The passion of Cinque Terre – with its stunning vistas, quaint towns, friendly people and incredible food – brought us to its shores. But it was the hidden gems we discovered that will remain as iconic memories of this magical place.
Long a tourist mecca in northern Italy, the five hamlets have been thoroughly strolled, hiked and, in summer, stampeded by the onslaught of visitors in search of a taste of its charm.
The simpler hiking trails sport hand rails, paved paths and obvious photo op points where travelers gather in droves and snap photos to take home with them.
Restaurants along the main streets turn out wonderful, straightforward northern Italian fare, featuring gifts from the sea brought to shore daily by the villages’ fishing crews.
Hotels along the water offer ocean views and tiny balconies where tired travelers can sit with a bottle of wine and watch the remnants of the day sink into the Mediterranean.
Nice, but not necessarily our cup of cappuccino. We normally seek the edges of the places we visit, a bit off the tracks typically trampled by tourists.
So Gabi and I settled into the La Giare, a small, family-run bed and breakfast situated above Monterosso and a short walk into the town’s center (161 steps, to be exact, down a flight of stairs that zig zags from the access road to the mostly pedestrian streets below.) Our room looked down the barrel of a tiny valley to the sea, interrupted only by a couple of lemon trees that stood overwhelmed with enormous yellow fruit. At 90 Euros a night, our room was a bargain compared with places more centrally located, and the comfortable en suite room came with a delicious breakfast served every morning by the host family in a bright and airy colazione room that was open 24 hours as a sitting room or a place to use the internet.
It was perfect, quiet, quaint and personal.
For hikes, we started with a two-hour walk from Vernazza to Monterosso. After taking the train from Monterosso and strolling the streets of Vernazza, we began with a steep vertical climb from the village center to the trail head. Vegetable gardens and lemon groves gave way to terraced vineyards that have provided locals with wine supplies for centuries. Rocky paths with stone steps carefully placed along the steepest parts were the only way for villagers to muscle the grapes and vegetables from the mountain’s slopes until a network of crude funiculare were installed in more recent times. Along the way we came upon a rest spot where a handful of feral cats gathered. A sign in Italian and English implored passersby to feed the “homeless and unloved” cats from a plastic bin full of food, so we did, stroked the well-fed felines a bit and left a few Euros to make sure they continued to eat well.
It’s a long climb up and an abrupt descent into Monterosso, and the end of the trail offered a prize.
As we made our way along the path, a voice rang out from a nearby patch of vines, and we noticed a tiny hut featuring a table with a few bottles of wine and limoncello. Gianpetro, a 50-something man with brilliant blue eyes, made a dramatic entrance and sold us a bottle of limoncello (five Euros) and wine (eight Euros), demanding that we drink the limoncello on the spot.
He launched into a 15 minute monologue, chronicling his travels (throughout Europe, but notably to Switzerland, often, “because I love the women there.”) A devout bachelor, Gianpetro spoke five languages, inexplicably choosing French to speak to us, along with English, all the while fixing his gaze on Gabi, even when he spoke to me. It was bizarre, wonderful and quintessentially Italian. All of it.
The next day we chose a path less traveled, walking the paved road from Corniglia to St. Bernardino and following the red and white trail signs up a steep incline into the tiny hilltop village of St. Bernadino. The foot-wide path weaved tenuously along the edge of gardens and vineyard, ending in the village center. St. Bernadino clings to the mountain’s edge, featuring a church, some stucco and stone houses, and one café located near the village bus stop.
We were hungry, so we rang the bell outside the shuttered café and waited for someone to show up and deliver one of the panini and focaccia promoted on the sign outside.
“Buon giorno,” boomed a throaty voice a few minutes later, and we looked up to see a bald old man making his way from above the café, grumbling and pulling his pants up as he walked. He managed to zip up before he reached us, opening the café and heading to the coffee machine, where he promptly fired up an espresso and drank it in a gulp.
He reeked of wine, and his bloodshot eyes spoke of a recent lunch that featured more grape than foodstuffs. I asked him in pidgin Italian what kind of Panini he could offer. He shook his head, babbling in Italian as he headed around the counter and grabbed a bag of packaged croissants and tossed it on the counter. I took that as the offer for lunch, so I ordered two cappuccinos, grabbed a couple of croissants and a bag of cheese crackers and headed for table overlooking the valley.
The old guy joined us and tried his best to help us figure our way down the mountain. This consisted mostly of shrugs, scratches, grunts and groans as he also tried to explain why he had been left in charge of the café. We’re pretty sure that whatever happened involved an ambulance, a death, and an abrupt change of plans that left him control as “una voluntaria…”
Perhaps that would explain the mid-day binge.
The hike to Vernazza was a challenge by any standards, surely one of the most difficult we’ve encountered. It was a goat path, really, that through a series of switchbacks made its way across the mountain’s ridge, offering uninterrupted stunning views of the Mediterranean and, eventually, to Vernazza far below.
It was exhilarating, challenging and rewarding, and as we slid the remaining 10 meters on our backsides to the heavily traversed path leading to Vernazza, we were thankful that we’d once again chosen the path less travelled.
Dining in Cinque Terre is as diverse as the hiking options, and our experiences in restaurants mirrored our time on the mountain’s trails.
One night we dined at Miky’s, a tony restaurant in Monterosso that our b&b hostess recommended and that had earned favorable reviews to go along with the Michelin ratings promoted on the restaurant’s door.
It was good but not great, delicious but not fabulous, and in our opinion paled by comparison to the tiny, off the beaten path place we discovered the next night.
Offering honest, straightforward Ligurian fare, the tiny restaurant with a street-level kitchen and first floor dining room gave us a tiny balcony seat and a memorable meal that made very bite better than the last.
We devoured an opener of grilled octopus, potatoes and olives, dredged in local olive oil and lightly sprinkled with parsley. We split an order of handmade pasta with tiny langoustines and one grilled local lobster, lightly flavored with pomodoro sauce and herbs, and a grilled swordfish steak that was simply too fresh and delicious to adequately describe. A fresh tossed salad with tomatoes bursting with flavor, crisp local lettuce and a bit of bitter radicchio was delivered along with a bag of fresh bread and bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dress the salad.
A half liter of local white wine – crisp and delicious, with a bit of spritz to it – rounded off the meal, a slice of culinary heaven. And at half the price of the previous night’s meal at Miky’s, we were reminded of the value of making the effort to step away from the masses wherever you go to find the real, authentic local experiences.
By the way, Gianpetro’s “handmade, organic and unfiltered vino” turned out to be undrinkable swill, and wound up cleansing the kitchen sink when we reached our house sitting destination in Tuscany.