Almost halfway between the famous Italian cities of Pisa and Genoa on Italy’s western coast you will find the Cinque Terre or “the Five Lands,” a collection of five small villages, some almost 1,000 years old, separated from one another and from the rest of Italy by a series of steep and rugged mountains. The only ways to get there or to go from one town to the next are to hike over the mountains, take a local train, or drive over dizzyingly curvy roads. The area is not that easy to get to, but once you’re there and have left the confines of the train or your rental car, you’ll be glad you made the journey.
In order from north to south you will find Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and all but Corniglia have quaint and picturesque waterfront areas. Monterosso, the largest of the towns is where I usually make my base for any visit to the area. My home away from home there is the Hotel Villa Steno, a charming hotel that is easy to drive to, offers parking, and sits at the top of a long steep street that leads to the harbor area. The rooms are spotlessly clean, have excellent air conditioning and modern baths, and many have small balconies from which you can smell the scent of oranges and lemons and look out over the town toward the sea beyond. The hotel is run by Matteo and Carla Pasini, who have got to be two of the nicest hosts you could find in any hotel, anywhere in the world. Nothing seems to be too much trouble for them, and they always exude warmth and caring when they are dealing with their guests. Among the highlights of a stay here is the fanastic breakfast that is served each day, featuring fruit, eggs and bacon to order, and a variety of homemade cakes, breads and pastries made by Carla, which taste even better when you top them with her homemade orange or lemon marmelade. Ah yes, and there is of course the delicious cappuccino. It’s the perfect way to fortify yourself for a day or hiking, swimming or exploring the Cinque Terre.
The area is a hiker’s paradise, and I have made the approximately two-hour long hike from Monterosso to Vernazza or vice versa a few times. It is a strenuous hike up and down stone stairways that sometimes feel as though they will never end, but take it slow, stop to take in the amazing sights and sounds, and if I can do it, so can you! For heartier souls, there are much longer hikes up into the mountains and to nearby towns that can keep you busy for days.
There is a very nice stretch of beach in Monterosso if you like to swim, but in other towns like Riomaggiore and Manarola, you can simply hop off the rocks and join the locals, paddling around in calm, azure blue waters, which is my favorite way to spend the hottest parts of a summer day here. You can also take a very scenic boat trip along the coast, stopping as you want in the other towns and taking the train back to where you started.
Another major draw of the Cinque Terre is the unique cuisine here. This area is the home of pesto, and seafood is plentiful, fresh and beautifully prepared. Probably my favorite restaurant is in Monterosso and it’s called Ristorante Via Venti, located along a small pedestrian-only street: Via XX Settembre. Be sure to make reservations and try to get an outside table for the optimal experience. I have been coming here for years and try as I might, I cannot help but order the same dishes each time, because they are so unique and so delicious. I start with the “fish soup”, which actually resembles a tomato-based cioppino or seafood stew, with loads of mussels, shrimp, clams and a decorative langostino perched on top. The broth is amazing and I could go through am entire loaf of bread, dipping each slice into the bowl to soak up every last drop. Then there is a very distinctive pasta dish stuffed with fresh pear and gorgonzola cheese, the likes of which I have rarely tasted. I also sampled a tagliolini with shrimp and citrus sauce that was beyond amazing. And be sure to save room for dessert and order the Via Venti cake, the dessert of the house that more resembles pie than cake, with a flaky crust, warm chocolate filling, custard, and a hint of apricot preserves. It simply knocked my socks off. Don’t miss a meal here.
Another good place for lunch or dinner in Monterosso is Belvedere, located right along the beach front and nestled under the train tracks used by both local and regional trains. When a train approaches it sounds like the start of an earthquake, but you get used to it after awhile! Reservations are probably a good idea here because it’s prime location overlooking the harbor and some very good food make it popular. I have had their very nice caprese salad, a thick vegetable soup made with a pesto base, and a wonderful warm seafood salad appetizer, but the stand out dish for me was the Spaghetti Nero e Bianco, or “black and white pasta”. The pasta is infused with black squid ink on one side but is white on the other, making for a dramatic dish. And it is then mixed with a thick, flavorful tomato sauce and fresh mussels. You can’t go wrong here as you dine here and stare out at the sea.
Over in Vernazza (which can be an almost claustrophobic place given the sheer number of tourists that discovered it thanks to it being travel guru Rick Steves’ favorite place), head uphill, away from the crowded waterfront and beyond the railway station to the far end of the town. Here you will find Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, a restaurant run by a pair of zany twins from Sicily who guarantee that your meal will not only be delicious, but entertaining as well. Each dish of food comes out looking like a work of art, and whatever you do, don’t miss the homemade cannoli, the best ones north of Sicily.
One other excellent place to enjoy a meal in Vernazza as you gaze out across the harbor is Taverna del Capitano. They have a variety of excellent seafood offerings, and I loved the local specialty pasta, called trofie, hand-rolled and covered in a rich pesto sauce. On my last visit here I was served by a young waiter named Eduardo, who may have a career ahead of him as a stand-up comic. He joked his way from table to table, telling tourists who were next bound for Venice that they should forget that idea and simply stay in the Cinque Terre. “Venice is old and gray and crowded!” he said. When I mentioned that there are no gondolas here in Vernazza, he countered with, “I have a little boat and I can paddle you around in it if you like!” Later, he asked what my name was, and I told him it was Matthew, but that, “Quando in Italia, mi chiamo Matteo” (When I’m in Italy, I call myself Matteo.) He replied with, “I am Eduardo, but when I am not in Italy, I am Edward!” Too funny!
For me, the beauty of Italy is that it is composed of so many varied regions within its relatively small borders. Cross a river, go over a mountain range and you are in a different Italy, with its unique cuisine, accent or dialect and customs. The common strings that hold it all together are its scenic beauty, its fantastic food, and its warm and friendly people. If you haven’t yet seen the Cinque Terre, put it on your bucket list. If you have, then you already know why I go back to this relaxing little hideway again and again.