Cinque fishing villages,
Far away from the world,
by the Mediterranean.
Off peak travelling has its obvious perks – less to pay for accommodation, no jostling at the ‘perfect photo spot’, and best of all, having plenty of beautiful spaces all to yourself. But then it’s also the season for locals to hoof it to their own holidays – meaning shops and restaurants are more likely to close, and it would be just the right time for maintenance works to take place – which could mean unexpected closures and potential disappointment, not to mention disrupting your itinerary (if any) and travel expectations (naturally).
Something’s gotta give, unless you perpetually hunt down the sweet spot of shoulder seasons, you’re bound to bump into either extreme. I used to shun travelling during the off time, because in my mind I would have painted a lovely picture of strolling down a cherry-tree lined promenade in Tokyo (did not happen) or a spectacular sunrise at Yosemite (did not happen either), and I have this immense fear that my experience is not nearly complete if the product didn’t look exactly like what was shown to me on paper. I’m telling you, these are silly preoccupations that the sooner you get over, the better off you are.
Cinque Terre between Christmas and New Year’s is something I’d consider off peak. People do go away on these dates, but I’d imagine most Europeans would be shredding snow and ice on Alpine slopes or sipping Chang beer on Thai beaches, while travellers from faraway lands would choose to go to places like Vienna or Hamburg, which are still sexy as hell when drowning in ankle-deep snow. I imagine that mainstream hikers would not find joy in bagging Cinque Terre hills in 10°C weather and the chilly winds on the slate-gray beaches would also make damn sure you won’t be frolicking in your bikini or board shorts (unless you are Scandinavian or suicidal), either.
Still, those are my guesses. Proof came in the form of having to drive around for more than an hour looking for somewhere to eat dinner on our first night in the Cinque Terre area. You might say, well we wouldn’t have a problem if we’d chosen to stay in Riomaggiore – but for me that’s considered cheating when you make things too easy. We ended up at a pretty decent pizza place (oh wait, it’s Italy) on the outskirts of Sestri Levante – the kind where everybody just pops in to pick up their takeaway pizzas and the doe-eyed pizzaioli spend a lot of time baking pizzas with just one another. We wolfed down the slices in the car, for fear the pizza guys might want to make conversation (no, not really), then drove back in the pitch-dark, winding mountain roads.
We stayed at the Perla del Levante hostel in a perched little village called Ravecca, still nearby but considered totally off the touristy trail (~42km to drive to Riomaggiore). The hostel has a terrace where you can enjoy a great ocean view and hear the sound waves crashing down below. We could also park our car for free at a nearby roadside.
Never mind the fact that some of the nerve-wrecking hairpin curves are challenging to drive and most of these roads are not lit at night. It’s actually best not to drive in Cinque Terre at all, because the five towns are not really accessible by roads – even if you want to go ahead, the roads are mostly super narrow and often under repair. (The reason we drove was because it was the cheapest option from Nice, and we could go to Pisa afterwards.)
We decided to see the five towns in the following logical order, from the southernmost Riomaggiore, to Manarola, then Corniglia, Vernazza and finally Monterosso Al Mare.
So, abandoning the car we went to the nearest station Framura to get a train to Riomaggiore the next morning. The station was basking in the late winter sunshine alone, with not a soul to ask how to buy a ticket. So we bought a one-way ticket without knowing what we bought, and put on the best ‘lost tourist’ faces that we didn’t get to use, though we did see a conductor a long way coming to check… In our defense we tried asking three different groups of people who didn’t know either.
Our train rolled into Riomaggiore and we were dismayed (but kind of expected) to find out that most of the legendary hiking trail Sentiero Azzurro (“The Blue Path”) was closed for repairs – in the earlier weeks huge storms took their toll on the coastal route and it was unsafe now for the public. The section between Vernazza and Corniglia was still open so we went at it. Ironically, we came during the off peak season to avoid the crowds but because of the trail closure everyone with the hiking itch was cramped onto this one section. There weren’t many people to begin with but the regular flow of hikers made the atmosphere summery, with the lovely sunshine taking the chill off the December air. That was fine because everyone was in high spirits (must be the sun) and greeting one another like old friends on the trail.
Clear blue skies, a steady ocean breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean, lazy cats tanning on gray roofs and the faint scent of some pine trees. Looking down at Vernazza, marked by the prominent Genoese tower, we were invigorated yet drooling at the prospect of eating gelato when we got down to the village in a few minutes’ time.
Cinque Terre, or the ‘Five Lands’, is famed for its picturesque colour blocks, adorable wonky houses splashed in magenta, tangerine, custard-pie yellow and robin-egg blue. The relative inaccessibility of these fishing villages preserved the rustic and old-world atmosphere. You’d see that despite the swarms of sweet-looking, camera-wielding East Asian tourists and loudmouthed Americans, these towns retained a stoic and refined charm. It was clear that while many shops thrived with the tourist trade, some older folks still sniffed disapprovingly at the odd foreigner (like me perhaps) poking around their hometown.
Nowadays, this region is a standard fixture in those “Most Beautiful Villages” lists making its rounds in the blogosphere. Good thing it is quite hard to reach and secluded – else it’d have been swallowed whole by the tourist mob (maybe that’s the case in summer).
I don’t deny that the villages are beautiful – but if you are just hopping around doing a trigger-happy Instagram tour, you have no idea what you’re missing. I say, strap on those shoes, pull up your socks and walk the trail. ♥