Skip to main content

BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Cinque Terre, Italy: How to immerse yourself in culture, not crowds

Apr 15, 2019 11:19AM ● By Melanie Wiseman

Fifty million people flood into Italy each year, basically doubling the local population. My recent three-week trip to Italy confirmed what some are calling “the age of overtourism.”

Social media influence, decades of open borders, budget travel options and the middle-class explosion in Asia have opened the world to everyone. In Florence, Rome and Venice, some cities are nearing their breaking point.

Despite the crowds, my travel companions—my husband Dan and two of our friends—were able to find an oasis among the chaos.

Cinque Terre, a region on Italy’s rugged northwest Mediterranean coast, dates back to the 11th century. The area remained pristine but impoverished into the 1970s until travel experts like Rick Steves began writing and boasting about its remote beauty. Likewise, we wanted to experience its uniqueness and discovered a way to do so without being enveloped by the masses.

Swimming in solace

From south to north, the five villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso are all reachable by a 19th-century railway line cut through a series of coastal tunnels. Cars were banned over a decade ago. All this and the surrounding hillside are part of the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the best decisions we made was to stay in Corniglia for the last four nights of our Italian adventure. Located on high, precarious cliffs, Corniglia has no pier access, requiring boats full of day tourists to deposit the shopping-starved travelers at the other four towns. Of course, we were among other brave souls who hopped off the train and climbed the 400 steps up to Corneglia or hiked the Cinque Terre Trail between the five villages, but their impact was minimal. Tourists flocked to the beaches of the other four towns while we enjoyed cool Mediterranean swims in a hidden rocky cove.

Riverside sights and authentic treats

The hiking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (“Azure Trail”), is extremely narrow and rugged, and may have closures due to rockslides, forcing hikers to steeper and longer routes than the waterfront path. With our home base in the center of town, we hiked two consecutive days in opposite directions to explore the other four villages.

Cinque Terre’s historical draw is the complicated system of fields and gardens steeply terraced and carved out of the mountainside cliffs. Cog trains carry workers up and down the precarious slopes to cultivate olives and grapes. The scope and grandeur of muretti (low stone walls) are considered works of art.

In addition to its famous wines, Cinque Terre has grappa, a brandy made with the pomace left from winemaking, and limoncello, a sweet lemon-flavored liqueur. Cinque Terre is also known for its pesto and focaccia, and Corniglia specifically for its gelato made from local honey. Seafood is also plentiful in these seaside villages.

Travel tips should you visit Cinque Terre

• Be prepared to walk. Cinque Terre is only open to pedestrians and it’s common to encounter stairs. Leave the heels at home and pack footwear for comfort. • Tour groups congest the four towns surrounding Corniglia between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the high summer season. In the early morning and evenings, the pace slows down which makes experiencing the small Italian town a lot more pleasant. Mid-day, get away from the crowds by exploring side streets. • We traveled unencumbered for three weeks with small carry-on bags and backpacks as we watched other travelers struggle mercilessly on crowded trains and stairs with oversized luggage. Washers were available in each Airbnb we stayed at. • The national park sells an optional Cinque Terre card that provides access to the coastal hiking trail and can be combined with a train pass. • Always have a bottle of water, sunscreen and hat with you. • Combine eating out with preparing your own delicious meals with fresh pasta and produce. • If you stay in Corniglia, The Gatto Bed and Breakfast is excellent. It also overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Antonio will personally greet you with his homemade pesto and limoncello in hand. • Take time to visit with locals on town square benches and at markets and cafés. Immerse yourself in the culture.

Sign up for our Newsletter

* indicates required
I am a...