My candid thoughts on visiting the Cinque Terre

For as long as I've known it's existed, I've wanted to visit the Cinque Terre. In fact, on two trips to Europe in the last 12 years, I had a stop in CT planned but we had to cancel them on two separate occasions for various reasons: One of them being it's relatively difficult to get to. Especially on a broke college student's budget. ;)

Finally, after many years of dreaming of that colorful, sleepy fishing village on the Italian Riviera, steps from crystal seas and as much fresh prawns as I could dream of, we arrived in Vernazza, the claimed "jewel" of the Cinque Terre.

Did it live up to my expectations? Meet all the hype I had dreamt of for ten years and then some? Yes... and no.

I actually feel very, very sad for the residents of the Cinque Terre. I have mixed feelings in terms of the surge they have experienced in their economy and perhaps they are loving the extra money they receive from tourism and rooms and restaurant-ing, but I have to really wonder if it's worth it to them. They were, after all, only known 15 years ago for their exports of fish and seafood since they are situated on an ideal fishing sanctuary and whale "retirement center" based on the proximity of the villages to as much fresh seafood as they could ever want. Fishermen from Sicily would come up to the Cinque Terre just for their fish and they exported it all over Italy. That was their simple life, along with growing lemons, producing limoncello, excellent olive oil and wine based on their heat and terracing, and the random tourist who might by chance, happen upon their village while on the way to Genoa or Nice. Certainly not to visit Cinque Terre as a destination.

That has all changed since Rick Steves shouted the Cinque Terre from the rooftops in the 90s.

Now, I am very concerned that the 5 villages are at their maximum capacity for tourists and have no more room if the people keep coming. They have tried to start charging on the trails for the hikes... that has done no good in quelling the amount of people who hike from village to village. With each new train and ferry that arrives in each village, hordes upon hordes of day tripping tour groups from La Spezia, Levanto, cruise ships, Florence, Pisa and more descend upon the Cinque Terre, in search of that "Italian jewel" that Rick Steves talks about.

What they are met with, instead, are swarms of hot, sticky, sweaty people and lots of flags and signposts up in the air, directing them where to go. Oh, and the ever present selfie stick.

I wish I were exaggerating and speaking from a bad-day sort of view. But we stayed in the Cinque Terre for nearly 6 days and visited all 5 villages, including La Spezia, and the only thing that made it worthwhile was the 450-step hike up to our refuge above the sea, L'Eremo Sul Mare (literally: The Hermitage of the Sea) to actually take in the magic that is the Mediterranean, and we ate at Bar La Torre every night, another 199 steps from the village-- not one any eager tourists try to make-- in order to savor the heart of what the Cinque Terre truly was. Once the day trippers left, the city became magical again and we loved every minute of our sunset evenings in Vernazza.

Because of the heat and humidity, my pet peeves quickly escalated as we ascended the steps to our B&B every day where dozens upon dozens of tourists blocked the paths in order to take the "money shot" of Vernazza-- this one:

We were fortunate enough to pass by this view every day to and from our B&B. But when it is 95 degrees out and we've just climbed 250 straight steps and we have to stop and wait and stop and wait for more pictures, selfies, selfie sticks, etc. while we want to keep going, we (I) start to get a little cranky. This happened every day, every time we climbed the path. This also happened during our hikes, in other villages, and at any point that was considered a "view." It was blocked by dozens upon dozens of tourists wanting "that" shot with and especially "that shot" with their selfie sticks. I have more problems than one with selfie sticks... :)

Because of the mounds of tourists clogging the city and the servers trying to turn over table after table as hungry visitors search for a "cute" place for lunch is that the food starts to lack. We never had a "wow" meal in Cinque Terre at any time. The foccacia was terrible (they needed to make it so quickly that it never fully cooked since they had lines of people outside the door) and the waterfront cafes produced their food within minutes of ordering. Our favorite restaurant, Bar La Torre, became our favorite solely because the service was decent, they paced our food and the view was amazing (and it was private and quiet). But it was mediocre food at best.

This may come across as a surly review... but it is a realistic one as well. We had many moments of beauty and appreciation when we were above the cities. The views are worthwhile and our haven was such a necessary retreat which we absolutely adored. We were also so glad that we parked our car in the Vernazza parking lot because the train was always late when we tried to catch it and jammed to the gills with people-- any time of the day. It would have been crazy trying to fit our luggage in there, not to mention that it was hot, crowded and we were tired.

Personally I feel like there are much better Italian Riviera towns out there and I am going to do my best to find them. Positano is already one that I know of which we absolutely loved when we visited there two years ago. Timothy and I were trying to determine how the Cinque Terre can preserve its legacy (and its sanity) and effectively deal with the tourism problem. All I can come up with is charging people to enter the "parks" (which in essence is the villages proper) with a daily pass-- maybe 15 EUR-- to keep the people there who want to be and the people popping in from the cruise port or Florence, not really intent on patronizing the city, out.

So, should you visit the Cinque Terre?

I would say, with hesitation and if you know what you are getting into, yes.

If you like peace and quiet and are athletic (or don't mind climbing 450 stairs each day), stay at L'Eremo Sul Mare. Gorgeous views of the town of Vernazza, amazing hosts, great breakfast, and the most peaceful surroundings we've had in all of Italy.

Eat at Bar La Torre for incredible sunset.

Venture down into town only at night or very early in the morning, before the day-trippers are there.

Buy charcuterie, bread, cheese, etc. to store in the fridge at L'Eremo Sul Mare so you don't have to go into the village for lunch.

Swim in the hidden cove where the locals swim (the owner of L'Eremo will tell you where) instead of in the harbor.

Or, better yet, stay at Hotel Porto Roco on the cliff in Montessoro al Mare and have your own private pool and your own beach chairs on the sea. :)

I am sure that I'll have people who disagree with me... but I just left there this morning so this is all very fresh on my mind. And we lived it every day. :) The villages really need to work on (for their own sake and the sake of tourists staying there) how to solve the crowds upon crowds of tourists in each and every one of their villages or they are going to lose a lot of repeat visitors.

Main walkway in Vernazza

Dining waterfront in Vernazza

From the harbor in Vernazza

Views along our hike to Monterosso al Mare

We found a hidden swimming cove in Vernazza! Blissful 
Walking down to La Torre from our B&B

Monterosso al Mare beach...

Peacefulness on our balcony at L'Eremo sul Mare

Some of the property grounds of L'Eremo sul Mare

More property views of L'Eremo Sul Mare

Fresh lemon trees at L'Eremo sul Mare

Our little haven... L'Eremo sul Mare

Our favorite nightly sunset restaurant, La Torre

Our view every night from La Torre on the hill... worth the sacrifice of lots of steps and braving the crowds in the village below!

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