Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is one of Italy’s iconic travel destinations. It’s a stretch of the Ligurian coast made up of five colorful fishing villages perched on rocky cliffs. These five, picturesque towns are linked together by train and a famous coastal hiking trail. I’ve wanted to visit Cinque Terre for many years but I’ve always been hesitant. My Italian friends warned me that it’s very crowded and advised me never to visit during the summer peak season.
My husband and I had planned on going last April (before peak season) for our anniversary but then COVID happened. Our family back in the U.S., who knew we had to cancel our trip during lockdown, kindly booked us a couple nights stay in Monterosso al Mare as a gift. So last month we spent a few glorious days exploring the area. Visiting Cinque Terre, one of the most over-crowded albeit beautiful stretches of the Italian riviera after COVID and with travel restrictions in place was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Monterosso al Mare is the first or northernmost village of Cinque Terre. It’s also the largest town and the only one with an actual beach. We stayed at Hotel Villa Steno, which is a lovely and meticulously run family hotel. Our room had a balcony and a terrace with amazing views of the town and ocean. We arrived in the late afternoon, settled in and walked down the steps to the old town of Monterosso to explore. Word to the wise, don’t do what we did and drive there. It’s a few hours drive from Milan and the autostrade is modern and nice but once you get off the highway the road to Monterosso al Mare is extremely narrow and very, very curvy. Take the train and save yourself a hair raising experience.
The first thing that struck me is how eerily empty the town was. Cinque Terre depends heavily on tourism, especially American tourists, and it seemed to me the only people out were the local shopkeepers. We chatted with several local folks who told us this season is a financial disaster for them. One cafe owner even asked us with a hopeful expression, “Are the Americans coming this summer?” My heart sank as my husband explained that it was unlikely.
Masks were required in shops and hand sanitizer was available everywhere. Like here in Milan, there was signage everywhere about social distancing, mask wearing, etc. At the private beach temperatures were taken as each customer entered and umbrellas were spaced apart. The public beach had social distanced areas marked by large wooden poles in the ground.
The next day we bought a one day train pass and visited Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Each town is only a few minutes by train. I was sorry to miss the scenic hiking trail but we just didn’t have enough time to do it all. Each town was a joy with its own character and charm. I’m amazed by the architecture and use of space in these towns. This area was very isolated in times past and was vulnerable to pirate attacks so every town has a watch tower to lookout for invaders.
Liguria is known as the birthplace of pesto and it’s also known for its amazing seafood. We had our share of both. The seafood is ultra fresh and so tasty. Mussels, clams, swordfish, tuna and of course octopus are the stars of many Ligurian dishes.
After a few days of exploring and eating way too much, it was time to head back to Milan. Visiting Cinque Terre without the hordes of tourists was a bittersweet experience. I selfishly enjoyed the calm and quiet, beautiful towns but also grieved for the locals who are suffering serious financial hardship.
I’m looking forward to going back and spending more time in Cinque Terre with, or without the hordes of tourists.