01 Dec Cinque Terre: The perks of low season
The Italian Riviera. It sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? And it can be, I guess. But it’s a place I’ve stayed far away from since moving to Italy. Liguria and I have a bit of a complicated relationship, you see.
As well as being one of the most photogenic areas in the country, this long, thin strip of coastline is my Italian spiritual home. It was during a 6-month stint in Genoa – the regional capital – that I fell properly head-over-heels in love with Italy, after all. But, Genoa aside, I’ve always found the place to be a victim of its own beauty.
The problem is that the stylish Italian Riviera is the world’s worst kept secret. The only people who still seem to think they’re making some kind of discovery when they flock to Portofino and Camogli in droves are the American tourists, who are usually too busy oohing and aahing at all the higgledy-piggledy houses to even notice that they’re not the only ones there. Even in spring and autumn, the whole place is still jam-packed with tourists who think they’re being smart by not going in “holiday season” and then finding millions of other people who’ve had the same bright idea.
Liguria, especially in the summer, is hot, it’s expensive, and it is crawling with visitors, all falling over each other to try to take a photo of the place which doesn’t make it look like there are 10,000 other people there. The “authentic” restaurants around the most popular Riviera destinations serve dishes about as traditional as cheesy garlic bread from Pizza Hut, and if you want to park your car for an hour in Portofino, it’ll set you back about as much as a small home would anywhere else in the Med.
This is not the real Italy.
And yet, it is always full of people, who think they’re tasting “real” food and meeting “real” people and seeing “real” towns. I know it’s snobby, but it’s always just annoyed me a little bit. And so, for the last 5 years, I’ve avoided the region like the plague.
But this year on a cold and boring November morning, I found myself clicking around Google Maps like the travel-obsessed procrastinator that I am (time-wasting technique #1, BTW), and ended up hovering over Cinque Terre, one of Liguria’s most famous and most popular holiday spots and a feature of many a Travel Bucket List. Feast your eyes on some pretty pictures here.
It’s one of a few places in Italy which – like Venice – kind of sounds like hell on earth to me in terms of crowds and prices, but which I’ve always been curious about. Maybe now, in what can officially be classified as low season – with temperatures in northern Italy dipping into single figures and no guarantee of a sunny day – was exactly the right time to go and see what all the fuss was about. So I sent S a quick text, and we decided to go on a little adventure the following weekend.
We booked the cheapest Airbnb that we could find, in the hillside town in the middle of the Cinque Terre area, Corniglia, and got a €20 Regionale train down the coast on Saturday morning.
3 and a half hours and one quite tight connection at Genoa later, we arrived in the grey and drizzly but pleasantly deserted town of Riomaggiore.
The rain let up for long enough to head down to the harbour, breathe in some fresh sea air and check out that postcard view before heading in to the small town to grab a bite to eat. A lot of the shops and restaurants are closed at this time of year, and the ones that stay open are certainly not cheap, so we settled for some focaccia before heading onwards, umbrellas at the ready.
In an ideal world (where it would also have been sunny), we would’ve walked the Via dell’Amore trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola, but we’d done our homework and found out that this, along with the second section (connecting Manarola with Corniglia) has been closed since the devastating floods back in 2012, and is only planned to reopen in 2019 at the earliest. So the local train it was.
Why not make a visit to the Cinque Terre part of your next Italy trip? Check out these Italy itineraries to figure out how!
Manarola is probably the most frequently Instagrammed of the five towns, and it’s easy to see why. A little piece of the Via dell’Amore is open here (probably 200 metres) so you can wander along the cliffside across from the town to see the houses from the opposite side of the marina. We did this in peace, but came across an enormous busload of Chinese tourists on our way back into the village. There must’ve been 200 of them. Even in the off season, this is the risk of the Cinque Terre.
After a quick coffee break in the town, we jumped on the hourly train and headed to the next destination. Incidentally, the trains are great for weekend trips – you don’t really need more than an hour to see these little villages (except when you stop for lunch/dinner) so can plan your day at hourly intervals and see all 5 towns in one day if needs be.
Anyway, our third stop, Corniglia is the only one of the five towns which isn’t positioned directly on the sea. It’s perched on top of a nice little hill, and getting there involves a fairly brutal ascent on foot from the station up what feels like 6 million steps. We arrived at 4ish, and managed a tiny little walk before it got dark (that’d be why it’s low season, then). We then headed to our Airbnb, where we sat on the bed to rest our weary feet and promptly fell fast asleep for 2 hours – but what are rainy winter Saturdays for, anyway?
Dinner was at a restaurant called Cecio – one of only about 3 open in Corniglia that night, thanks to a winning combination of low season and rain. We weren’t expecting anything earth-shattering, but the pesto pasta was nice enough and we did have a fun evening of people watching before it was time to head back to the house to make the happy discovery that we had no idea how the boiler worked and that there was no hot water whatsoever.
Sunday morning, S fixed the boiler and the sun came out (oh Italy, you never let me down!) so we hit the road and started on the walking trail connecting Corniglia with Vernazza. Unlike the first two sections, this one and the following one from Vernazza to Monterosso are still very much open, and this is what the Cinque Terre is all about.
Up the hill we trotted, checking out the sea views along the way. The (currently closed) Riomaggiore-Manarola-Corniglia trails are along the sea, but the other two go higher up into the greenery of the hills, so do feel like you’re on a nice little mountain adventure. The paths are clearly made to suit the majority of tourists, so they’re not difficult, but that’s not to say that your legs don’t ache the day after, because S and I can both confirm that they absolutely do. Also, if it’s rained recently, just mind that you don’t slip – I did, and smashed my DSLR on a rock, breaking the screen in the process. Good one, Emma.
About an hour and a few bajillion steps later, we arrived in Vernazza, where – just for a change – we took some more steps up to the windy top of Castello Doria for a view over the harbour. This castle is a bit frustrating as you arrive, knackered, and then find out you have to pay €1.50 to get in. And you can’t even get a coffee up there (as we’d naively hoped). But anyway, you know I’ll do anything for a view.
A little stroll in the town (the cutest of the 5, in my opinion) and a much needed espresso later, it was onwards to the final stop – Monterosso – again via a lovely little hillside path. This one’s a bit more tricky than the first, with more up and down, and steeper stretches, but it’s still very much doable and has some great views to make all the legwork worthwhile.
Incidentally, by now, the sun was out in full force, and S was down to a tshirt. This is not normal weather for November, but neither of us was complaining. In any case, it’s super doable and we made it to Monterosso still in time for lunch and unscathed (well, apart from my poor camera. Sniff).
Monterosso is my least favourite of the five towns, it’s a bit more “typically touristy” and a bit less picturesque, but is by no means a horrible place to visit. I’m a big fan of seaside resorts off-season and seeing the beach without hundreds of umbrellas was truly a novelty – this place in August is unrecognisable.
We had a wander along the seafront, and squeezed in some pretty yummy slices of greasy deliciousness from Il Frantoio (you’re getting the idea – Cinque Terre on a budget involves a lot of carbs) before catching the train home.
So what’s the verdict? Well, Liguria has won this round, but not outright. The Cinque Terre is one of the prettiest places I’ve been in Italy, that’s for sure. But would I go back there at literally any other time of year?
Not for all the overpriced focaccia in the world.