Our plan had been to interrupt our drive from Rome to Vicenza with a blissful couple of nights in Cinque Terre, a place Riccardo remembers fondly from his backpacking days. But our late departure from Rome resulting in an overnight rest stop in Siena, and then our drive-by in Pisa meant that we had less than 24 hours to visit the area. No worries – whirlwind tours are possible when you prioritize. For example, we tell ourselves we’ll sleep when we’re dead.
Unfortunately, our late arrival in Cinque Terre (just after 9:30 pm) had some practical consequences beyond just missing the sunset. Having successfully navigated the narrow, winding roads past the city of La Spezia and finally reached Manarola (the second of the ‘Cinque Terre’ and our destination for the night), we were met with a locked iron gate, a full parking lot, and no idea whatsoever of how to enter the town. I’d picked our accommodation partly because it offered free parking, but that wouldn’t be so useful if we couldn’t get past the gate. There was not a soul to be spotted for miles around, and calls to the hotel went unanswered. Hmmm.
After a few long, puzzled minutes, the Angel Gabriel appeared to save us. Literally, a guy named Gabriele showed up and asked if we needed help – he turned out to be the owner of the hotel, and he was just heading home for the night. Had we arrived a few minutes later we would have missed him altogether. He explained that the town of Manarola literally closes at 9:00 pm – no motor vehicles are allowed past the gate. When he saw my crestfallen face (I was dreading having to spend hours looking for parking in the darkness, or rather, Riccardo having to do so) Gabriele took pity and mentioned we could stay in our illegal parking space overnight, and led us past the gate and down to the hotel.
I rarely write about the places we stay in but this one is worthy. Our room was tiny but impeccable and charming, overlooking the town and the sea beyond it, and Gabriele helpfully pointed out that the bottles of water, wine, beer, and even whiskey neatly displayed on a table were complimentary. (Is there any sweeter word in the English language?) Now that we were safely checked in, the potential crisis of our late arrival narrowly avoided, my fancy quickly turned to thoughts of food. Since the whole town appeared to be closed, I started panicking – would there be anything to eat at all, let alone the piles of fresh seafood I’d been dreaming of all day? In his final act of salvation, Gabriele phoned his favourite restaurant and persuaded them to keep the kitchen open long enough for us to run over there.
Piles of seafood were in the cards after all. A sweet young waiter named Giovanni regaled us with tales of the annoying backpackers he meets while bringing octopus salad, fresh anchovies with lemon, carpaccio of local fish, a giant plate of gnocchi with the best pesto I’ve ever tasted, and of course, plenty of wine. With a whisper not to mention it to the owner, who was drinking across the road, Giovanni offered us glasses of sciacchetrà, a dessert wine made only in Cinque Terre. The feast was almost spoiled by a trio of obnoxious backpackers who were the only ones left in the place besides us – when we couldn’t bear to hear them any longer, we took our glasses outside and leaned against one of the fishing boats lining the road. Karma was fulfilled later that evening when we spotted the most annoying of the three take a drunken spill on the cobblestones. Even in darkness, the village of Manarola had a magical, sleep vibe and I was looking forward to seeing it by day.
It would have been a real shame to sleep through our one day in Cinque Terre, so we set the alarm for the utterly ridiculous hour of 6:00 am. (I can just hear those with kids chuckling at that. Shut up.) After the late night, it was tempting to stay in bed, but we resisted the urge and ventured out. Riccardo wanted to walk to some of the other villages, but Giovanni had told us that thanks to landslides and poor maintenance, most of the paths linking the villages were closed. However, he said, he generally used them anyway, and assured us we’d be okay if the weather was good. So, off we went.
We bought a thick slab of pizza with pesto from a bemused baker (it was 7:00 am, after all) and began our ascent into the hills. We sat on a cemetery wall overlooking the sea to eat our breakfast before continuing on the path towards the neighbouring village of Corniglia. Every so often, we came across the site of a past landslide, or an elaborate wire structure designed to prevent a future disaster. But the weather was clear and no landslides were expected that day, so we carried on, through ingenious hillside vineyards and olive groves. Cinque Terre is a UNESCO site with good reason – many generations have inhabited and tamed the rough, steep terrain, shaping it into the place it is today. A couple of hours into the walk, Riccardo marvelled at how we hadn’t seen another person yet that morning – I wondered if it might be because we were walking on trails that were off-limits. But eventually, we did meet a few other renegades along the way.
Corniglia was the perfect cappuccino stop before moving on to the next town of Vernazza. By the time we reached there, we had been at it for almost four hours – th most exercise either of us got in two weeks. We actually needed to be in Vicenza by 6:30 pm to meet my cousin, so after just a quick tour of the village, we took a train back towards our car. Riccardo remembered Riomaggiore being his favourite of the five villages when he visited over 15 years ago, so we went to check it out – sadly, it seemed overrun with tourists and burger joints, so we hopped back on the train to Manarola for a final lunch with Giovanni at the same restaurant we’d been to the night before. This time, he presented us with tastings of arancino and basil-infused liqueur his friend produced – delicious – we tried to buy a bottle before heading out but the one shop that sold it had run out.
Some might say 15 hours is not nearly enough time to spend in the picturesque region of Cinque Terre, but I was glad to have seen it at all.
Next stop: northern Italy!