Italy's Greatest Hit: The Cinque Terre

Special to The Washington Post
I love the great outdoors: the Zen of walking amid majestic, unspoiled scenery for hours on end.

I really love it, however, on civilized terms: with a hot shower, a well-prepared meal and clean sheets at the end of the trail.

Give me those creature comforts in Mediterranean coastal Italy, where a stiff espresso and plates of pasta and seafood wait in the village around the next rocky bend, and the result is something fairly close to heaven.

So, I'd long figured, the Cinque Terre was pretty much made for people like me. Me, that is, and a good percentage of the 2 million people a year who visit these "Five Lands."

The Cinque Terre is a string of five small fishing villages nestled in the rugged Ligurian coastline between Genoa and Pisa and exalted by poets from Dante and Petrarch to Byron and Shelley. But it wasn't until about a decade ago that the region was "discovered" by American tourists. Billed as a backpacker's Shangri-La, it was an alternative to the overpriced chic of the nearby Italian and French Rivieras. Cheap accommodations, rustic cuisine and flowing local wine beckoned.

It wasn't long before travel agents began packaging the Cinque Terre with honeymoon vacations and tours of Italy's greatest hits. American college kids studying abroad also arrived, filling the bars and creating a kind of "Talented Mr. Ripley"-meets-frat-house scene.

The villages were, and thankfully remain, free of automobile and motor-scooter traffic. Cars must be parked on the outskirts of the towns, which are linked by coastal railway and seasonal ferries. The best way to explore the Cinque Terre has always been on foot, along old mule tracks and paths through hills that were cultivated for wine grape production in the 13th century with an intricate series of dry stone wall terraces -- Liguria's answer to the Great Wall of China.

With the throngs of visitors has come help to preserve the Cinque Terre. In the late 1990s the steep terraced cliffs were designated a national park, a large swath of the sea became a protected marine area and the whole area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So how is this Mediterranean paradise faring in the 21st century? Last fall, my family and I went to find out.

In general the Cinque Terre lived up to our high expectations. When the sun shines, the setting is magnificent -- blue sea, big skies, steep terraced cliffs and Mediterranean villages that seemed to sprout out of rocky berths.

The Cinque Terre is worthy of the best of Italy.

But there's been a price to pay. At times -- because of the sheer number of tourists -- the Cinque Terre doesn't feel very Italian.

Of course, that was to be expected. When you take an aging population of about 5,000 villagers and introduce thousands of foreigners at a time, it is bound to resemble a U.N. occupation force with credit cards rather than weapons.

Yet for me, half the joy of traveling to Italy is not the landscapes, the museums or even the delicious regional cuisines. It is the theater of typical Italian life. The language is a big part of it, and over the past year I've doubled up on Italian instruction to better understand and speak the language.

On our first evening in Monterosso al Mare -- the largest and northwestern-most of the five villages, and our base for the trip -- we ate a thoroughly local meal at Ciak La Lampara, a neighborhood trattoria. It began with the blackened (squid ink) risotto, moved to local grilled fish and ended with cantucci biscuits and glasses of Sciachetra, Cinque Terre's naturally sweet white raisin wine.

The trattoria lacked one element: Italians. In the dining room, there were 20 place settings occupied by 17 fellow Americans, two Brits and a Canadian. It was a pattern we couldn't seem to shake. Another night, in another trattoria, we were seated next to a large group of U.S. students debating the merits of American hamburger chains.

And this was the off season!

One evening -- as a group of some 20 Japanese tourists were capturing the sunset with Nikons and tripods -- I ducked into a shoebox-size chapel near the Monterosso port. Here, by the light of scores of flickering altar candles, I found some solace -- one small piece of this coast that resisted change. A dozen elderly local women, heads covered, recited over and over their Ave Marias.

Walking the Walk

"The Italian people don't like to hike too much," Giovanni Grasso says in English, explaining why parts of the Cinque Terre have become more popular with stranieri (foreigners) than Italians.

Grasso, a thirtyish soccer-playing Monterosso native, and his ex-wife run Il Maestrale, the six-room inn where we spent our stay.

Italians do like to stroll, though, and Grasso complained that during July and August, Monterosso is overflowing with his countrymen, who pack the beachfront, the boardwalk and the cafes. Grasso said that he himself hiked the length of the Cinque Terre for the first time last year.

Gung-ho tourists, we did the jaunt after our first breakfast in town.

The coastal walk along the Cinque Terre -- the 7.5-mile Sentiero Azzurro, or "Blue Trail" -- connects all five villages by paths that cut through the national park. It takes 4 1/2 hours at a good pace, which doesn't account for time spent in the villages.

Our plan was to set out from Monterosso and return from the last of the five villages, Riomaggiore, by the coastal train late that afternoon. The advantage of walking in this southeasterly direction is that the walking gets progressively easier and the distances between the villages shorter.

The first leg of the walk -- Monterosso to Vernazza -- is the longest (about two hours) and most difficult, but one of the most rewarding.

We climbed through vineyards defiantly perched along slopes, through densely packed forests and across streams on stepped paths that were as narrow as a foot wide. Ascending the terraces alongside the trail are mechanized single rails for moving small train cars of workers, equipment and grapes up and down the steep hillsides during harvest.

