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Cinque Terre, Italy

On our first morning in Italy, waking up to those colorful buildings teetering cliffside literally took our breath away.

Cinque Terre definitely lives up to its postcard-worthy image. Vernazza, our home base, is one of five picturesque, car-free coastal villages that make up Cinque Terre (“Five Lands.”) Martina, our guesthouse owner, was a typically friendly Italian. She suggested we grab coffee at Burgas, a local café by day, bar by night.

Making our way to the port area, we noticed older men and women sitting on benches in a morning gossip ritual. Anyone who wasn’t in Burgas was here, adding to the conversation. Surprisingly, we recognized some people from our rain-soaked arrival the night before, proving the town’s tiny size. A quick glance and welcoming smile indicated the Vernazza residents recognized us too.

We bellied up to the bar and enjoyed a morning cappuccino, proudly accepting our new role as temporary locals.

The owner of Burgas is a handsome, rugged man in his late thirties named Giuliano. When he found out we were from the states, he mentioned his wife, Michelle, is American as well. We’d later meet her, an equally attractive, blonde San Franciscan, as well as their newborn baby, Sophia. Did this single American woman’s trip to Italy turned into an impromptu amorous weekend? We didn’t ask, but couldn’t help but wonder… What a change for a big city American to be living in tiny Vernazza. The town’s population is less than 1,000. Like most locals, Giuliano and Michelle also run a bed and breakfast, Camere Giuliano Basso. We imagine there are drawbacks to living in a small, isolated town, but to us, their life seemed straight out of a fairytale.

Time slows down in Cinque Terre and our initial two days turned into several.

Each morning on our way to Burgas, Martina would ask, “Are you leaving today?” And we’d reply, “Maybe one more day…”

It was off season and with no other reservations on the books, Martina happily obliged our lingering. We found out there’s actually a specific term for idly wandering here. Vita Pigra di Vernazza means “the lazy life of Vernazza.” That has a nice ring to it. Our guidebook stated that in summer, the atmosphere changes drastically. Tourists descend on Cinque Terre in droves, overwhelming the towns and taking over the few local bars and restaurants. But in January, Cinque Terre was all ours. Even the popular hiking trails between the towns were deserted.

For hours, we trekked through winding hills and terraced vineyards. We explored hidden coves, natural bridges and babbling brooks. Not another tourist in sight.

On our walk between Vernazza and Monterossa, we stumbled on a small group of stray cats at a picturesque overlook. Clearly well fed by the locals, we (thankfully) didn’t have to share our freshly-baked, warm focaccia bread from the local panificio. This focaccia was so good, it (literally) brought tears to our eyes. Arriving in Monterossa, the southern most town, we strolled cobblestone streets, popping into different local shops including Cantina du Sciacchetrà. Here, we met Lucho, a colorful Italian man who insisted on giving us generous free tastings of wine, champagne, even his homemade pesto dipping sauce. We guessed Lucho hadn’t seen many tourists, if any, that day. With his hand over his heart, he launched into some heavy conversation:

“I do not believe in-ah… God. For why would He create the little children with-ah… cancer? No God would-ah do that. But I do believe in-ah… people. I love all-ah people… everyone-ah.”

Lucho shook our hands vigorously. As we said goodbye, he leaned in and gave us each a big smooch on the cheek. Looking at Brian, he exclaimed with a smile, “I kiss you… not because I am-ah gay. You, like son-ah. Me, like father. Capisci?”

With each town, we became more enchanted with this little enclave of the world. Maybe one more day…

In lieu of hiking, one day, we took the local train, traveling north past Vernazza to reach Riomaggiore. As the largest of the five towns, Riomaggiore is considered the unofficial headquarters of Cinque Terre. After exploring the harbor and wandering the backstreets, we stopped for lunch at a family-run pizzeria. We bought an enormous, freshly made Margherita pizza for only 4€. The owner seemed slightly annoyed that Americans had the gall to share his “personal” size pizza.

“This-ah pizza is only for one-ah person!” he pleaded, trying to convince us that eight slices was simply not enough for two people. “I have another pizza – a big-ah, bett-ah pizza for you both.”

Politely declining the supersized version, we took our “small” pizza to go, found a perfect spot overlooking the water and promptly stuffed ourselves.

The last town we visited was Corniglia, the smallest, most remote village in Cinque Terre, population less than 200. 

Perched atop a 100m high ridge, we climbed the Scalinata Lardarina, a long brick flight of almost 400 steps to reach Corniglia. Once there, we discovered many shops in the village were closed due to off season. Luckily, Enoteca Pirun was open. Mario, the fun-loving shop owner, beckoned us to come in and try out the “pirun,” a strange-looking drinking vessel that aerates wine to enhance the flavor.

The pirun is a ritual that involves a willing participant (i.e. Brian) to don a bib and attempt to accurately gauge the distance of the wine vessel from one’s mouth. While holding the pirun, the drinker tilts their head back, opens their mouth like a baby bird, and hopes the stream of wine will somehow make it into their mouth (instead of all over their face.) Oh, the entertainment.

Just when we thought Cinque Terre couldn’t get more interesting, we discovered the Manarola Vineyard Walk.

This beautiful cliffside trail took us through endless rows of terraced vineyards and offered stunning views of the Mediterranean. The air is filled with an intoxicating mix of aromas. Fresh rosemary. Fragrant lemon groves. And the salty sea below.

An elderly man, looking quite dapper in his Italian cap, scarf and walking cane, slowly rounded the corner of the dirt path. His eyes lit up when he saw us. He stopped to talk (in Italian of course.) Trying to understand one another, we made some gestures and laughed. Somehow, we figured out he was 91 years old. Every day, he walks the Manarola Vineyard Walk. We immediately thought we discovered the secret to this community’s youthful spirit. Wine. Walking. And Mediterranean vistas.

Along the path, we noticed hundreds of large wooden characters dotting the terraced hillside. The artwork was first constructed in 1961 by local resident, Mario Andreoli. Every Christmas, the characters light up with the help of 15,000 lights.

Amazing that tiny Cinque Terre hosts the world’s largest nativity scene.

Further on, we came across a beautiful oceanfront cemetery. Memorials made of Carrara marble feature faded photographs of the deceased. It feels incredibly intimate and personal. We thought about each tomb holding what was once a living, breathing human being. A mother or husband. A daughter or brother. Someone who enjoyed cooking, reading or fishing. Someone who loved cats or spending time in their garden. Perhaps someone like that old man, who had led a long, happy life.

At Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Trail), we watched an incredible sunset over the water. It was one of those sunsets where the sky changes into impossible colors in the course of an hour. Hot pink. Neon yellow. Fiery orange. We wondered, could two more Americans make their home here in Cinque Terre? Or maybe one more day…

Lodging: Rooms di Martina Callo  |  Food: Il Baretto, Burgas, Cantina du Sciacchetrà, Aristide Ristorante | Activities: Scalinata Lardarina, Enoteca Pirun, Manarola Vineyard Walk, Via dell’Amore

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