Before I even made it to Italy, I already had several people tell me I needed to go to Cinque Terre. I had never heard of it and had no idea what to expect. There are some drop-dead gorgeous places in Italy, and Cinque Terre is definitely at the top of the list.
Cinque Terre means five lands and is the national park which includes the small villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare (from south to north). These towns are quintessential of rural Italian culture, and the region is one of the most beautiful in Italy (a country which as a whole is spectacular). All five are fantastic, built right on the cliffs with meter-wide streets carved into the rock. Most of the year you can walk the seaside trail along the cliffs between cities for a small fee.
I was in the region for a full week, working at a Workaway.info host in Sarzana. The family runs the Gommorizzo boat company. What I thought was a boat tour company turned out to be a family business manufacturing boats. The brother and sister now do all the work on a large estate less than 1 km away from the coast, and their mom is also at the house to help with chores and cooking.
The whole property is fantastic. They have a large Italian house which they plan to turn into a B&B (I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished). There is also a long row of apartments where the family, guests and “workawayers” stay. The yard and fields they own are quite large, and there are all kinds of animals, from dogs, roosters, turtles, etc. I helped with the boats a little, but was also helping to clean up the property, such as painting rooms, cutting down trees, cleaning up the large house, etc.
I must say the experience with my host in Italy was the polar opposite of what the host in France was like. Whereas the host in France expected me to paint in my travel clothes, my Italian host provided me with a jumpsuit. In France, the meals were either bad food, leftovers or simply non-existent and I was expected to cook my own meals with hardly any ingredients and no store within 10 km. The mom of my Italian hosts made many of the dishes, and her cooking was just as good as many of the Italian dishes I’ve eaten at good restaurants in Italy. The water was always hot in the shower (half the time in France there was no hot water), the rooms were heated, the hosts would always let me know exactly what was expected of me, etc. I loved the work so much there were days I put in extra hours just because I didn’t want to stop.
But back to Cinque Terre. Halfway through my stay, I met up with Catherine, whom I had met on the ferry ride from Barcelona to Genoa. I met her and her traveling companion one afternoon after my hosts gave me a ride up to La Spezia (a town between Sarzana and Cinque Terre), and from there we took the train to Vernazza.
One thing I must mention about La Spezia was the lunch I had. While walking around the town waiting for Catherine to arrive from Florence, I asked several locals where they would eat. They all gave me the same answer: La Pia Pizzeria. So I tried it out myself. Wonderful. the place has been around for 150 years and makes fresh pizzas from scratch. The staff were very friendly and even offered me samples of other food while I was waiting for my pizza. And the price was great too – only €5 per pizza.
Vernazza was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. The one road in the town was only a couple hundred feet long, and I think it’s a recent development, as the towns were only accessible by boat or train for years. The rest of the “streets” are barely a meter wide in some cases and wind up and down the cliffs like a wonderful child’s maze. It was fun just to get lost wandering around the village, seeing the rustic way of life.
The harbor and views were spectacular, and they only got better at night. It’s true that it was a fishing village for years, but it looks like it was simply built for visitors to see its beauty. Restaurants have rooftop terraces to eat on or patios carved directly into the cliff face. And from the cliff, you have an amazing view of Monterosso, the next town up, or the cliffs to the south.
Vernazza was also special for the dinner we ate there. It was unquestionably the best meal I’ve had in Italy so far, and one of the best meals in all my travels (comparable to the Mac Marrakesh lamb burger in Ghent). We found a family-run pizzeria right by the water and purchased a pepperoni, sausage and mushroom pizza, bolognese gnocchi and pesto lasagna to share. The gnocchi was great, the pizza was unbelievable, but the lasagna was something else. In fact, it was as good that we ordered another serving of it. Not many times that’s happened in my life, if ever.
Ever so satiated with dinner, we wandered up the cliff to visit the castle. Unfortunately we missed its open hours by just a few minutes. (If you plan to go there, make sure you check out the times it is open.) Although we later found out that there wasn’t much to the castle, just a terrace we were actually able to see by walking up higher on the cliff. And that was even better since the shots we got from there were some of the best in all my travels. It was simply magical, and Catherine agreed it was the best part of her own trip throughout several cities in Italy.
Finally we went back to Sarzana, where my hosts were kind enough to rent out one of their spare rooms to my friends. The next day they went on to Rome, and a couple days later I finished my stay there and headed for Pisa.
Once again, not a long visit, but definitely one of the best. I think it’s for Cinque Terre that I say, while Ghent is still my favorite city I have visited in my travels so far, Italy is my favorite country. Between the food, the spectacular countryside, the history and the great culture, it is definitely a wonderful area. There are some drawbacks, but none of them existed in Cinque Terre.
And if you ever make it there, definitely plan to walk the trail between the villages, preferably spread out over several days, which I plan to do myself some time in the future. You can also read this great article on 20 tips for a Cinque Terre trip.