January in the Cinque Terre

[This article originally appeared on our site in January 2015 after a trip to the Cinque Terre.]

The five towns of the Cinque Terre on Italy’s northwest coast are beautiful, popular, iconic: Clusters of colorful houses clinging to the ragged cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea, surrounded by terraced vineyards and lemon groves. This is generally no place for a car; in fact, cars are prohibited within most of the towns. Instead, they’re connected by scenic footpaths that lead along the coast and into the nearby National Park land. There is also a train that comes into the towns and connects them all together, making them easy to visit and fun to explore. But these are also the things that make the place clogged with tourists from March through October at least, sullying the small-town charm and stripping away much of its authenticity. For this reason, we chose to visit the Cinque Terre in the off-season, in search of its true face. In this case, it doesn’t get more off-season than mid-winter, which was anything but bleak. The sun shone strong in a pure blue sky to illuminate the hillsides along the sparkling coast, warming up the lemon trees, grape vines, and pastel villages.

In January, a car can be a useful thing in the Cinque Terre rather than a liability. The narrow ribbon of road that traverses the ridge above the five towns offers beautiful views that the train-bound tourists never get to see: Wide expanses of sea views, workers in orchards and vineyards on terraced hillsides, colorful houses dotting the lush green landscape. When we arrive, we drive down into the highest outskirts of Manarola, in search of lunch. Parking, which during tourist season is very expensive and almost impossible to find, is now plentiful and free. Even so, it’s a good hike from our free parking space on the road down to the town itself. The place is quiet - almost too quiet - but we manage to find a few places that haven’t closed down for the winter. After a fresh seafood lunch at the only open restaurant in town, we pick up some foccacia - olive-oil-infused crunchy bread; and farinata, a thin bread made of chickpea flour, in this case stuffed with melted cheese - both hallmarks of Ligurian cuisine.

Manarola is said to have been the site of an ancient Roman or Etruscan temple to gods of the underworld, but now the town is all light and color. Today it is home to the world’s largest nativity scene, taking up - and lighting up - an entire hillside. Two of the town’s prime attractions are closed for the winter: The Via dell’Amore, a dizzying and beautiful footpath that connects Manarola with Riomaggiore; and Trattoria dal Billy, one of the Cinque Terre’s most famous - and still authentic - restaurants. The disappointment is more than mitigated, though, by the adventure of having the entire town almost all to ourselves.

Corniglia, the middlemost town, is set apart from the other four, in both geography and character - it feels more like an inland hill town than a coastal village. It is here, in this smallest of the Cinque Terre towns, that we choose to reside for the week. Corniglia differs from its brethren towns in that it sits high on a rocky promontory, having no significant shoreline or beach area. The train stations in the other four towns are located directly in the center of things; but passengers disembarking at Corniglia’s station are faced with a climb of 365 steps, and then another 100 meters or so down a small street to the actual town itself. Many visitors see those steps and get right back on the train, not knowing about the minibus that makes short work of the ascent. (Though the cost seems steep for such a quick ride - about four bucks for four minutes - it’s not as steep as the hill.) The town’s unique geography minimizes the tourist traffic even in the high season; in January, Corniglia is practically deserted but for a handful of residents.

So deserted, in fact, that every restaurant is closed. Every one. So are the gelato shops, artisan galleries, bakeries, and all but two of the bars. Fortunately, we’re prepared for the lack of dining options. We’ve rented a small apartment with a kitchen, tiny but adequate for cooking a few dishes. Aside from the bars, only one place is open - the alimentari, an all-purpose store with a deli case, a bakery rack, a produce stand, and assorted canned, bottled, and dry goods - and of course a good supply of cheap local wine. In short, all the good ingredients necessary to feed ourselves perfectly well for days are available here.

When I ask the shopkeeper why he wasn’t also closed for vacation as was everyone else, he smiled and replied, “Se io non sono aperto, tu non mangi!” - “If I’m not open, you don’t eat!” I express my gratitude by buying a few extra bottles of wine. His wife then shows her own graciousness by giving us a few pieces of her homemade foccacia.

