Our recent visit to the Cinque Terre was not without a few hiccups, but we had a really enjoyable time anyway. Although we had great weather, two previous days of torrential rainfall had taken a toll on the coastal paths and part of the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia was closed.
But you could still hike far enough up the trail for spectacular views looking back toward Vernazza, which we did.
To further complicate matters, there was a rail strike one of the days we were there, and the seas were too rough for the ferry to run. In our case, this turned out to be a blessing because we had Vernazza pretty much to ourselves. And it’s the most delightful town in the Cinque Terre.
We hiked part of the way to Monterosso, turned around and came back, had a leisurely lunch, and went for a dip in the Mediterranean. Since we’d already been to Riomaggiore and Manarola, we didn’t feel deprived at all.
But our experience serves as a cautionary trail. Despite it’s popularity, the Cinque Terre is still pretty remote and you can’t take the ability to get from A to B for granted. And unless you stay in Monterosso al Mare, you can’t expect to find conventional hotels with lobbies, restaurants, and elevators.
Cinque Terre accommodation runs the gamut from rooms in private homes – known as affitta camera – to individual apartments to hostels. We stayed in the closest thing to a hotel in Vernazza, La Mala, and loved it.
Our room, number 31, had two windows that provided breathtaking views of the sea, cliffs, and castle. At 220 euros a night, it was one of the most expensive rooms in the Cinque Terre, but the service really was exceptional. We called the owner from the train station, he met us there within five minutes and carried our bags up to the hotel for us. It’s a steep climb – 88 steps – up narrow, winding passageways, but we just figured it entitled us to have another gelato. When we settled our bill, he asked us when we were leaving and met us to carry our bags back to the station.
As far as I can tell, La Mala is the only place in Vernazza that offers this service. We ate breakfast next to a couple who were staying in one of Gianni Franzi’s rooms. They said that carrying their bags up the steep and narrow alleys almost killed them. They were relieved to reach their room until they saw the spiral staircase leading to the bedroom. It was too narrow to accommodate their bags.
So don’t visit Vernazza with luggage that you can’t carry several hundred yards straight uphill.
If you’re coming from and returning to La Spezia, you might consider checking your luggage at the train station there and just bringing a few things with you to the Cinque Terre.
Most Vernazza hotels don’t have a conventional reception service. So you’ll need to coordinate with someone to get checked in and out. If you rent a room from Gianni Franzi, you’ll check in with the bartender at Gianni’s restaurant on the water-front piazza.
Internet access here is spotty at best, so don’t worry if you don’t get a response to an email quickly. You’ll hear back eventually.
We’d heard horror stories about cell phone roaming charges, so we bought a cell phone from Cellular Abroad that came with a SIM card for Italy. The phone itself was pretty basic, but it worked great and it was very convenient for reconfirming arrangements, making dinner reservations, calling for taxis, etc. We figured that it would be helpful if we got lost, but thanks to our Garmin GPS, we never did.
It also came in handy when the pet sitter back home needed to ask us a question.
The phone with the card was $119. And the next time we travel internationally, all we’ll need is a SIM card for the country we’re visiting. When we return to Italy, we’ll just swap out the card.
The room at La Mala had a portable cell phone in the room that you could carry with you. The corkscrew and small refrigerator were other nice extras.
Most Cinque Terre hotels don’t have restaurants, so if breakfast is included, you’ll be given a voucher that you can use at one of the cafes in the town.
If you’re planning to stay in one of the five towns, don’t expect all the services and amenities you’d enjoy elsewhere. Come with an open mind and a spirit of adventure. After all, that’s part of the charm.
Cinque Terre update
Last September, we spent a magical couple of days in Vernazza, Italy. Because the trains were on strike, the only way to reach the village was on foot. And since it had rained heavily a few days before, the path from Corniglia was partially closed.
As a result, we had the gem of the Ligurian coast practically to ourselves. We hiked the Monterosso and Corniglia trails, and then returned to Vernazza for a swim and a lazy afternoon on the piazza with the quintessential Italian cocktail – an Aperol spritz.
The next morning, we weren’t terribly disappointed when high seas cancelled our boat trip along the coast. We did a little more hiking, explored the shops lining Vernazza’s main street, and just enjoyed “Il dolce far niente,” the fine art of doing nothing.
A month later, Vernazza, as we knew it, was gone.
On October 25, 2011, torrential rains sent a terrifying river of mud through Vernazza and neighboring Monterosso al Mare, killing four people and burying most of Vernazza under 10 feet of debris.
We cried as we watched the news footage online. Then quickly made a donation to savevernazza.com, a website created to raise funds to help rebuilt the village.
It’s been six months since the catastrophe, and progress can best be described as slow, but steady. It’s business as usual in Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia. And due to its proximity to the town of Levanto, Monterosso is in pretty good shape.
Piazza in Vernazza, Italy.
Sadly, Vernazza still has a way to go before it’s back to normal.
To their credit, the people of Vernazza have done a tremendous job of digging out. And it’s amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish a such a short period of time. Many of the Vernazza hotels and stores have reopened and many more hope to reopen in June.
But upper Vernazza, the delightful waterfront piazza and the main street still bear witness to the tragedy. The little grocery store and wine market haven’t reopened. And the coastal trail from Manrola to Corniglia – the Via dell’ Amore – and to Vernazza remains closed for repairs.
If you’re wondering whether or not to visit the Cinque Terre (http://tripplanningguide.com/exploring-cinque-terre-italy) this year, it depends on your disposition. If you do go, your experience won’t be as picture perfect as in years past. But you’ll have the added satisfaction of knowing that your tourist dollars are helping this precious, UNESCO World Heritage site.