Scattered along the north-western coastline of the Italian Riviera are five ancient fishing villages whose colorfully painted cottages are built right up to the cliffs’ edge, melding with the rugged cliffs and steep hillsides to form a staggeringly picturesque landscape. Cinque Terre (cheengkwe terre, dusting off the cobwebs of Rachel’s Italian diction courses…), literally meaning “five lands,” is a series of five towns linked by trails making it a hiker’s paradise.
The villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, each have a unique character, but they are all surrounded by steep terraced vineyards that produce a rare white wine. The seaside vineyards boast a long history of tradition and excellence dating back to antiquity. The towns as well as the surrounding national park have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a little research and a promising Airbnb listing, we chose the beautiful Manarola as our homebase for our weekend getaway.
The road to Cinque Terre was straight forward enough, but by now everyone should be well apprised that things with us rarely go as planned (despite our best efforts). We actually made it the whole way to the gates of Manarola only to learn that no cars are allowed beyond that point, which would have been fine except that the only tourist parking lot (aka the smallest parking lot known to man) was completely full. We drove up and down the windy mountain road a few times in hopes of finding somewhere, anywhere, to leave our much maligned car for the weekend. As we circled back down to the parking lot, our prayers were answered; someone was leaving and we were first in line for their spot. The parking space was very small, but the only benefit to our damnable Fiat contraption was that it was also very tiny. Windows down, slowly inching forward, we suddenly heard a loud gush of air and our hearts sank; we were so close.
Our suspicions were soon confirmed as we contemplated our sad little flat tire in horror. As we were discussing the best course of action, a couple of passersby, who had also heard the air escape our tire, were bearing witness to our (not so subtle) distress. One of them stopped and, in an act of selfless heroism, immediately offered his assistance. As the sun was beating down in the late hours of the afternoon, this sweet man, Heybet, slaved over our pitiful tire. By the time the tire had been changed, we had learned that he was Kurdish, but living in Italy for a fellowship. He expressed that he was a little apprehensive approaching Americans because of our country’s recent discriminatory and political actions, and this, more than any of the day’s events, made us feel upset and ashamed to be associated with such intolerant attitudes. It’s people like Heybet that restore our faith in humanity.
We strolled down the hill (luggage in tow) into the painted village, swapped contact info, and went in search of our Airbnb. After some aimless wandering (Google Maps is futile when it comes to ancient alleyways, who woulda thunk it), popping in a few shops for directions, and a steep pathway up the hill, we arrived at our lodgings for the weekend. The apartment exceeded our expectations, and offered a stunning view of the village and cerulean blue of the mediterranean. We unwound in the garden overlooking the same view with some bubbly as the sun set, and we found ourselves dreaming of opening a hotel and vineyard to live out our “Mamma Mia” fantasies (if you think we’re not totally serious, joke’s on you). Rachel is still hoping to be whisked away by a young Bill Anderson (aka Josh Dylan) on a magnificent sailboat…
We wandered down back into town in search of some dinner. Believe it or not, we somehow unknowingly stumbled upon a Michelin rated restaurant, Ristorante Marina Piccola, and enjoyed a fabulous meal (and copious amounts of white wine) for a very reasonable price. The dishes to get here are the squid ink linguine with shrimp and bell peppers and the spaghetti with mussels and pecorino cheese. Over the course of dinner we gained some food babies and left a little wine drunk. The night was still young, so we set out in search of a fun place to keep the buzz going. This proved more challenging than expected because after the summer ends, any nightlife in the area comes to a grinding halt, even on a Friday night. By happenstance, we stopped at a what looked like it might be a bar. Lauren asked a man standing outside if this was true and he answered, “not only is it a bar, but it is the only bar in town,” and this is how we met our new Italian friend, Giovanni. He ended up sticking with us for the rest of the night, introducing us to his friends, showing us around the (very small) town, taking us to the best stargazing spot, and bringing us to his father’s wine cellar to sample that year’s harvest.
The next morning we woke up feeling more hungover than we’ve been in a while. We knew that the previous night’s shenanigans were going to cost us precious hiking time because we just don’t bounce back like we used to (at the ripe old age of 24, we know). We ventured out into the world again that afternoon in search of sustenance and electrolytes, determined to get some hiking in. Against all odds, we fortuitously found some Powerade, and could feel the life being breathed back into us. Salvation is glorious, and it tastes like orange Powerade. We devoured some delicious fried seafood, and finally mustered the motivation to climb some mountains, come what may.
We had decided that we would hike to the neighboring town of Corniglia, which we had been told by our new friends from the previous night offered some incredible views of the area. We opted to take the higher, steeper route through the terraced vineyards (against our better judgement) to enjoy the panoramic views that were promised on top. We were dizzy and our sweat reeked of sweet wine as we (slowly) pushed onwards. We felt like death and got a little lost in the hilltop vineyards, but by the time we were halfway through the hike, we felt reborn. Whether it was the endorphins, or the breathtaking vineyards overlooking the mediterranean during the golden hour, we were elated. We marched into Corniglia triumphantly as the sun was meeting the horizon. We took the quick train ride back to Manarola, and had ourselves a relaxing, early night.
Our visit to Cinque Terre would have been incomplete without a visit to the highly acclaimed restaurant, Nessun Dorma, which also received a glowing recommendation from our host (& publications like The New York Times & Conde Nast Traveler). We arrived early (a half hour before they opened for the day) to ensure that we would get a table with a view, something we would highly recommend doing for your own visit because it fills up quick. Upon opening their doors, we were guided to our table and we sat down in quiet astonishment. Pavarotti’s golden voice was splendidly pouring out from the speakers singing “Nessun Dorma” as the sun shone down on the colorful village below, and this was the very moment Manarola stole our hearts. Aperol spritzes magically appeared in our hands (which has to go down as the fastest service we’ve ever encountered) and soon after we were served what we’ve both agreed stands as the tastiest bruschetta and caprese salad we’ve ever had. The freshness of the ingredients matched with the ambience made this restaurant experience the cherry on top of our weekend getaway. We couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces and loved how the experience was so perfectly Italian, in all the right ways.
We stuck around for one final sunset, soaking up as much of Manarola as we could. As we returned to our now, broken, pathetic excuse for a car, we were jolted back to reality, knowing the journey home would be interesting. Because we were driving on a spare, we couldn’t exceed 50mph, which the other Italian drivers did not take to kindly. For the Italians to provide us with incredible food and scenery and cool-headed driving is, frankly, asking too much of the universe. Despite the nail-biting drive home, Cinque Terre tops the list of destinations to revisit (sans car drama). Arrivederci, Cinque Terre!