We’ve all be asked at one point or another – in yoga class, during a meditation exercise, or at one of those motivational seminars – to close your eyes and go to your “happy place.” Every time, without fail, I sit there and wonder what that one place actually is for me. Well, you guys, after this trip, I’m pretty sure I found it. Cinque Terre is totally my happy place.
Before leaving for Italy, I’d done tons of research and consulted multiple people about the cities we planned to visit. For Cinque Terre, along with Venice and a few other places, the reviews varied from “it’s the most amazing place in the world!” to “it’s super touristy and overcrowded.” But after experiencing it for myself, I’ve determined the Cinque Terre can, yes, absolutely be touristy and overcrowded, but rightfully so, because it’s also the most amazing place I’ve ever been to in the world.
We rented a room through Airbnb in Manarola, the smallest of all the towns. Our first impressions of the town were that it was quaint, busy, and most of all, steep. In order to reach our room, we first had to trek up a sharp, vertical hill, followed by many, many, so many stairs. As we lugged our bags up the old stone steps, we wondered if this room had been a smart choice. But then, we arrived and opened up the windows to reveal the most unbelievably breathtaking view. The room was a very good choice, no doubt.
We settled in for a moment, then took off to explore the town. Of course, we were starving, so we ran into the first focaccia shop we saw, called Pizzeria La Cambusa. Focaccia is a specialty of this region, so we grabbed a slice with potatoes and rosemary, plus a piece of speck (smoked prosciutto) and radicchio pie. It hit the spot. From there, we ducked out of the touristy area and found some isolated rocks to climb and take in the views.
The Cinque Terre is indeed very crowded, with boatloads (literally- it’s a popular cruise port) of people from all over the world seeking a unique seaside holiday. But when you take the time to look around, you’ll find tons of little nooks, crannies and secret spots to explore. When we were able to get away from the crowds, we found this place to be overwhelmingly enchanting. While poking around the rocks, we noticed a few swimming holes below, and we couldn’t run over fast enough to jump in.
Basking in the Ligurian sea might just be my favorite memory of the entire trip. And considering this was a trip planned entirely around eating, that’s really saying something. The water was warm, super salty, and practically empty. The seas were rather rough during our stay, so it kept the ferries from running (bummer), but also kept most people out of the water (score!).
That night we grabbed a bottle of prosecco and sat on a bench to sip and wait for dinner at Trattoria Il Porticciolo. Our meal was good, though nothing spectacular, and highlights included a swordfish carpaccio, a cod stuffed ravioli and the most tender, perfectly cooked grilled octopus adorned simply with olive oil, lemon and salt. Manarola, we discovered, was an entirely different place at night. All the tour groups and day trippers had virtually disappeared, leaving us with a quiet, almost completely private piece of paradise.
The next morning we hiked down to a little cafe called Aristide to have cappuccinos and incredibly flaky cream-filled pastries that I haven’t stopped dreaming about since. Because the ferries weren’t running, we boarded the jam-packed and claustrophobic train to Monterosso, the largest and northernmost of all five towns. Upon arrival, we grabbed a few delicious pieces of focaccia from a nice bakery across from the beach, called Il Fornaio Di Monterosso. One piece had tomato sauce and pesto and the other had fresh tomatoes and anchovies. Both were pillowy soft, fresh and really flavorful.
After taking some time to walk around and see what this town was all about, we quickly determined it wasn’t really our cup of
tea espresso. Because Monterosso is the largest of all the five towns, and the only one with actual beaches, it’s also the most touristy. It’s full of what we call “shoobie” shops selling little tchotchkes and key chains, along with a few Senior Frogs type “come and get drunk” establishments.
We didn’t spend much time in town and instead chose to hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, the next town over. The hike was quite steep and challenging. It took almost two hours to complete, but it was worth every sore muscle. The views of the ocean, cliffs, gardens, vineyards, and vibrantly colored town below were absolutely awe inspiring. It was one of those “pinch me! this exists! and we’re here!” kind of moments.
When we reached Vernazza, we treated ourselves to lunch at Ristorante Belforte, a restaurant tucked away on a cliff with incredible views of the sea and crashing waves below. We ordered the mixed anchovy platter, seafood salad, and caprese salad. The anchovies were a mix of salted, marinated, and fried, and they we’re all to die for. The caprese salad was made with fresh mozzarella di buffala and juicy ripe tomatoes dressed with buttery Ligurian olive oil, caperberries and olives. The seafood salad had mussels, calamari, prawns and tomatoes, and was dressed so simply with lots of lemon and olive oil. Everything was top notch, and after being drained from our hike, we devoured every last bit.
Before heading back to Manarola, we stopped for a quick gelato at Gelateria Vernazza to take with us on the train. I ordered a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of ricotta with fig, and they were up there with the best gelato I had on our entire trip. When we arrived back home, we ran straight to our favorite swimming hole for another dip.
Before dinner, we took a 2 minute train ride to the next (and furthest) town south, Rio Maggiore, to enjoy an apertivo at a spot called A Pié de Mà. This place was another gem, perched high on a cliff, with insane views of the rocky sea below. We sipped on spritzes and had a nibble while watching a glowing orange and pink sunset settle into the horizon.
We rushed to hop back on the train to Manarola for our dinner reservation at Trattoria Dal Billy, located cliffside just a few steps from our room. I’ll spare you the details of how the train skipped our stop and took us all the way to Monterosso, then we had to train it back to Rio Maggiore, then tried to hike our way back to Manarola, before realizing half way in that we couldn’t do it in the dark, and had to then sprint uphill to the train, and then sprint up another hill to get to our dinner 20 minutes late. Luckily, they still had our table.
The shin splints I suffered the rest of the trip from sprinting in sandals were totally worth it, because this dinner was my favorite meal in all of Cinque Terre, and possibly all of Italy. Maybe it’s because I was absolutely famished after a day of both planned and unplanned hiking, or maybe it’s because the food, the wine, the views and the service was just that good. We ordered the marinated anchovies and bresaola di cavallo for appetizers. Cavallo, in case you’re wondering, translates to horse. Yep! We ate horse. It was salted and dried, sliced super thin and served with a simple salad of arugula, tomatoes, pine nuts and shaved parmesan. It was next level delicious, only to be outdone by a platter of succulent marinated anchovies. So fresh, so lemony, and so simple; they were just incredible.
We ordered two pasta dishes as our entrees, both made with fresh homemade pasta. One was tossed simply with tomatoes, garlic and hot chili flakes, and it was one of the best pastas I had in all of Italy. I found that more often than not, the simpler the dish, the better it was. The other pasta was tossed with little bits of swordfish and black summer truffles, and it was absolutley devine.
For dessert, we ordered panna cotta, a specialty of the region. It was a simple pudding made from sweet cream, thickened with gelatin and served with a fresh berry sauce. It was light and melted in our mouths. The server plopped a bottle of homemade limoncello on the table and told us it was a treat from the house and to drink as much as we wanted. We struck up a fun conversation with a couple from New Zealand at a neighboring table and managed to make our way through about 1/3 of the bottle. After lingering for quite a while, we paid our check, and with overly full bellies took, off for our, thankfully, very short walk home.
That night we drifted to sleep with open windows and the sound of waves crashing on the rocks below. The next day we’d have to leave this piece of paradise and head to Florence for a taste of fascinating ancient history, and the most delicious steak I’ve ever had in my life.