Daily Dose of Europe: The Cinque Terre — Italy’s Riviera

When I’m hanging out on the Vernazza breakwater with a glass of sciacchetrà, the buzz I’m savoring is not from the wine — but from enjoying this world of ancient terraced vineyards, little pastel ports, rustic cuisine, and twinkling vistas. (OK, it’s also from the wine.)

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.

It’s midnight and the Mediterranean is darker than the sky. From the town breakwater, I scan the horizon for the bobbing lanterns of old-school fishermen seducing anchovies into their nets. But I see none.

During 40 years of visits, I’ve nursed a drink on this breakwater and seen the number of bobbing lanterns dwindle. The lanterns are gone now, as are many of the traditions… lost to the rising tide of modernity. But the weekly street markets still roll in, with the wives of fishermen selling their catch. And, after all these years, I’m thankful for this fragile yet surviving bit of the old Riviera and the community that keeps it vital.

Resting between Genoa and Pisa, the Cinque Terre is the most dream-worthy stretch of Italy’s Riviera. Leaving the nearest big city, La Spezia, the train lumbers into a mountain. Ten minutes later, bursting into the sunlight, it arrives at the first of the five towns. Rolling from town to town, the train nips in and out of the hills, teasing you with a series of Mediterranean views. Each moment is grander than the last: azure blue tinseled in sunbeams, frothy waves hitting desolate rocks… interrupted only by the occasional topless sunbather camped out like a lone limpet.

The Cinque Terre (pronounced CHINK-weh TAY-reh) means “five lands.” This quintet of pint-sized port towns clings to this most inaccessible stretch of coastline. Each is a well-whittled pastel jumble of homes filling a gully like crusty sea creatures in a tide pool.

These rugged ports, founded by Dark Age locals hiding out from marauding pirates, were cut off from the modern world until the arrival of the train. Today, the once foreboding castles protect only glorious views and the train brings hordes of hikers. To preserve this land, the government has declared the Cinque Terre a national park, collecting a small fee from each visitor. (The fees are intended to protect the flora and fauna and maintain the trails, but I’ve seen little evidence of that.)

Beyond the towns, vineyards with their many terraces blanket 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 many locals still maintain their tiny family plots and proudly serve their grandfather’s wine.

The government, recognizing how wonderfully preserved these towns are, has long prohibited anyone from constructing any new buildings. That’s why the region has no big, modern resort hotels — something I appreciate. The lack of comfortable accommodations leaves the towns to the more rugged travelers — those content to rent a room in a private home or simple pensione — and we enjoy a land where the villagers still go about their business as if this was the very edge of the Earth.

I always eat well in the Cinque Terre. This is the home of pesto. Basil, which loves the region’s temperate climate, is mixed with cheese (half parmigiano cow cheese and half pecorino sheep cheese), garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts, then poured over pasta. And the vino delle Cinque Terre flows cheap and easy. The sweet, sherry-like sciacchetrà wine is served with a cookie. While 10 kilos of grapes yield 7 liters of wine, 10 kilos of grapes make only 2 liters of sciacchetrà, which is made from near-raisins. Sciacchetrà is much stronger than regular wine, something to keep in mind if your room is up a lot of steps.

Of the five towns, Vernazza, overseen by a ruined castle and with the closest thing to a natural harbor, is the jewel. The occasional train popping in and out of the mountain tunnels is the only reminder that the modern world is still out there somewhere. It’s a tough community long living off the sea…and, in the last generation, living off travelers who love the sea. The church bells dictate a relaxed tempo. Yellow webs of fishing nets, tables bedecked with umbrellas, kids with plastic shovels, and a flotilla of gritty little boats tethered to buoys provide splashes of color. And accompanying the scene is the mesmerizing white noise of children at play, happy diners, and the washboard rhythm of the waves.

Vernazza’s one street connects the harbor with the train station before melting into the vineyards. Like veins on a grape leaf, paths and stairways reach from the main street up into this watercolor huddle of houses that eventually dissolve into the vines high above. A rainbow of laundry flaps as if to keep the flies off the fat grandmothers who clog ancient doorways.
At the top end of town, Vernazza’s scrawny access road hits a post. No cars enter this community of 600 people. Like the breakwater holds off the waves at the bottom of town, the post holds back the modern storm at the top. But the town’s ruined castle no longer says, “Keep out.” The breakwater is a broad, inviting sidewalk edged with boulders — reaching out into the sea like a finger beckoning the distant excursion boats.

While Vernazza’s fishing fleet is down to just a couple of boats, locals are still more likely to own a boat than a car. Boats are tethered to buoys, except in winter or when the red storm flag indicates bad seas. In that case they’re pulled up onto the little harborfront square, usually reserved for restaurant tables.

The humble town gathers around its pebbled cove, where well-worn locals enjoy some shade on benches and tourists sunbathe on the rocks. From end to end, everything’s painted in one of the “Ligurian pastels,” as regulated by a commissioner of good taste in the regional government. High above, the castle — now just a tower, some broken stone walls, and a grassy park — served as the town’s lookout back in pirate days. Below the castle, an interior arcade connected houses — ideal for fleeing attacks. In front of the church, a mini piazza decorated with a river rock mosaic is a popular hangout. It’s where the town’s old ladies soak up the day’s last bit of sun and kids enjoy a rare patch of level ball field.

My evenings in Vernazza are spent sitting on a bench and people-watching, either with gelato or a glass of local white wine (I usually borrow the glass from a bar; they don’t mind). During the passeggiata (evening stroll), locals meander lazily up and down the main street doing their vasche (laps). Sometimes I join in, becoming part of the slow-motion parade. Gelato in hand, I gaze up at the people looking out the windows of the faded pastel buildings like a gallery of portraits hanging on ancient walls.

Traditions ring through the Cinque Terre as persistently as its beloved church bells — which remind residents of the days before tourism. The fishermen out at sea could hear the bells; the workers in the vineyards high on the mountain could hear them, too. In one town, the hoteliers tried to stop the bells for the tourists who couldn’t sleep. But the community nearly revolted, and the bells ring on.

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Cinque Terre.