So: A bottle of oil, some dried chickpeas, an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables, butter, bread, a few cheeses, local salami, a package of trofie - the short, hand-twisted pasta typical in Liguria. And of course proseccovino, and water.

Thus provisioned, we proceeded to our apartment, the beautiful Casa Fabrizia. Our host, Fabrizia herself, proudly shows us around the place - the little bedroom and breakfast nook, and the tiny kitchen, with just a little stove and barely room for one person to stand. A basket of lemons and kiwi fruit graces the table - a gift from Fabrizia’s own garden down the street. She saves the best feature for last, leading us up a narrow and very steep stair to the rooftop patio, which enjoys incredible views of the cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea, distant Monterosso al Mare (the westernmost town of the Cinque Terre), and the nearby hilltop pilgrimage hamlet of San Bernardino.

We are not people who let such a prized location go to waste: We make sure that after each day’s outing to the other towns, we allow plenty of time to return to our apartment and its prime terrazza. With proseccofoccacia, and farinata in hand (and soon, in stomach), we spend several hours each evening sitting at the little patio table, enjoying the staggeringly beautiful views and watching the light change from late afternoon to vivid sunset to starry evening. As Corniglia is practically empty, the setting is silent but for the calling of seagulls and the crashing of the waves in the cove far below, the occasional church bells tolling the hour and the pop and fizz of another bottle being uncorked.

The five towns vary in size and in character: Monterosso al Mare is the largest and most touristed of the Cinque Terre, a typical seaside vacation town. (Think St Augustine, Florida, but without the mini-golf.) Its most sensational attraction is the 40-foot-tall “Il Gigante”, a concrete statue on a beachside cliff that originally depicted Atlas shouldering the world. It was built in 1910; over the years, sea storms have relieved him of his burden - and of his arms. We are surprised, in this time of year, to find quite a few visitors here, including a busload of tourists sitting together on the benches in the town square, all eating fried rice out of a big bin they had brought with them. We escape this unexpected press of people by way of a long walk up many stairs winding through the woods. On the way up, the path offers a perfect birds-eye view of the town below.

At the top of the hill sits the Capuchin Friars Convent and Church of San Francesco. Here a bronze statue of Saint Francis and the wolf that he tamed surveys the town from the cliff’s edge. Although the 17th-century church is a very popular pilgrimage destination, today we find ourselves totally alone in its peaceful and beautiful monastic gardens. After this meditative respite, we proceed to the opposite end of town, where a now-empty stretch of white sand beach - the only such in the Cinque Terre - is fronted by a bunch of shuttered hotels. Here we stop at a not-quite-abandoned bar for an espresso and a grappa, which we drink while watching the only visitor on the beach - a tuxedo-colored cat chasing crustaceans.

Another sunny day brings us to Vernazza, perhaps the most beautiful of the Cinque Terre towns, between Monterosso and Corniglia. The 14th-century Church of St Margherita of Antioch with its octagonal clock tower looks across the piazza and over the harbor to Doria Castle. This fortification was originally built as a watchtower to alert the town of pirates; nowadays, the only invaders that Vernazza has to contend with are tourists. In January, though, there seem to be no tourists here at all (excepting ourselves), and the town is buzzing with its residents, hanging out at the bars and restaurants, repairing their homes and shops in preparation for the season, gathering and gossiping on the benches in front of the church, or just walking the pedestrian-only streets and enjoying a gorgeous day.

Just a few doors up the street from the bayside church is Taverna del Capitano. An informal but very nice bar/restaurant, the place is mostly empty today aside from a few locals. Nevertheless, their offerings are fresh, including handmade pasta and homemade desserts. During much of the year they offer pesto, the regional specialty, made from fresh basil in the traditional Ligurian style. Since it’s January, it’s not on the menu, but luckily, each morning’s fresh caught fish are never out of season. Their dessert tray included a just-baked apple cake that filled the room with a wonderful aroma; we had to resist the urge to hurry through our main courses for our chance at the first still-warm slice.

