Seven Surprising Things About Italy's Cinque Terre
This area is incredibly famous. But it still surprised us in many ways.
“Cinque Terre” is pronounced “chink-weh tear-eh,” but even after living here a month, I’m not entirely sure I’m pronouncing it right.
This is just one of the ways this area of the world has surprised me. After all, it’s now one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations; you’d think we’d all know how to pronounce it by now.
Cinque Terre means “five lands,” and it’s the regional name for the string of five small villages — Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore — nestled in and on a series of rocky canyons and outcroppings along a rugged coastline on the Italian Riviera. But it also refers to the surrounding area, which is now a national park.
Here are all the other ways this area surprised us.
1) Its beauty somehow lives up to the hype.
Over the last thirty years, the Cinque Terre has gone very big-time. These villages were even the inspiration for the fictional Italian village of Portorosso in the recent Pixar movie Luca.
This area now includes some of the most photographed — and supposedly most photogenic — spots in all of Italy.
Which meant it was hard to not come here without high expectations of incredible beauty. And in travel, high expectations often lead to vague disappointment.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Even though I’d seen hundreds of photographs of this area, I still found wonders everywhere I turned.
This is partly because the villages are built in such an unlikely way: up the sides of narrow valleys or perched precariously on top of rocky outcroppings. As a result, you climb over a hilltop or round a corner and — voila! — you’re facing a dramatic gorge crammed with colorful buildings.
And then see things in a different light, or look a bit closer, and see even more interesting things.
But as I said, the Cinque Terre is more than just the five villages — it also includes the stunning coastline and terraced hillsides that surround them.
With all these pictures, now I’ve created expectations for you. But if you ever come, I bet the Cinque Terre will still exceed them.
2) But the Cinque Terre is kind of like visiting a museum or theme park.
I loved walking around the villages of the Cinque Terre — and taking pictures, obviously.
But I didn’t necessarily fall in love with them.
I think that’s because unlike many of the other places we’ve visited in our travels, the villages of the Cinque Terre no longer feel like places where “real” people live.
It all feels like a museum or theme park. I’m sure almost every aspect of the Cinque Terre is coordinated and regulated, and it’s now all very frozen in time. The five villages are even connected by a sleek, modern train system, which is very convenient, but it makes the area feel even more like Disneyland.
Most of the other places we’ve lived as nomads feel very different — more like proper communities, with less charm, sure, but more randomness and chaos, and also more change. They also have more locals — from parents with babies in strollers to old folks sitting on benches shooting the breeze.
Sure, there are locals in the Cinque Terre, but they’re mostly workers catering to tourists — or subsidized farmers on display for tourists.
As for the tourists, well, there are hordes of them, disembarking from the trains and ferries, but they’re mostly interchangeable. Naturally, the locals are all kind of wary. This is not the place to come to make new local Italian friends.
Brent and I loved exploring the Cinque Terre, but we were also always happy to return to Levanto, the small town just outside the Cinque Terre where we lived for the month.
Levanto wasn’t nearly as photogenic, but it felt like a real town, with Italians of all ages talking and smoking and laughing; groups of kids going to school in the morning; and even the occasional shouting match between Italian men arguing over who knows what.
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