Cinque Terre: How Sweet of This Earth

Much has been said about the towns that make up Cinque Terre. Yet, their stories are pulled apart and seamed together over and over again to bring forward the Italian allure that makes this coastal place loved.

Beyond the promenade is the sea. The water glistens, hurting my eyes. It is unapologetically blue. I squint at the horizon and look towards a cloudless sky. I carry my weight to the shore, the sound of a Tren Italia coach in the background, its movement sending vibrations that shake the edge of the land.

All of a sudden, an Italian song breaks out behind me. A group of middle-aged people—five men and a woman—gather at the bottom of a staircase, their voices thundering around the structure and spilling out into the shore. The piece reaches a crescendo. The acoustics are perfect. My heart flutters.

Coming from Milan, I arrive in Cinque Terre with a half-apology: The balmy morning brings the best and worst of the crowds to the five villages. Everywhere else, it looks like summer, but it is not. So scusi, I am sorry I did not come sooner.

The Cinque Terre I see is surely a crowded one. In the daylight, cameras click away, leading curious observers like myself to bustling bakeries and gelato shops by tracing the remnants of fresh bread or the scent of calamari.

I have a story of Cinque Terre that I keep. Imagine this: Spritz cocktails flow like water, and curious souls explore the ascending trails. At the end of the day, once the visitor takes the last of selfies and slurps the final bit of pasta, a hush descends upon the streets of Cinque Terre.

A man walks up the hill, passing by the lime ridges. The rubbish is carefully set out for his collection. The once-vibrant atmosphere fades away. The lively chatter subsides, leaving the boats resting silently on calm waters. Perched on the window ledge, the sole companion is a brown dog roaming the streets in search of affection.

Settling down, the man resigns himself to savoring the leftover strands of tagliatelle. This moment, a quiet grace. In this particular instant, he wonders: how sweet can this earth truly be?  

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A tranquil view of the turquoise waters that guard the five villages of Cinque Terre.

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The harbor of Vernazza is crowded with visitors wanting to catch the sea.

A story of five towns

In its purest form, Cinque Terre is a constellation of colorful villages on the stunning Ligurian coast of northwestern Italy. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore make up this coastal destination, where centuries-old architecture and vibrant buildings cling to steep hillsides.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Cinque Terre is a destination made of trails, terraced vineyards, and clear waters, providing a glimpse into a lush life by the sea. Whether admiring sunsets, savoring fresh seafood, or wandering the charming footpaths that link the villages, Cinque Terre showcases that the earth is best described as sweet.

In a breeze, the story of the five towns goes something like this:

From the east, Riomaggiore is the first among five and holds an impressive allure. The seat of local administration, it boasts elevated vantage points that stand proudly, overlooking a lively expanse of water that ebbs and flows on the shore, where beachgoers spend time out in the sun.

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Three images: Pastel-colored buildings define the architecture of Cinque Terre. The colorful houses and terraced hillsides offer an alternative vista from the clear waters of the Ligurian sea.

The second village is Manarola, renowned for its iconic scene featuring pastel-colored homes that cascade towards the blue waters below. The narrow pathways wind through smaller alleyways, leading to vantage points that offer panoramic views of the sea. At the heart of Manarola lies its harbor, where fishing boats gently sway in the waters that have sustained generations. The rugged cliffs that encircle the city create an unspoiled bay, where people seek refuge in the environment.

In contrast to its siblings, Corniglia perches high above the sea, offering sweeping vistas of the Ligurian landscape. Visitors ascend a picturesque staircase, where Corniglia's allure resides in its serene atmosphere and unspoiled authenticity. The town's narrow streets, adorned with charming homes and enchanting squares, exude a timeless charm that transports one to a much simpler time. Absence of bustling crowds enhances the sense of tranquility, allowing travelers to savor the essence of this coastal retreat.

Vernazza gracefully meanders down a narrow path from the station. Upon arrival, the bay welcomes everyone with the sight of leisurely swaying boats and a charming square that invites a relaxed bar crawl from one corner to another. The influence of the Genovese on the town's development is reflected in its architecture. The distinct characteristics of the houses, including tall and narrow facades, terra cotta rooftops, and vibrant exterior walls, bear witness to the significant impact of Genovese charm.

