Italian Vacation: Cinque Terre

When we were planning our trip, I naturally researched the “must sees” in Italy before we went. Most of them had already been on my radar, but Cinque Terre was totally new to me. It’s a series of five small villages right on the Italian Riviera. Picturesque, even if they would be hard to get to (especially traveling by train). Still, there was a train that went straight there from Milan, and from there we could go on to Florence, so it seemed like it would be worth it, even if it might require a bit of trickiness.

First up? A three hour train ride to Monterosso, the northernmost city in Cinque Terre. This was actually a lovely train ride. The tracks go along the coast most of the time after Genoa, so there was lots to look at (and I actually could look at it, since I wasn’t driving.) Like Lake Como, we left for the destination without a real grasp of what we would do when we got there. We knew it was supposed to be beautiful, and we knew we had to be on our train to Florence at 7:30pm, but that’s it. We’d have 8 and a half hours at the place, and we’d have to come up with a plan when we got there.

The first obstacle was one I didn’t actually think of until about a week before, surprisingly. In my head, we’d get to the area and go exploring. I hadn’t remembered the fact that we’d have all our luggage in tow. Going exploring while wheeling carryons everywhere would be much Less Than Fun. Luckily, there’s a store right next to the train station in Cinque Terre that kept our bags for the day for a fee. Money well spent. We dropped the bags off and headed to the beach.

There is swimming available in each of the five cities, but only Monterosso has an actually beach to speak of. Much of the city is lined with a rocky shore. However, it’s also mostly privatized. What this means in practice is that you can either go to the tiny part of the beach that’s public (I’d guess it was about 1/20th of the entire beach), or you can pay to join a beach club for a day. This gets you an umbrella and two beach chairs and a spot on the beach for them to stay. The whole area is set up in advance, and you’re not moving your chairs that much. It’s arranged to pack in as many people as possible. We were with a big group, so we actually bought 8 beach chairs and the umbrellas to go along with them, and found ourselves nestled against the back wall of the beach. That actually wasn’t too bad. It was more private than most of the places, for one thing. Also, the advantage of packing all the chairs together was that the beach itself had much more free space. Many of the people there were more interested in lying in the sun than swimming in the water, so the beach didn’t feel very crowded at all. (I will say that we got there around 11, and our club was sold out soon after. If we’d waited much more, we might have been forced into going to the public beach, with no umbrellas, no chairs, no toilets, no showers, and no changing rooms. The beach club was money well spent.)

In the grand scheme of things, having two swimming days in a row wouldn’t have been as good as having them split up by some more touristy days, but that’s the way the logistics of the trip played out. The beach was once again rocky, not sandy, but it was exactly what you’d picture if someone said “small beach at an ancient town on the Italian Riviera.” The water was crystal clear blue, the sky was just right, and it was a perfect day for swimming.

Not that we only wanted to swim for the whole day. After a few hours of that, we went off in search of lunch. In Monterosso, the beach is on the more “modern” side of town. If you walk south for a bit, you get to an even older section. That’s where the bulk of the restaurants and shops are. We found a pizza place that would take the 11 of us. Tomas got an “American,” which he thought meant sausage and french fries. (You read that right.) In truth, it meant hot dogs and french fries. So he’s now had a hot dog and french fry pizza. I didn’t try it. One of his cousins ordered something he thought was chicken pizza, but it turned out to be ham pizza. (They’d written Schinken on the English menu, which looks like a misspelled attempt at chicken, but is actually a perfectly spelled attempt at the German word for ham.) So yes, the translations could have been better on the menu. But the food was delicious. (Well, maybe not the American.)

After that, we split up. I went with a contingent that headed up into the village as far as we’d be able to go, not really knowing if that would go anywhere at all. There are supposed to be great hiking trails connecting the five cities, but with our tight time schedule, bags, and kids with us, we didn’t think we’d have time for those. I still wanted to see some of the city from above, if possible. (It was at this point in the day that we decided we wouldn’t actually visit the middle three cities. There’s a ferry that goes to each one, but it comes once an hour or so, and going to one would mean at least two hours. That seemed like too tight of a turnaround. I’m glad we didn’t. We took a ferry from Monterosso to Riomaggiore (the southernmost city), and that let us see each of the five cities from the ocean, with no need to get out and walk. Perfect.)

It turned out that hiking up into the city was just what we wanted. Once we were high enough, there were signs for a path that led to an old monastery and graveyard. Cool things to look at, breezes to bring the temperature down, and views that were fantastic. We spent an hour or so doing that, then walked back down to the beach, where the rest of the group had gone right after lunch. We swam for a while longer, then went to grab the last ferry, picking our bags up on the way.

I will say that having bags on that ferry proved more problematic than we’d thought. Once we got off at Riomaggiore, we discovered there are steps. Tons of steep steps up and down and up and down. It wasn’t too bad for me, but for little kids trying to carry suitcases, it was far from ideal. So be aware of that if you ever follow in our footsteps. (The stairs are also narrow. It makes sense. They’re ancient. But it was kind of hairy for a little.)

We had gelato while we waited for our train, and that was that. Overall, a great day, and one I would totally do again. And actually, I’m glad I didn’t have a car for it. I’m not really sure where I would have parked if I’d had one. The towns aren’t set up for that, from everything I could see. Trains were fine, though I imagine the cities are best seen when you take a day trip from a cruise ship. That was definitely happening while we were there.

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