Cinque Terre, Italy is one of those perfect places in the world. It’s not too isolated, but not yet too commercialized, the locals are kind, the stray animals are fat and happy, and the food is perfection. When I was studying abroad in Rome in 2006, one of my friends and I decided to check out these five small coastal towns (“cinque” means five, and “terre” is land) on the Italian Riviera, about a four or five hour train ride from Rome.
Cinque Terre is made up of five small towns: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These villages are special because they’re inaccessible by car. The five towns are only connected by train, a hiking trail (the Sentiero Azzurro, or ‘Light Blue Trail’), or boat. Most of the towns are perched high on the cliff side, wedged between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea–built purposefully high and hard to reach to protect themselves from pirates long ago. The whole of Cinque Terre is part of the Cinque Terre National Park, which is protected by its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cinque Terre is also one of those homey small towns where you can feel safe anywhere. My friend and I had read in our guidebook that the towns were so small that there were only a couple of hotels between all five villages, and these hotels would most likely not be open in the off-season (we went in March I believe). So we decided to be brave and do as the book suggested–which was to just show up at the train station, and wait around for a local to see us and offer us some lodging in their homes. I know that sounds incredibly dangerous and sketchy, but in this quaint place, it’s hospitality.
Sure enough, we stepped off the train and a sweet little old woman immediately approached us and said “You need room?” We told her we did, and then we negotiated a price. As she led us over the steep stone steps that wind through the village, she asked us “You know Rick Steves?” We told her we didn’t personally know him, but that we know of him, and she replied “I’m in Rick Steves book!” I’m guessing her apartment is listed as a good place to stay. We never checked up on her claim, but I believe her because her service was impeccable. Despite her limited English and our beginner Italian, we fumbled through simple conversation as she showed us around the apartment (adjacent to her home). She even brought us a wine bottle opener one night when she realized we didn’t have one–she was the perfect little Italian host-grandmother!
The next three days all we did was hike through mountain-side olive, grape and lemon orchards, and eat simple meals of baguettes, peccorino cheese, pesto, fruit, yogurt and wine on the cliffs overlooking the sea. We only ate a restaurant once, where I ate quite possibly the most delicious (and largest) calazone I’ve ever had in my life. It was easily one of the most laid back and fulfilling trips of my life–and definitely a taste of la vita dolce.