Wine from this area has been produced in small but prized quantities for centuries, but since World War II most of the terraces have been abandoned. In an effort to preserve the terraces -- and thereby prevent the landscape from sliding into the sea -- the Italian government offers free 20-year cultivation rights to outsiders willing to tend the stone walls and grapes. So far there have been about 1,500 takers -- mostly foreigners -- for what Italian conservationists have called "heroic" vine growing.

It doesn't take much hiking up the steps of these terraces to figure out why the locals quit. For most of the morning we slogged steadily behind a tourist group led by a woman of some 70-plus years shouting out marching orders in German (which seemed to be the dominant language on the trail). They looked as if they were outfitted in the Black Forest, with metal walking sticks and mountain boots. We encountered loads of other foreigners, including young fresh-faced Californians, a French family and more well-equipped Germans.

Supporting Grasso's theory, we heard no Italian. In fact, the only locals we encountered were one old paesano selling apples, wine and water from a basket on the side of the trail, and the ubiquitous wild cats that live off the scraps and cat food donations of feline-loving visitors.

Castle in the Sun

Coming upon Vernazza in sunlight is dreamlike.

The most picturesque of the Cinque Terre villages, it sits on a rock promontory, topped by the tower that remains from an 11th-century castle. There is a small, semicircular fishing port protected by a curving breakwater and watched over by a church with sea views.

We took a table in the small square by the port and refueled with espresso and water. Seawater lapped at the edge of the piazza where fishing boats rested. More of those Cinque Terre cats sunned themselves on the decks.

If it had been just my wife and me on the trip, without a child requiring the comforts of satellite TV and a beach on which to build sand castles, we could have wasted days here.

Continuing from Vernazza, we climbed back onto the cliffs for another 1 1/2-hour stretch of trail that is the wildest of the coast. For much of this section, the trail skirts cliffs and vine terraces that have long been taken over by maquis. We found a rocky ledge and ate a lunch of bread, salami and sheep cheese. The only sound was the white surf crashing along the cliffs far below. We layered down to our T-shirts, sat in the sun and didn't want to move.

After lunch, we walked through the shade of overgrown olive groves to our next stop, the village of Corniglia, perched high on a forested cliff. There we rested and recharged with more espresso at an outdoor cafe before being pushed out of our seats by a brief afternoon sun shower.

The last legs of the trail were the shortest and the least impressive. Leaving Corniglia, the trail offers views of the train station, rail yards and some abandoned cabanas from another era. Then it becomes a four-foot-wide flat path leading to Manarola, built on a small curving rock peninsula that creates a natural port.

Finally, all that remained was a 20-minute stroll down the stone-paved Via dell'Amore (Lovers Lane), which was destroyed by a landslide in the 1990s and reopened several years later with an unfortunate concrete protective tunnel that has since been covered with graffiti.

Arriving in Riomaggiore, built alongside a natural ravine that leads down to a tiny fishing port, we soaked up the late afternoon sun and celebrated -- my wife and I with our first glasses of dry white Cinque Terre wine.

Warning Signs

The Cinque Terre's local-based tourist industry still communicates with a lot of hand-lettered signs, the most popular of which announce the same message in three languages: "Camere, Zimmer, Rooms."

But I noticed other signs that weren't as inviting: the "No" signs. "Do not touch" was pinned to clothes hung outside a boutique; "No backpacks in store" was fixed to some shop doors. When we stopped to buy the fixings for our lunch at a small grocery in Vernazza, another customer was scrutinizing the apples out front when the owner cried out in English, "You touch -- you buy."

In Manarola, when we stopped for ice cream at a gelateria, a piece of paper taped to the front of the freezer case warned: "NOT FREE SAMPLES."

I was dumbfounded: No touching? No tasting? In Italy?

I asked the young woman behind the ice cream counter -- in Italian -- why the sign?

"It's for the Americani," she answered back in Italian.

She went on to explain how the Americans always wanted to try the ice cream. And at a price of one euro for a small scoop, she couldn't afford to be giving the stuff away.

Among Italians, Ligurians have a reputation for being extremely frugal and closed to outsiders. This probably has something to do with centuries of rural poverty and living in walled villages where the visitors were often pirates.

When we returned to our hotel, I asked Grasso about what seemed to be the prickly attitude of his neighbors.

"It's the Ligurians," he said and laughed, explaining that many locals still aren't at ease in dealing with outsiders. "When the local people go to the market themselves, they touch everything."

That's Italian!

In the mountains above each village in the Cinque Terre is a church shrine, connected to the other shrines by a ridge trail that links the town of Levanto, northwest of the Cinque Terre, to Porto Venere to the southeast. The walk is some 12 hours.

Footpaths also connect the shrines to their to respective villages, and for our second hike on our second day we chose the walk from Monterosso to its shrine of Nostra Signora di Soviore, a pretty, well-preserved and painted 14th-century church less than a 1 1/2-hour walk away.

