Sunday, July 25, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): The truth about the Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are usually described as isolated fishing villages on the Italian Riviera, clinging to steep cliffs and left behind by time. That's a half-truth. They are isolated. The villages (from south to north, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) do cling precariously to steep cliffs. It's as natural to park a boat in the street here as it is to park a car--more natural, actually. But time has not stopped. The underground walkways that link the train stations of the five villages are dark, dirty, covered with graffiti, and smell of urine, like the worst of such subterranean walkways in Tokyo. The streets are crowded with tourists. At night, some of the café and bar terraces are noisy with people that have had too much to drink. There is a surprising amount of litter. The waste of the towns is collected from large, unsightly plastic dumpsters in the narrow alleys that smell of garbage. The architecture of the buildings is undistinguished--mostly plain, brightly colored plaster facades. The quaintness of the steep narrow stairways that link the streets quickly fades. The steep passages become tiring and tiresome. Finally, if you want to walk the paths that connect the five main towns, you have to pay a €5 fee (although I have some sympathy here; this is technically a fee to enter the Cinque Terre National Park. €5 gives you all-day access to the trails).

Having said that, the setting is undeniably dramatic. The cliffs plunge straight into the sea. I went swimming in the harbor at Manarola, one of the five main towns, where it's possible to dive directly into the ocean from rocks a few yards from dry land. Five feet out, the water is 50 feet deep. Fishermen still tend their boats and nets in the streets. The vineyards are beautiful. They are on terraced slopes--certainly among the steepest man has ever tamed to nurture grapes on--, the dry white wines are wonderful (see next post), and good seafood is abundant, fresh from the fishing boats. The Cingue Terre are both beautiful and ugly. The place is certainly worth a visit, but don't expect to walk back into time.

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