The Curse of the Cinque Terre

I love my work. I mean, come on! I get paid to travel (and, sure, work very hard). But even guidebook researchers have “rough days at the office.” And those days happen in one place more than anywhere.

There’s one destination in Europe where researchers routinely return from an updating trip and say, politely, “If you need someone to do that chapter again next year…thanks but no thanks.” Strangely, that destination also happens to be one of the most gorgeous places in Europe: Italy’s Cinque Terre.

Mind you, nobody would refuse to visit the Cinque Terre for fun. It’s a fantastic place to be on vacation. It’s just a tough place to update.

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I already did my Cinque Terre duty a few years ago. But recently, when we were doling out assignments for this year, our Italy crew was telling us (as usual), “I’d love to do anything…except the Cinque Terre.” So I decided to take one for the team and head back to those five traffic-free Riviera villages.

So what’s the big deal? First off, these are teensy villages (just a few hundred residents apiece) — each one with its own small-town politics, grudges, and allegiances…and very long memories. In a town where everybody is everybody’s cousin, it requires diplomatic acrobatics to get the latest gossip about which restaurant is going downhill and which new accommodations are overcharging. Each town has its own quirks and mini-mafias, and sussing out how people line up — without stepping on too many toes — is a challenge.

The area is also a moving target. The glorious trails of the national park are managed by career bureaucrats who are big on talk but slow on action. There’s always some bold new master plan to revolutionize the park experience: Elevators to connect train stations with clifftop neighborhoods! A park combo-ticket that includes boats! Timed entry tickets for the trails! But then…it just never happens. Meanwhile, one day, out of nowhere, they wake up and decide to change all of the trail numbers.

It’s physically demanding to pound the pavement here. In most destinations, I figure out the places I need to check for the book, line them up in a logical order, then work my way through the list until it’s done. But in Cinque Terre towns, most of the accommodations are little one-off B&Bs: a person who rents two rooms on this side of the harbor, two others across the harbor, another one behind the station…and lives three towns away.

Some of these accommodations are easy enough to track down: The person who rents them works afternoons at the wine bar or the pizzeria, so you can just drop in and find them there. But for others, you have to call ahead. I spend a lot of time crouched in doorways, hiding from the hot sun or pouring rain, dialing the next person on my list. Sometimes they’re nearby and can meet me in 10 minutes to show me the room. Other times, they’re in the next town and want to make plans to meet tomorrow…when I’ll already be in the next town.

On my last trip, my cell phone provider had rotten coverage here. In Vernazza, my phone only worked when I was standing out on the breakwater. I was up at the very top of town — more than a hundred steep stone steps above the harbor. After updating one B&B, I took a few steps and spotted the sign for another B&B that I needed to check. Nobody was home, and my phone didn’t work. So I ran back down to the breakwater and called them. “Sure, meet me up there in five minutes!” Back up I went. And back down. And back up. And so on, all day long.

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On this trip, I had a similar experience. To check out a room, I climbed five steep, narrow flights of stairs inside one of the tall, skinny houses on the harbor. Later that day, I was inspecting another person’s room nearby. They offered to show me their second room, and off we went…back to that same building, up those same five flights of stairs, to an apartment literally next door to the one I’d just been in.

Another challenge here is the combination of the region’s modest size, and its outsize popularity among Rick Steves readers. The impact of our book on this community is massive. In a big city like Rome or Munich, the Rick Steves book is, for some, a big deal — but it’s not the only game in town, so people keep it in perspective. But on the Cinque Terre, that book feels like their pipeline to the world.

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One edition, several years ago, our editorial staff decided to reorganize the sleeping section a bit. The following year, our intrepid researcher returned and discovered that those changes were an atomic bomb that had ripped through one of the tiny towns. All day long, every time she contacted a B&B host to update their details, she was met with confusion, pointed questions, and even arm-waving fury about the changes. One woman literally screamed at her on the main street: “I was listed seventh last year, and now I’m listed ninth! What a disaster! My life is ruined! How dare you do this to me!” (Worst of all, this particular researcher had nothing to do with those changes. She never went back.)

The natives sometimes wage aggressive campaigns to get listed in the book (or get someone else un-listed). If a Rick Steves researcher starts at the top of town, by the time she hits the middle of town everybody knows — and once she reaches the bottom of town, she has a trail of people following her, brandishing business cards. On my last assignment here, I slept in one morning until about 11:00. (It was my day off. It happens.) When I finally left my room, two people were waiting for me out on the stoop to pitch me their businesses. They had no idea I was going to sleep in, so they’d been camped out there for hours.

A similar story, and one I’m not proud of: On that same visit, my B&B owner kept showing up to greet me with an elderly woman who had a room to rent. She spoke only Italian (mine is rusty) and kept trying to pitch me her room for the book. As we clearly state in the book, we only list people who rent multiple rooms, speak English, and can be reserved through email (to make things easier for our readers). She didn’t tick any of these three boxes, so she wasn’t going in the book, period. I kept trying to politely turn her down, and she kept showing up.

Finally, one morning, I was passing through a little piazza when she cornered me and asked me yet again to come see her room. Trying to politely extricate myself from the situation and get to work, I said, “No, thank you. No. No, I really can’t. No. No, I just don’t think it’s right for the book. Nope. Well, maybe later.” She perked up at the word “later” and seemed satisfied to let me on my way.

I spent hours running all over town, and was finally heading back to my room, when I passed through that same little piazza. And there she was, right where I’d left her. She’d been waiting for me all day long. When she saw me coming, she smiled with great satisfaction, stood up, and said warmly, “OK, now it’s later. Can I show you the room?”

I love the Cinque Terre. But when I’m wearing my guidebook research hat, I always breathe a tiny sigh of relief when I move on to my next destination. I hope I can return there soon…on vacation.

4 Replies to “The Curse of the Cinque Terre”

  1. I’m oh-so-glad we visited in the early 1990’s. Things were so simple then. Sometimes it’s best to keep a perfect memory and not return.

  2. It’s sad – we found wonderful places rented by people who didn’t speak English or use email, brokered by folks who worked in the bar. We became friends with some over multiple trips, but alas, that was a different time, when the CT villages were “back doors.” The guidebook may be their lifeline, but I’m afraid it may also be a noose for the authentic villages that seem to be taken over by mass tourism now. I’m somewhat surprised they haven’t been written off by Rick in the manner of say, Grindelwald in Switzerland.

  3. Cameron,

    Thanks for a great and honest post! Sure this is a fine destination but it is also interesting to ‘dig deeper’ and to see from a different perspective what ‘Travel’ can be.

    PS: the fresh pictures are very welcome to us who are long-time Rick Steves travelers and DVD viewers!

  4. Hi Steve

    You and instagram have ruined all these villages, especially for the poor residents who live there. Overtourism has taken away the opportunity to experience these wonderful places from everybody by trying to make them accessible to everybody.

    Best
    William

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