife. “No, she’s very open minded.”

There are too many tourists now in the Cinque Terre. We went at the beginning of October, thinking the peak season would be over. It probably was, but there were still people everywhere. Old Americans grunt up and down the hills. The young, fashionably dressed Japanese photograph each other in the five towns, all beautiful in their own way. The Chinese march behind their leader’s flag. Evidently the Germans came first in the 70s, but now the Americans and Japanese predominate. The Japanese came only recently, perhaps the product of a brilliant marketing campaign. We see several Japanese women in wedding dresses, being photographed against the romantic backdrop of the five towns.

We fly to Genoa, once the great rival of Venice. We take a taxi through the town ringed round by high hills to one of the stations. A train is leaving soon for Riomaggiore, the most southerly of the five towns. From there we can take a train back to Manarola. The train is largely empty and moves slowly along the Ligurian coast, stopping often. We look past palm trees, olive trees, vines, and cactuses and the pastel coloured houses to the pale blue sea. It’s very relaxing. We read but mostly watch the towns and sea go by. Often we are in tunnels, and once we reach the Cinque Terre it’s virtually all tunnels, with glimpses of light at Monterosso, Vernazza, Corneglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, the five towns.

There’s a big crowd at Riomaggiore, our first taste of the crowds and of how the trains are fundamental to the tourism of the Cinque Terre. Only the railway and the trails link all five towns. Boats link four (excepting Corneglia, which is high above the water and has no harbour), but the smallest swell stops the boats from landing at Manarola.

We push onto the train for the two minute ride back to Manarola. From the station we have to walk a long tunnel into the town. It begins to pour with rain. After a late lunch in a dingy bar we take the shuttle bus up the hill to Volestra. We walk through narrow alleys to our apartment, which Lin finds “spooky.” It’s certainly poorly lit.

We set out to explore, and find a magnificent path that runs along the hill, high above the sea, with fine views of Manarola, 800 feet below. The path winds through the tiny vineyard terraces, the joy of the Cinque Terra. Hundreds of years ago, even in Roman times, the people pushed back the forest and built the hundreds of dry stone walls that made the terraces. The terraces rise almost a thousand feet from Manarola, and we are told that if the dry stone walls were laid end to end they’d be longer than the Great Wall of China. Cloud swirls above us, but the rain holds off.

Volestra is almost a ghost town. Most of the houses are empty. The past generation left the Cinque Terre, abandoning their vineyards, and moving to the cities for work. But now the money brought by tourists, who increased greatly when Cinque Terre was made a national park in about 2000, lures back the people. Andreas, whose family have lived in Volestra for generations, now owns his guesthouse and other properties in the village. As the guesthouse is on every possible website and described in nine languages, including Chinese and Danish, it is full from May to October and closed only in January. I fretted that there would be nowhere to eat, but there are two restaurants, both described loyally as “medium” by Andreas.

During the night we hear heavy rain beating in the shutters. In the morning it’s wet and cloudy. Andreas appears, and after looking over the guesthouse we decide to move to it with its terrace that looks across the hills, vineyards, and sea and a room with a similar view. Lin finds it much less “spooky.” Andreas proudly shows us the ancient room where he makes his wine, using a very old press but modern aluminium vats. The wine, which is almost all white, is made from three grapes: Albirola, Vermentino, and Bosco , which must be at least 40% and is unique to the Cinque Terre. He also makes a sweet wine, Sciacchetrà  (pronounced Shakatra or something like that), from grapes left in the sun and illegal grappa. We can smell the fermenting grapes from the alley. This was a hot summer, so the grapes are full of sugar and will make strong (13%) wine. He shows us pictures of men stripped to the waist carrying baskets of grapes up the hillside. Now they use highly hazardous looking monorails.

Patricia later describes how the four generations of the family had come together a few weeks ago to harvest the grapes from the many scattered vineyards they have inherited or “adopted.” Anybody, it seems, can adopt a vineyard so long as you commit to keeping it functioning for 20 years.

Once established we walk down into Manarola. The first descent is all steps, mostly poorly kept, and Lin finds them awkward. The last descent is round the promontory, above the town. Manarola, like the other four towns, comprises high pastel coloured house clinging to steep hillsides and running down to a small harbour. Each town has a different feel, but they are more similar than dissimilar dotted like jewels among the green hills, forests, and vineyards.

