Slowing it down in the Cinque Terre

Last week John and I travelled from Prague to Italy for the next segment of our adventure.  We were headed toward the Cinque Terre on Italy’s northwestern coast. Many people haven’t yet heard of the Cinque Terre, even though the area has become a popular tourist destination, but most people recognize the iconic pictures of the area’s quaint old villages, tumbling down to the Mediterranean.  The towns are separated by beautiful vineyards, terraced and supported by stone walls. 

Picture of Vernazza taken from our hike, Vernazza to Monterosso

The Cinque Terre does not offer art museums or great castles but is rich in natural beauty. In recent years it has become a national park – not the kind of national park we normally see in the U.S., instead it is more a place to preserve the towns and some of the local traditions, such as fishing and wine making.

Our home base in the Cinque Terre was Vernazza, the smallest of the towns and the most car free.  It is madly crowded during the day, partly because it is so small, but is wonderfully quiet in the evening after the day-trippers leave.

(Once again) figuring out the train system

The five villages of the Cinque Terre run up and down the coast, north to south, and it’s possible to travel from one village to the next by train (easiest) or by ferry.  There are also popular walking paths connecting the towns, but several of these are temporarily closed due to flooding in 2012.

Map of the Cinque Terre region

The Cinque Terre trains stop in each of the villages every three or four times per hour. Tickets cost €4 and are valid for 75 minutes, but useable in one direction only. An alternative to buying single tickets is available as the Cinque Terre Card, which is offered in one, two, or three-day increments costing, respectively, €16, €29, or €41.  It includes unlimited train travel through the villages of the Cinque Terre, free use of the restrooms in the train station (normally a €1 charge), and free access to the hiking trails (€7.50 per trail). So, the question on the Cinque Terre Card was, of course, would we be better off buying it or not based on our usage.

Decisions, decisions…

One of the unfortunate similarities that John and I have is that we both can go down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out cost vs. benefit for what are often relatively minor purchase decisions.  Should we buy it the Cinque Terre Card? If so, should we buy a one, two, or a three-day card?  We came up with a plan for our first day that included tickets to go Monterossa al Mare just to the north (€4 each),  tickets south to Riomaggiore (another €4 each), in the course of which we could build in a stop to Vernazza to use the bathroom at our hotel, then, after visiting Riomaggiore, return to Vernazza for the day (a final €4 each).  At €12 for the day, this would be €4 cheaper than the Cinque Terre Card. After the first day, we decided, we would reconsider whether to buy the card for the other days. If, at this point, your eyes are glazed over right now and you’re losing the will to live, I totally understand.

We followed our plan and had wonderful visits to both Monterossa and Riomaggiore and, after enjoying a glass of local rose wine at a terraced restaurant in Riomaggiore overlooking the Ligurian Sea, we walked back to the train station for the trip back to Vernazza.  The next train came along in no time and we boarded it to take the short ride to Vernazza after stopping briefly in Manarola and Corniglia. As the train went along, we noticed it didn’t stop in Manarola, then it sped up before Corniglia, and by the time we got to Vernazza it was an absolute bullet, speeding by so quickly that our little train station was a blur.  We looked at each other – oh, my God – where are we going?  To Genoa?  Or, worse yet, all the way to Milan?  Regional trains do go to those destinations through the Cinque Terre.  What would we do if we ended up hours away from our hotel in Vernazza?

Fortunately, the train stopped in Monterossa, one stop beyond Vernazza.  We had managed to get on the only train of the entire afternoon, out of about a dozen, that was an express from Riomaggiore to Monterossa.

To get back to Vernazza legally meant buying another couple of train tickets for €8, which would have spoiled our well-laid plans for our €12 day. I was in favor of blowing off the purchase of an additional ticket and taking our chances to not get caught.  Vernazza is only one stop away and about three minutes by train.  How likely were we to be checked? We had only had a ticket checked once all day and not had a ticket check at all on the whole trip over from Florence.  But John wasn’t taking any chances.  He insisted on buying tickets to get us back to Vernazza.  We bought the tickets, got on the train and, lo and behold, in that short ride, a conductor showed up, checking tickets.  As we made our way to exit the train he stood at the door, arguing with a couple who had, apparently, not bothered to buy tickets at all.  “It’s not MY fault you didn’t buy train tickets” he practically yelled at them.  We pulled out our tickets and proudly presented them.  He stopped his argument with the other couple, took a look at our tickets, rolled his eyes, sighed, and in an exasperated tone of resignation said to us, “OK, go on.” 

We stepped off the platform and John grinned at me. “Aren’t you glad we bought the tickets?”  he said.

“John,” I said, “We gave him the wrong tickets – the tickets we gave him were the ones that were invalid.”  The conductor was, apparently, so frustrated and distracted by the people with no tickets that he just let us go.

I’m sure you can guess what we did first thing the next morning – we bought the Cinque Terre Card. It was worth it for the stress-reduction value alone.

Top 10 in the Cinque Terre

1 A day in Levanto – Before this trip to the Cinque Terre (my second) I didn’t know anything about Levanto.  We decided on our last day, after going to all five of the villages, to spend our last day in Levanto, just to the north of Monterossa.  While the five Cinque Terre villages can feel very busy and Disney-esque, Levanto feels like real Italy.  It is a tourist destination in its own right but is more popular with Italians as a beach resort on the Italian Riviera and was very quiet this early in the season.

2 Hiking between Vernazza and Monterossa.  The hike is 2.5 hours and feature panoramic views of both the villages, the Ligurian Sea, and the vineyards.  It is challenging in that it includes lots of stairs but is worth it for its beauty

3. Taking the ferry boat across the islands and seeing them from a distance with the beautiful, terraced vineyards on display

Terraced vineyards

4. Mother’s Day morning in Monterossa, buying a slice of pizza for lunch and enjoying it in a small square with a playground and people-watching

Monterossa, taken from the hike above the town

5. Enjoying the delicious food, including focaccia, which is a local Ligurian delicacy

6. Visits to each one of the towns – every one has its own unique features.

Vernazza at twilight – we ate on the plaza that evening

7. Dinner on the plaza between our hotel and the Ligurian sea, enjoying wine and pasta and watching the sun set.

The water was cold, but so refreshing!

8. Taking off my shoes and rolling up my pants for a stroll along the beach in Levanto.

9. Wandering down picturesque little alleyways in each of the towns.

10. Going for pizza in a little restaurant in Vernazza and turning around to see our waitress, standing in the doorway of the restaurant, in full embrace and lip lock with her boyfriend, cigarette dangling from her fingers behind his back.  I wish I had taken a picture.  It was one of those “you know you’re in Italy when…” moments.

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