Top 5 of Italy? Cinque Terre, say locals

Chicago Tribune

What looks to be another home at 84 Via Santa Antonio is, in fact, a church. It is a modest place of worship, the size of a small living room. There is a marble altar, checkerboard floors, two chandeliers, an organ, 16 wooden chairs and four more in the cramped balcony. In the middle of this space stands a row of candles, some lighted and some not, with a coin box asking for donations. I am compelled to insert some change and pray. I ask for safe travels (and a favorable exchange rate).

You won’t find this church in any guidebook. You stumble upon it after getting lost in a tangle of alleys as confusing to navigate as stairs in an M.C. Escher painting.

Stumbling upon things is the best way to explore Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kway TEHR-reh), the “five lands” perched upon a stretch of lush, terraced hills on Italy’s western coastline halfway between Genoa and Pisa. It is a place of unrivaled beauty, a national park, a United Nations World Heritage Site.

On the southbound train that brought me from Genoa for a four-day visit in April, the shimmering Ligurian Sea was on the right while the five towns — the “lands” of Cinque Terre — appeared one after another on the left as pastel jumbles amid rolling slopes of green: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore, each punctuated by the railroad tunnels in between.

I spent the first two days in Riomaggiore, then the next two in Vernazza. But you can base yourself anywhere and move between them as you wish by train, boat or hiking trails; only seven miles separate the five villages. You just can’t drive beyond Monterosso.

Roads as we know them don’t exist here, and even the few residents with vehicles have to park their cars and motorbikes behind gates that separate the villages from the outside world. There aren’t many museums here, either, but why should there be? The five villages are living museums of the Italian essence.

No matter which village you’re in, you’ll walk the narrow pedestrian ways among apartments, trattorias and olive-oil purveyors that could be no place else. Nearly all the buildings stand five stories tall, with green wooden shutters and worn pastel facades of pink, yellow, purple and orange. Time has faded the paint, leaving a rustic warmness and silence.

No one is around, no birds or airplanes above, no white noise, no Vespa scooters with their ubiquitous rumble. It is a moment to be still and absorb.

Strolling down the passages of Vernazza one morning, I recall an Italian phrase: “Il dolce far niente.” The sweetness of doing nothing.

I walk and watch as women hold conversations four floors apart. Three elderly men sit on a bench — talking, laughing, people watching. Linens dry in the Mediterranean breeze, a few cats stray down the Via Roma. Every 15 minutes, the bells at the 700-year-old Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia break the quiet.

The big news this morning is a wayward duck that flew into the center of town and waddled into a clothing store. Minutes later, I see the owner walk out with the duck cradled in her arms. The sweetness of nothing continued.

Yet on this April day, everyone knows what’s coming: summer — and the hordes of tourists. Last year, more than 2 million people visited this area that only 4,500 locals call home.

Cinque Terre has become both the victim and beneficiary of one man, Rick Steves, who did for these towns what Ernest Hemingway did for Pamplona.

Steves is the genteel, wildly successful travel guide writer credited with introducing Cinque Terre to American tourists in 1980 in his book “Europe Through the Back Door.” Twenty-five years ago, there were no more than a handful of restaurants and lodging options here. The towns’ industry was wine, with vineyards producing a strong dessert wine called sciacchetra.

By the early 1990s, non-Italian tourists, especially Germans and Americans, were arriving in Cinque Terre in droves. Monterosso received the first wave. With its sandy beach, intimate guest rooms and access from the Autostrade, it feels closest to a resort.

And so, the economic engine changed from agriculture to tourism. The younger generation, who would have tended the vineyards, now runs Internet cafes by the harbor. Many older residents sold their homes and retired into the hills. Today, roughly 40% of the housing in Cinque Terre is hotels, guest rooms and vacation homes.

The Rick Steves-ification of Cinque Terre produced two schools of thought: One laments a fragile cultural bubble burst by outsiders; the other praises the godsend of money that maintains the parks, restores hilltop terraces for agriculture and gives everyone a comfortable standard of living. The latter point of view is far more common than the former.

On another morning, still jet-lagged, I stumble into Il Pirata, a Sicilian pastry shop at the top of Vernazza. Twin brothers Massimo and Gianluca Cutropia serve me a croissant that’s 30 seconds out of the oven, half with ricotta, the other half with Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread. Massimo juices blood oranges into a glass. I eat ravenously and notice a picture on the window of a smiling Rick Steves.

“You know what I do every morning? First I kiss my wife. Then I kiss Rick Steves,” Massimo says, pointing to the photo. Ninety-nine percent of the travel books he sees, he says, are Steves’ iconic blue-covered guides, clutched by white-knuckled Americans.

You can see them rolling their luggage into the Blue Marlin Bar, the watering hole in Vernazza where Americans seem to congregate. Young, hip rock music by bands like Radiohead and Gorillaz plays from the speakers. The staff speaks impeccable English. What could be more appealing for us Yanks?

“When the train comes in, it’s like an avalanche,” says 23-year-old bartender Stefano Cato, who hands me a plate of the town specialty, acciughe — fresh-caught anchovies with lemon juice and olive oil. “But for my generation, the tourism is a good thing.”

Later, I call Steves for his thoughts about his effect on the region. “I’m the hired hand of my readers. I’m not supposed to find great places and keep them secret,” Steves tells me by phone from his Seattle office.

“Every year I go [to Cinque Terre], I visit it nervously. I’m wondering if the crowd is overwhelming the place. But every time I go, the locals are thrilled to see me, the tourists are having a blast, and everybody seems to be happy.”

One thing seems for sure. However many visitors crowd these narrow streets, Starbucks and McDonald’s will not be coming to Cinque Terre. When McDonald’s opened a restaurant last year in the nearby port city of La Spezia, there was much resistance. In Cinque Terre, there would be a revolt.

Next spring, progress will arrive in the form of a cable car taking visitors from Riomaggiore to the hill towns above. The way to alleviate overcrowding, a national park spokesman told me one day, is to take visitors to the Cinque Terre beyond the picturesque waterfront.

So on a misty and overcast Sunday, my last full day in Cinque Terre, I head into the hills.

Hiking trails are among Cinque Terre’s main attractions. Most known to visitors is trail No. 2, a scenic route that stretches through all five towns with gasp-inducing sea views. Earlier, I’d walked two segments — a precipitous two-hour portion from Monterosso to Vernazza and an easier 20-minute paved stretch from Manarola to Riomaggiore known as Via dell’Amore (the road of love). It was altogether challenging and relaxing, rugged and steady.

This time, I take a friend’s suggestion to hike trail No. 8, unknown to most visitors, which begins in Vernazza and leads several miles up.

The climb, steep but smooth, passes a lonely cemetery (“They’ve got the best view in town,” a local tells me). Vernazza soon becomes a colorful speck below — from up here, the gorgeous ramshackle towns look like collections of colorful wooden blocks about to tumble into the sea.

A mile up, the tiny towns on the hill emerge through the haze as if they were from another time. I come upon a church 1,150 feet above sea level — Santuario della Madonna di Reggio — that looks like something from a children’s fable. It is peach and pink, with black and white horizontal stripes rising up the clock tower. Not a person is in sight.

I walk behind the church, find a bench near the bluff and stare into the sea. I look left, at the clusters of pastel buildings speckling the hills.

Be still, I tell myself, as I walk on.

Sometimes, the destination is unknown until you’ve arrived. I know this is it. Because save the crunch underneath my shoes, all I hear is silence.