I'm not sure how to describe Cinque Terre without being nauseatingly emphatic for the entirety of the post, but here goes...
Two years ago when I had just moved to Dublin to be with my boyfriend/soon to be fiance (I hoped), I held lofty dreams of visiting Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. True to its name, which is Italian for "five lands", Cinque Terre is comprised of five seaside towns connected by walking trail, train, and ferry. The popular destination was immortalized by travel writer Rick Steves in his eponymous travel guides and its banks have been flooded with eager visitors ever since. So, as this was neither a wholly original idea nor a viable contender for a feature on Parts Unknown, I was wary. However, as I'm wont to do, I threw caution to the wind and declared that he and I would have to add ourselves to this list. Cinque Terre was calling me.
Not afraid of a little online research, I combed the internet and determined the best months to visit were April (except Easter weekend), May, September, and October. These months would ensure good weather with, relatively, minimal crowds. So I pulled the trigger and booked five nights in Riomaggiore in early September.
Ciao Bella B&B, Riomaggiore
Airbnb had become an increasingly popular and economical choice, so I found a charming B&B called Ciao Bella bolstered by flawless ratings. Owned by a quirky Italian named Stefano, Ciao Bella was affordable and located a few steps up from the main stretch of restaurants. Despite finding Stefano's freaky, and somehow endearing, hairless cat in our room one morning (he lived with Stefano in one of the rooms down the hall), our stay was a welcome introduction to the Airbnb world.
Take some seafood related chances:
The seafood here is as fresh as it's ever going to get. Be adventurous with it. You will find seafood pasta (spaghetti/linguine/fettuccini al fruitti di mare) at pretty much every restaurant in all five towns. The pasta itself is sometimes infused with squid ink, creating a jet black bed for the shrimp, mussels, clams, and squid that comprise the "fruitti di mare" component of the dish. Try it! You won't regret it.
SPaghetti ai frutti di mare
One night we spent our sunset happy hour looking out over the sun-drenched harbour consuming fresh, marinated octopus bought from the small local market up the street. Neither of us had ever tasted octopus before, let alone fresh, uncooked octopus. One of us loved it, the other ate it and decided it wasn't his thing. I have to applaud him for trying. We washed that down with a 3 euro bottle of local white wine then headed up the main street to dinner. It's small pockets of time like this that resonate with me the most. Moments that make the word local reverberate through each part of what I'm consuming and viewing. Pure bliss.
Calamari Cone at Il Pescato Cucinato
If you prefer a little deep-fried satisfaction with your seafood, make sure to seek out Il Pescato Cucinato in Riomaggiore which offers nothing but fried seafood in paper cones. This helpful New York Times article, The Cinque Terre on a Budget, had me salivating over a picture of their delectable morsels so I made sure to pay a visit on our last day there. The calamari cone was sensational. The breading tasted crisp and light, and gave way to tender cylinders of calamari. The accompanying lemon wedge provided a punch of acidity that I have become addicted to when eating any sort of seafood. It's a must try if you find yourself in Riomaggiore.
Get physical (then eat some pasta):
You can rent kayaks from the harbour in Riomaggiore and Vernazza, but if this isn't your thing, consider a hike between towns.
Stunning Views of the cinque terre coastline
Hiking the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza on day two of our trip was the perfect way to avoid crowds of people funneling on and off the interconnecting trains. The most popular times for train travel seemed to be between 10 and 4, so we woke up early-ish around 9 and caught the train from Riomagiorre to Monterosso. The hike lasts a couple of hours, but affords you stunning views of grapevine laden hills and the coastline below them. Plus, you'll feel revived and ready to take on that liter of cold white wine (€8) when you make it to your destination.
Lunch at Gambero Rosso in vernazza
Vernazza's main square faces the harbour, but like all lunch time spots it tends to fill up pretty quickly. Take a quick dip in the sea until the lunch crowd dissipates, then grab a table at any number of seaside spots like Gianni Franzi, Belforte, or Ristorante Gambero Rosso, where we ate. Enjoy your wine and stay awhile.
Give yourself enough time, and embrace the unkown:
We (let's be honest, I) decided to stay in Riomaggiore for 3 and a half days, four nights total. I would recommend 3 full days, if not 4, as it will give you enough time to explore each town without feeling rushed throughout the day. Even after giving ourselves plenty of time...I'm embarrassed to say...we did not make it to all five towns. Corniglia eludes us to this day.
I think the most important thing I've learned while traveling is to plan about 50 percent of the trip, and leave the rest up to chance. My favorite memories are ones that involved a little bit of luck.
We spent the first day of our trip sunbathing, drinking birra moretti, and swimming in the clear waters of Monterosso's expansive beach. This part was planned - the next part was not.
We left our reclining beach chairs (you rent them for 20 euro a day) just long enough to get some food. The streets of Monterosso are bursting with eateries and pizza joints so it felt a bit overwhelming, but we settled on a pizza place that had a couple of outdoor seats. It was pretty tasty, but not the highlight of the day. We continued into the town and wandered around until we came to a little piazza with a shop that had outdoor seating and offered drinks and small bites. In the mood for an afternoon tipple, we ordered some olives and fresh bread, and let the nice shop owner talk us into getting a couple limoncinos. We sat and watched the light make its slow descent past shops and apartment buildings drinking our fresh limoncino while the shop owner boasted about his homemade drink that you can find "nowhere else in the world". His gregarious nature was infectious, and the limoncino was pretty damn good.
This is why I travel. There are places and restaurants I visit that I can recite the names of, and I will happily tell others about. But this place was not one of them. I don't remember the street name, the shop name, or the name of the man that sold us our "special reserve" limoncino. I don't have any pictures from this part of the day. But I do remember spending this hour feeling pure elation. That feeling, I think, is only achievable when open-mindedness and luck combine. So if you take nothing else from this (very lengthy) post, please leave pockets of time that haven't been researched or tainted by social media. I promise, it'll be worth it.