We explore Manarola, including its beautifully positioned graveyard, where I notice that most of the people lived into their 80s, perhaps a tribute to all the exercise their lives demanded. We see eight Scandinavians swimming in the sea, and I determine that I want to swim later. The water is warm.

We think that we’ll walk along the Via Delle Amore to Riomaggiore but we discover that it’s been closed for years, as has the path North to Corneglia. So Lin takes the train, and I walk over the top, doing the steep ascent and descent in half the time proscribed in my usual mad, unstopping way. I’m sweating heavily at the top.

After lunch with beer and wine we take the train back to Monarola and the bus up the hill.

Tuesday was rainy as well, but the day began with a jolly breakfast—with a French couple, a Singaporean couple, and a single Canadian woman all presided over by Patricia switching effortlessly from Italian to French to English. I’ve experienced before this phenomenon of breakfasting with strangers and everybody becoming more excited as we learn about each other. Here we had most fun misunderstanding each other’s language and attempts to speak the language of the others.

After breakfast we had our best walk of the week, along the top of the ridge (as we did on our first evening) and then descending through the forest to Corneglia, all through intermittent showers and with the cloud just above our heads. The views, the forest, the smells, and the relative absence of others made this a special walk.

Corneglia has the fewest tourists but still too many. After a hearty lunch we descended the 300 steps to the station and caught the rain back to Manarola. I walked back up to Volestra, noting that ascending the steps is in many ways easier than descending them.

We didn’t go for dinner but ate focaccia, Parma ham, Gorgonzola, and tomatoes and drank Prosecco and Nero d’Avola on the terrace as cloud and darkness descended. We saw distant ships and what we imagined to be a monastery on a hilltop. I liked the threatening weather.

In the morning it was sunny, and after another jolly breakfast, in which we learnt the French for tease (taquiner), I walked down the hill, discovering that “the official way“ has disappeared. (The national park authority is said to be both corrupt and incompetent.) Lin took the bus, and then we took the train to Monterosso, the most northerly of the five towns and the only one with a beach. After lunch we both started on the main path, the one that the Cinque Terre is famous for and where you have to pay (with a ticket that also includes unlimited train and shuttle bus rides for that day), to Varnazza. The walk was busy, too busy, and steeply uphill. Lin insists that I pressurise her to walk faster than she finds uncomfortable, and despite me protesting that I’m happy to go as slowly as she wants, she pulls out and takes the train. I complete the walk, enjoying the ups and downs and great views of the cliffs, sea, and eventually Varnazza, but I don’t enjoy the large number of people.

From Varnazza we take the boat, not to Manarola where the sea has too much swell for the boat to land, but to Riomaggiore. The towns look at their best from the sea, clinging to the cliffs and dwarfed by the hills, vineyards, and forests. The trip is only 20 minutes, but Lin is beginning to feel sick by the time we arrive, as are others.

We take the train back to Manarola, and I’m keen to swim. But the ladder has disappeared from the point where I want to swim—and it looks as if it will be too difficult to get in an out without being dragged against the rocks. So I don’t swim. We take the bus up the hill and arrive after sunset.

On Thursday we skipped breakfast in the guesthouse (too much jollity) and breakfasted in Manorola. We took the train to Corneglia and together, with no pressure from me, walked the path to Varnazza.  I compared Lin with a clockwork mouse, marvellous on the flat but struggles up and down hill. Again it was beautiful but too crowded. From Varnazza we took the train back to Manarola, and again I attempted to swim but failed for the same reason as yesterday. I walked up the hill, and Lin took the bus. After some reading and writing, not nearly enough or as much as we had intended, we sat on the terrace, drank Andreas’s wine (not very good), and watched a magnificent sunset across the sea.

When we woke on Friday morning the sun was just rising and the sea purple. A shuttle bus, a slow train, a fast train (from La Spezia to Genoa), a plane, another train, and finally a 35 bus brought us home.

Will I go again to the Cinque Terre? Probably not—because although beautiful it’s too crowded. If I do go again I’ll probably go in November, December, or March.

cinque terre


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