By WALLACE IMMEN
I’ve just had an overdose of quaint.
On an all-day excursion from Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas in Italy, my tour to the picturesque Cinque Terre region was a day-long feast of views of clusters of tiny, almost too perfect houses, in freshly painted hues of banana, bubble gum, mint, mocha and strawberry and markets full of fruit.
Avid travellers are excused if they hadn’t heard about these villages on Italy’s west coast between Genoa and La Spezia until recently. For most of their history, these small outports were little known and all but inaccessible exceept by boat or train. Cinque Terre means “Five Lands” in Italian, but there is precious little land to be found. The main features are precariously sheer cliffs and the azure sea.
Fishing and grape growing were the traditional local trades. As a generation of young people increasingly chose to move away for opportunities in bigger cities, the ancient villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore lingered and their terraced vineyards, which are so steep you need a chair lift to get to them, were left to be tended by a dwindling population of senior citizens.
Ironically, because the area remained virtually unchanged for so long, people started to realize the towns were a hidden historic treasure, of an earlier time. A decade ago, the five villages and their spectacular coastline were declared Cinque Terre National Park, which soon after became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Presto! The area went from an asterisk to a must-see in travel guides, attracting droves of hikers and connoisseurs of romantic architecture as well as investors to restore the buildings as inns and summer homes and restore the vineyards. And what a difference a good coat of well chosen paint can make. These towns now gleam in a palette of traditional Mediterranean ochres, pinks and greens.
Fortunately, my tour required only relatively easy walking along paved streets in the shore-side towns and not the cliff-side hiking trails, which can be treacherous and strenuous. We started in Manarola and strolled to Riomaggiore on a walkway that’s called Via dell’Amore, the cliffside path that’s a favourite of lovers, who find the exceptional sea view romantic. In fairness, the view is less terrific if you’re looking toward the cliff, which is covered by cement walls to prevent landslides and liberally marked with graffiti.
The towns, fortunately, are pristinely clean and free of traffic with winding streets and squares filled with restaurants and intriguing shops. There are lots of boats around the shoreline, but they seem more for show and sightseeing than fishing these days.
Ferries take visitors between the towns. When we arrived at Vernazza with its picture-postcard harbor filled with tiny row boats, the guide said “enjoy your lunch and meet me in an hour and a half.”
Lunches are typically not included on Cinque Terre group tours because there are no restaurants big enough for banquet rooms. That’s actually a plus, because it gives you a chance to sample the local ambience and foods rather than the usual pasta and Parmigiana on banquet tables that’s the staple of lunch for Italian tour groups.
I chose the most scenic on Vernazza’s harbor, Ristorante Il Gambero Rosso. The closer you are to the edge of the harbor the more expensive the food will be. But I didn’t find the $40 a person — including a quality local wine — to be outrageous considering the location and the meal of impeccably fresh salad made of crisp locally grown greens and filets of triglia, a red mullet that is a local specialty in a tomato sauce.
Anywhere in Italy, I always order the chef’s selection of the day, which is made with whatever is the freshest in the market that day. And I’ve yet to be disappointed.
The meal and setting were exquisite and the people watching was amazing. Sitting at the table next to us was someone who obviously had a lot of authority in the village. He wore a crisp white linen suit and dark glasses and several gold rings on his fingers. A wealthy businessman perhaps?
All the waiters and the owner — a unique character with a white beard and who sported a knit cap — came by regularly to pay him compliments and ask if there was anything else he needed. That made for great service for my wife, Lisa ,and me with so many waiters eager to stroll near his table and pay him their respect.
Back on Voyager of the Seas I decided: Thank heaven for tourism.
Even though these towns may become extremely busy with the daily influxes of tourists in the summer months, they might otherwise have become impoverished ghosts had it not been for the magic of paint and romantics who love quaint as only Italy can do it.
Royal Caribbean has a new program to arrange small group private tours such as this for families and small groups at prices that are competitive with tour operators who operate from the ports in the Mediterranean.