We had planned on our last day to take a day outing to Riomaggiore, the easternmost of the five towns. It is very colorful, with steep pedestrian streets and a very narrow rocky inlet for small boats and brave swimmers. Legend has it that the town was founded in the 8th century by Greeks escaping their tyrannical emperor.

We had visited Riomaggiore once before, in March, and for us the tourists were already too numerous, so we are looking forward to exploring it with sparser crowds this time.

The weather, though, has other ideas - the skies are dark and foreboding, and the distant rumbling of thunder soon fulfills its promise to drench the town for the entire day. Rather than climb down the 365 soggy steps to the train station and then wander wet around Riomaggiore, we opt to stay put, reading, writing, and cooking a few simple dishes. When the sun makes brief appearances, it illuminates the sea in one direction and the vineyards on the hills in the other. We open up the windows to let in the sounds and salt of the sea air.

When the rain takes an occasional break, so do we; a quick two-minute walk brings us to either of the two open bars, where we can enjoy a drink or two. At one end of town is a typical small-town Italian bar: Bowls of chips, various newspapers on every table, a few sad-looking sandwiches in a cold case. No one in there is under the age of 50. The women sit talking and knitting, while the men are gathered in a side room playing cards and beating back the cold and damp with coffee and camaraderie. Overhearing their conversations is better entertainment than any television. After a few days here, these locals have started to recognize us, warming to our presence and even greeting us as we passed them in the streets, evidently deciding that, even though we were stranieri (foreigners), we are okay.

La Scuna, the bar at the other end of town - and by “the other end”, we mean about a minute’s walk in the other direction - caters to a younger generation, and is therefore almost empty. The most welcome regular here is a white cat, who happily jumps up onto his own bar stool to partake in the conversations. The owners here stock local, barrel-aged grappa and a wide selection of wine, including the sciacchetrà made from the grapes common to Cinque Terre’s vineyards. But the specialty of this place is locally-brewed craft beer, which is a welcome change from the usual Italian beverage offerings. Craft brewing is a growing art in Italy, and more places are offering it as demographics change and demand grows.

It was to this bar that we go one evening, to buy an extra bottle of wine and also to borrow some black pepper, which was the one ingredient we lack in our kitchen. At the bar, we thought we’d find a couple of little paper packets of pepper. Instead, the excursion becomes one of those quintessential Italian small town vignettes. The bar owners and two of the customers - intrigued no doubt by a couple of Americans coming to Italy and then cooking our own food - want to know all about what we were making. We had prepared, among other things, some pasta with butter and lemon, and an herb broth from which we made a chickpea soup. They evidently approve of our menu and our methods, and they award us with the loan of a very fancy pepper grinder. “Riportarlo domani,” they said - “Bring it back tomorrow.” The four of them then get into a 10-minute rapid-fire discussion amongst themselves, about which wine we should get to go along with our now properly seasoned dinner.

Most of the stores and restaurants in the Cinque Terre towns (and practically all of them in Corniglia) are closed for business in January, but there are still people to be found: Workmen hammering, mixing plaster, replacing cobbles on the streets; local old guys in their characteristic borsalino or berretto hats, conversing jovially on the benches in the town piazza; shopkeepers cleaning their windows or clearing out their old wares to make room for new. It’s as if, now that the tourists are (mostly) gone, the townspeople can take back their village and make it their own again, at least for a while. Sitting in the piazza, surrounded by stacks of colorful buildings, feeling the sun on our faces, hearing Italian spoken freely all around us; it feels like looking through a window into the past, like being steeped in what it once meant to live in the Cinque Terre.




In the apartment


Produce at market


Terrace with a view


View from San Francesco


Vernazza's piazza, a hangout for locals


Homemade apple cake


The white cat, a regular at "La Scuna" bar


Dinner in apartment

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