Down in the center of the old town of Monterosso are three churches -- a main church, a church for the sick and a skull-and-crossbones-decorated church for the dead. But the mountaintop shrine is the church most coveted by Monterosso -- partly because of the work that had been required to build it atop an isolated mountain. Behind the church altar is a wooden statue depicting Mary holding a dead Jesus, which according to local legend mysteriously presented itself to the local priest while he was out hunting.

We climbed the mountain above town through minuscule vineyards and farms, olive groves and a chestnut forest. Unlike on the coast, where the trail often resembled an autostrada (complete with toll booths for park admission), on this path we were alone.

On our return from the shrine -- as the trail crosses the only road leading to Monterosso -- we stopped for lunch at Il Ciliegio, a family-run restaurant with impressive views over the Gulf of Monterosso from the dining room and terrace in back.

The typically Ligurian meal, which began with stuffed anchovies and was followed by trofie (little pasta twists) in pesto, was cooked by a pair of round-figured women who chattered the whole time at a volume audible throughout the restaurant.

As lunchtime progressed, the place filled up with well-dressed people wearing black leather jackets and weekend loafers -- Italians! We were the only stranieri. There was not a pair of hiking boots in sight.

There were no warning signs here. Our hosts, noting that we were foreigners, loaded us up with restaurant postcards and poured a friendly round of Sciachetra.

Eventually, the crowd left in a boisterous peal of ciaos and arrivedercis. We left on foot toward town. The Italians took off in their Alfas.

Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel about Normandy.

Details: Cinque Terre, Italy

GETTING THERE: The Cinque Terre are a little more than 40 miles southeast of Genoa, Italy. With train stations in each of the five villages, the area is easily accessible by rail. Milan to Monterosso, for example, takes 3 hours 40 minutes and costs $43 for a first-class fare. The trip from Rome is about five hours and goes for $63; from Genoa, 43 minutes and $21. For timetables, fares and reservations: www.trenitalia.it or www.raileurope.com.

Genoa also has an international airport serviced by major airlines. For spring travel, Lufthansa recently quoted Washington-to-Genoa fares from $404 round trip.

GETTING AROUND: Exploring the Cinque Terre is best done on foot. Hiking on the major paths in Cinque Terre National Park costs about $3.60 per day, payable at little wooden booths on the trail heads outside the villages.

Trains, running frequently between the villages, are a reliable way of returning from a hike. Fares from one end of the Cinque Terre to the other are about $1.25. (Check at the tourist offices in advance to make sure there are no strikes planned.) The tourist offices also sell the Cinque Terre card, for about $5.40 per day, good for hiking and unlimited use of trains. Seasonal ferry boats also offer connections. Check at tourist offices for times. Daily ferry tickets cost about $14.

If traveling by car, you will need to park it outside of town, such as at the Monterosso car park (about $11 per day.)

WHEN TO GO: Spring and early fall, before and after the summer onslaught.

WHERE TO STAY: The Cinque Terre is awash in "Rooms for Rent" signs in private residences and small rooming houses. Most of the hotels are in Monterosso. To view most accommodations online, visit www.monterossonet.com.

Il Maestrale (Via Roma 37, Monterosso, 011-39-0187-817-013, www.locandailmaestrale.it/site/indexe.html) is a romantic and well-renovated six-room inn tucked into an ancient residence with ceiling murals and an open-air breakfast terrace. A double room with breakfast costs from about $96 per night in winter to about $155 in high season.

Hotel Porto Roca (Via Corone 1, Monterosso, 011-39-0187-817-502, www.portoroca.it) offers four-star comforts from its beautiful panoramic coastal perch. It's the Cinque Terre's most "Riviera" resort. Doubles range from about $200 (low season, no sea view) to $340 (high season with a sea view). Closed Nov. 3 to March 26.

Hotel La Spiaggia (Via Lungomare 98, Monterosso, 011-39-0187-817-567, www.laspiaggiahotel.com) offers basic, tidy accommodations on the beach boardwalk. Doubles in high season cost about $155 and include beach lounges, a parking place and breakfast. Count on about $96 in the off-season, but no beach chairs.

In Vernazza, the Trattoria Gianni Franzi (Piazza Marconi 1, Vernazza, 011-39-0187- 821-003, www.giannifranzi.it ) not only serves up renowned local cuisine on the tiny port but also rents out guest rooms. A double with private bath costs about $90. Figure about $24 per person, plus wine, in the restaurant.

WHERE TO EAT: At Ristorante Ciak La Lampara (Piazza Don Minzoni 6), in the old part of Monterosso, try the black risotto "La Lampara" and skewered octopus. About $36 per person, plus wine. Il Pirata (Via Molinelli 6, Monterosso) serves delicious seafood and pasta with an excellent wine list. About $33.

Il Ciliegio (Localita Beo; about $22 per person), above the bay of Monterosso and accessible by foot trail and car, may be the town's most local restaurant. Ristorante Marina Piccola (Via Lo Scalo 16; about $24) has regional specialties on Manarola's tiny port.

INFO: Locally run Web sites in English include www.cinqueterreonline.com and www.cinqueterre.it. For general information on Italy: Italian Government Tourist Board, 212- 245-5618 , www.italiantourism.com.