On the other end, Monterosso al Mare emerges. It competes with a sprawling beach of sand and rocks, a distinctive feature that sets it apart from the rest. Among its notable cultural attractions is the Fegina Cultural Centre, which plays host to numerous events and exhibitions year-round. Goers immerse themselves in art galleries, musical performances, theatrical productions, and literary events held at this vibrant venue. 

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A cup of authentic artisan gelato to refresh one's taste buds by the sea
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People lining up at one of the busier gelaterias in Cinque Terre. 
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A cone of calamari with a slice of lemon to sample the seafood. 
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One will never run out of seafood options in Cinque Terre as they are freshly caught and prepared for all.

Five towns, once place

As a visitor, I experience the five towns of Cinque Terre as one. It is easy to lose my sense of direction in the unpredictable movement of the crowds, especially those who wait for the next train that will take them to the next village.

Truly, this famed coastal area is written in the most basic of formations: five towns, one sea, a hundred pastel-colored houses, and a thousand visitors. In more elemental, less fleeting terms: move, swim, live, and spend.

Arriving at a rock formation, I argue that the best views of Cinque Terre are seen from higher grounds: from the edge of a cliff, over a cobblestone bridge, an abandoned spot adjacent to the harbor, and a seafood restaurant on top of a hill, rising to the ridges, overlooking the Ligurian Sea.

I spend an entire day ascending the landscape, marveling at the myriad of houses that line up the hills. I see lush vineyards clinging to the terraced hillsides. Quaint cafes are tucked away in secluded corners. Blooming bougainvillea cascades over stone walls.

The flow of visitors snakes through the narrow cobblestone streets, the vibrant hues of the buildings forming a stark contrast to the azure sky. The air is filled with such character, the waves gently crashing against the rugged cliffs, mingling with the cheerful chatter of locals and fellow travelers.

As I cross a bridge going to a harbor in Manarola, I see an Italian woman hanging up clothes by her window. A Caucasian man, carrying a heavy mirrorless camera, asks her if he could take a photo of her.

And with a smile and a nod, she rests her left arm on the window stool, and her right palm cups her chin. She tilts her head to the left. The camera clicks.

“Grazie, signora,” the man says. The woman smiles back.  

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Inside one of the pizzerias in Cinque Terre to feed one's soul after a long day

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Quaint and boutique stores such as Tutti Fritti are abundant in Cinque Terre, offering people a slice of culinary life by the sea. 

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Restaurants and shops line up the streets of Cinque Terre, ready to welcome visitors.

How sweet of this earth

Exploring the coastal villages of Cinque Terre is a sensory delight for any traveler, and I can say the gastronomic experience is a standout feature. The culinary experience in Cinque Terre satisfies the palate and leaves one with a lingering appreciation for the passion that goes into crafting these Italian icons in one of the most beautiful corners of the world.

Strolling along the waterfront promenades, I capture the scent of the sea and the aroma of sizzling calamari from seaside eateries. The crispy golden rings, served with a squeeze of lemon, offer a perfect balance of tenderness and crunch.

Away from the harbor, the gelato shops of Cinque Terre are haunted by long lines of customers wanting a creamy indulgence. They sample a myriad of flavors, from traditional stracciatella to unique regional specialties like lemon basil and pistachio.

Surely, no culinary delight in Italy is complete without savoring a slice of authentic pizza. The local pizzerias in Cinque Terre offer a delightful combination of thin, crispy crusts and fresh, locally sourced toppings.

Amidst the bustling crowds, my focus narrows to a singular image—a small plastic cup cradling a clamshell discovered in the tidal shallows. It seems to be the perfect homage against the backdrop of the harbor, where boats glisten like ghostly apparitions. Each element of this coastal haven beckons with its narrative, inviting me to write home about this fleeting encounter with this land’s end.

The day is about to end and it is time to return to the city. I can only fathom what Cinque Terre must be like in the dark. At night, it is rumored to slip into a peaceful slumber. The crowds disperse somewhere. The Indian passerby speaks in a low tone that might as well be reverence. The makeshift choir at the bottom of the staircase is no more. Similarly, when winter night descends upon the region, it might enter a perilous state of dormancy.

With a gelato in my hand, I am perched on a cliffside terrace, overlooking the colorful houses. I take the last few scoops of it and anticipate the coming of night. Somehow, amidst the bitter cold near the ridges, my body heats up, and my heart flutters once more at the edge of the sea. This moment, a quiet grace once more.

Oh, sweet fever. Oh, sweet thing.  

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