Driving in Italy was quite the experience, not least because my Italian is worse than my Hungarian. Figuring out the caveats that came attached to parking places was a nightmare. Working out how to use a parking meter (I’ve never had to enter my licence plate into one before) was only possible with the help of a street vendor.
I had my heart set on seeing Cinque Terre – the five villages on the Italian Riviera that belong on a chocolate box. They’re perched at seemingly ridiculous angles on the cliffs and beg the question as to how the builders got the materials up there to build. I’d taken advice and decided to park in the first of the five, Riomaggiore, and then take the 20-minute train journey to the last one, Monterossa, stopping off at Vernazza, Corniglia, and Manarola on the way back. You can get a stop-off train ticket that’s valid for 6 hours which gives plenty of time to see what has to be seen.
So we drove to Riomaggiore, down to the village, and parked, only to be told that parking was for residents only. We hadn’t passed any public parking on the way in and so, with frustration levels mounting, we drove on to Manarola. There we found a public carpark about 15 minutes walk from the village and figured that was as close as we’d get.
It was April. And yet the trains were jammed to capacity with the ‘kids-in-college-time-to-travel’ brigade that numbered Germans, French, Americans, Australians, and Canadians in their midst. Bedlam. And having wasted time trying to find somewhere to park, the train schedule meant that we were doing the Japanese thing – hopping off, running round for half an hour and hopping back on.
The highlight of Monterossa is definitely the huge statue of Neptune that hangs off the cliff face. It’s quite spectacular and worth the faffing around. The villages have sold their souls to tourist tat but they’ve also managed to retain some of their other-worldly charm, with tiny churches and cinemas and houses that defy gravity. The boutiques sell high-end Italian-made clothes that play to the vanities of wealthy tourists. Local artisans do a steady battle with the Made in China/Turkey souvenirs that seem to be a ‘must-have’ for today’s tourists, and the artisans appear to be winning.
Of the five villages, my favourite was Corniglia. To get to the top you need to climb 33 flights of steps – a total of 382 steps in all – and come back down them again. It’s ancient. With its narrow, cobblestone streets, quaint buildings, and tiny piazzas, it’s a gem of place borrowed from a world where time stands still. I discovered muscles I never knew I had and was feeling them for days afterwards. But it was worth it.
Manarola is quite sweet, too. Lots of mad stairs climbing up alleyways to nowhere and windows appearing randomly, calling to mind the sanity of those who built the place. All five villages have something to offer and six hours is ample time to wander around, but if you want to really enjoy it, go off season. At the height of the melée, it’s like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And the villages weren’t built with tourists in mind.
Another option of course is to walk from village to village – lots of up hill and down dale – a natural roller coaster. But again, there were plenty of walkers, too, so if it’s a solitary sojourn you have in mind, it ain’t likely to happen. That’s the price of popularity.