Sleeping on the train from Salerno to the Cinque Terre, I couldn’t stop thinking what a great job I’ve got: I was on a natural high after enjoying a wonderful guided tour of the Greek ruins at Paestum (which will be hugely helpful in next year’s edition of my Italy guidebook), and I was about to wake up on my favorite stretch of Mediterranean coastline.
One of the joys of running my own company is that I get to choose my research chores each year. This year (along with my TV production work) I get to update the guidebook chapters on all of Portugal (except the Algarve), Naples/Sorrento/Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, Munich/Bavaria/Tirol, Paris, Amsterdam/Haarlem, Brussels, Bruges, Edinburgh, York, Bath, and London.
While the Cinque Terre is a huge favorite for my staff, no one wants to update the Cinque Terre guidebook chapter because the people here are so aggressive about staying in, getting in, or getting back in to the book. Every two years I grab the assignment, and it’s about my favorite four days of the season.
And with each visit, I meet with the director of the Cinque Terre National Park, a man nicknamed “the Pharaoh” for his grandiose vision and heavy-handed effectiveness. When I refer to him in passing by his nickname to people of the region, they do a double-take as if they never expected to hear this insider’s term uttered by a foreign tourist.
After hiking to the top of Riomaggiore, I sat in the Pharaoh’s grandiose office. It’s littered with plans for park development, awards, and tourist promotion gadgets. He surveys me and I survey him, as we each matter to the other’s work. I explain to him that the region would enjoy more overnight visits (to the profit of struggling local seniors and the benefit of euro-stretching visitors) if the chaotic apartments-for-rent business were coordinated by village clearinghouses. He tells me of a school in the village of Corniglia that’s being renovated to house a big new hostel for 2009. I compliment the wonderful manager of the Manarola hostel. I complain of the ridiculous fines train conductors levy on innocent tourists who board a Cinque Terre train not knowing to sign their park transit passes first.
The Pharaoh takes me out onto his big balcony, and with a sweep of his hand, we survey his domain. Seeing a tourist lugging a backpack across the way, I shame him into promising that next year the park will provide a place for day-trippers to check bags for a more comfortable visit.
A big question for the region is the future of the Cinque Terre’s quirky nude Guvano Beach. The Pharaoh, like many locals, considers Guvano an embarrassment for the region. He said the park has the legal right of first refusal for the purchase of any land that goes up for sale, and they hope to buy the beach and end the nudity in 2009. Hiking the trail from Riomaggiore to the next town, I’m nagged by the difficulty I have believing that my son could have hiked the entire trail from town #1 to town #5 in just over an hour and a half (as he claims, and I recount in my book). With several hikers I meet making the case that this would need to be done at a steady run without any other hikers congesting the trail, I decide to take out the reference. But Andy insists it’s true.
With this visit, I reinstate my sentimental first-ever recommended pension in the region — Pension Sorriso. I stayed here on my first visit in the mid-1970s. It was one of the very few places to sleep back before tourism hit the region. I’ll never forget the place, run by a family of huge people who seemed to spin and fill the kitchen like gears spin and fill an old-fashioned wristwatch. Dinners were a beggar’s banquet of fresh fish and cheap white wine.
For 15 years, Pension Sorriso was the home of our tours in the Cinque Terre. Then, after a too-honest write-up in my guidebook, Sr. Sorriso’s wife decided to hate me. She hated me with a fiery venom like no one else in Europe hated me. In my favorite little magic wonderland in Europe, their place was a 20-meter stretch of lane I dreaded passing. We took our tour business elsewhere, and she demanded to have her hotel’s listing deleted from my guidebook.
Only after Sr. Sorriso died did I learn that for 20 years I was calling him Sorriso, when that word (which means “smile”) was simply the name of his hotel. For two decades I greeted him with a name that only I called him…and he just smiled.
Now their children — who are so cool they remind me of Sonny and Cher — run the hotel. I drop in (making sure I won’t encounter their mom) and we click. We share some old stories, make some agreements for how they’d welcome my readers, and bam — I list 19 more good budget rooms in my book ($125 to $155 per double with breakfast, www.pensionesorriso.com).
That night I enjoy Miky’s, my favorite Cinque Terre restaurant in Monterosso, and the town doctor drops by to meet me. He’s beloved for happily hopping on his one-speed bike — with a virtual doctor’s clinic in his bag — and making house calls. He suggests I make a warning to tourists that freak waves kill. (In 2007, an American woman was swept from the top of a rocky breakwater to her death by one such wave.) I normally resist filling my guidebooks with motherly advice: be careful on the breakwater; don’t be on the trails after dark; don’t trust strangers; and so on. But this tip goes in.
After one of the best dinners of my trip and a quick blitz of the nightspots in Monterosso, I stroll back along the harborfront promenade to my hotel. There’s one soul still out. It’s Miky, the owner/chef of Miky’s. Still wearing his little white chef’s hat, he’s enjoying a cigarette and sipping a White Russian. Both of us are capping an exhausting yet gratifying day of work.