The Cinque Terre is a series of five coastal towns on the north-western coast of Italy. It has the kind of views that pop on Facebook under the heading ‘places you must see before you die of something or other. These advertisements don’t usually mention how you’re going to croak it. They cast the shadow of mortality to entice you spend some money with them; which is a grisly tactic. Anyway, let’s move on. Each town on this sweet little coastline is set against the rocky cliffs, topped with ancient vineyards and olive groves, overlooking a deep blue… well you get the picture.
The odd thing about Manarola is that most of the pictures you will ever see of it seem to have been given a Technicolor makeover on somebody’s iPhone. Like Mary Poppins set in Italy (Maria Poppino). Each of the five towns is charming; but you only get the full impact when viewing from the outside. The Cinque Terre is stunningly beautiful and if you want to immerse yourself in it then put on some stout shoes, climb the steps up the cliff, and walk along the paths breathing in the view. Take plenty of water, it’s hot in August and I sweated half my body weight into my socks and underpants. The steep paths down hurt my knees and I was whining for a month afterwards – but it was worth it! The path is narrow in parts and you have to stop to allow people to pass. You don’t have to stop, but it’s preferable to plummeting to your death. Check which trails are open as they get closed from time to time for repair. There are moments up on that walk, plenty of them, where you pause to take a picture only to stop ten yards later and exclaim ‘No! The view’s even better here!’ Do the walk.
Questions. What’s the beer like? It’s Italy, Peroni and Birra Moretti as usual, nice enough in warm weather; move on. What’s the food like? Glad you asked because there’s some real garbage served up in these towns. Avoid the seafront tourist traps, they are there for the day-trippers who aren’t coming back. Consequently, there’s nothing to be gained by taking any care over standards; prisons serve better food.
There are good restaurants however and a quick trawl of TripAdvisor will reveal them. It’s wise to reserve a table as they get very full in the high season. The region specialises in seafood, in fact it could definitely do with a bit more variety on that score. I only found one menu with pizza on it in Manarolo centre. There is a very popular pizza place on the cliff overlooking the little harbour, but you can’t book a table and the queues, forty minutes long, put me off. Check the prices of everything as in many places you will be charged extra for the view. Walking two minutes back up the street away from the harbour can knock a Euro off your glass of beer.
Travel along the coastline is simple enough though quite expensive at four euros per journey. Trains run frequently through tunnels cut into the rock emerging into the daylight to stop at each of the towns. A cheaper way to travel on the trains is to not buy a ticket. This method, known as ‘theft’, can save you a few bob though it’s wise not to get caught. The trains get busy during the day and, as in many places, there are warnings about pick pockets.
Monterosso is the most northerly stop on the trainline and it is the only one of the Cinque Terre towns with a beach. ‘Monterosso’ is Italian for ‘shit beach’. The beach is so crowded you feel like you are being physically intimate with the entire 3000 strong crowd. It’s just vile and it’s made worse by the openness with which some people like to express their personal intimacy. A young couple perched on the sun lounger next to me, she sat on his knee, they embraced, and then tongued each other’s faces lasciviously for 25 minutes. I could hear the slurping, squelching and sluicing no matter how high I turned up the volume on my music player. I wondered if I should join in and start licking her back. But I have standards, I didn’t drop my shorts and shit on the sand; why couldn’t they have shown some reserve?
I did pop in the sea with my goggles on though I needn’t have bothered. It looked like greasy dishwater and under the surface it was like snorkelling in minestrone soup. It was as crowded as the beach and impossible to maintain any sense of personal space. The water looked beautiful away from Monterosso, indeed anywhere off that coastline, but you’d have to find your way to a rocky beach and plunge in that way.
As splendid and arresting as the views on the Cinque Terre are four or five days is enough time to spend there. Having visited in summer, I’d like to go in winter when the cliff top walks have less people on them (though they are by no means crowded). On a note of caution, I doubt if all the restaurants and hotels are open all year round; I’d check that out before booking a flight.
Should I go?
It’s not as beautiful or dramatic as the Amalfi coastline but the area is definitely worth a visit. It’s a bit of an obscure destination for UK travellers, so your friends will think you are chic, sophisticated, and cultured (and pretentious). Fly to Pisa and get the train to the coast. It’s lovely but give Monterosso and its ugly beach filled with perverts a miss.
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