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Italy’s Cinque Terre Villages and Traditions

Cinque Terre, Italy

Nestled on the Mediterranean along Italy’s Riviera, each of the five Cinque Terre villages is a delight. We’ll learn about seafood, pesto, and vineyards, and how generations have worked to carve a good life out of the difficult terrain.

Complete Video Script

The Cinque Terre, which means “five lands,” was originally described in medieval times as “the five castles.” Tiny communities like this grew up in the protective shadows of their castles — their people ready to run for refuge at the first hint of a Turkish pirate raid.

As the threat of pirates faded, the communities grew with economies based on fish, olives, and grapes. Today, the big employer is tourism. Each rugged little town is a variation on the same theme: a well-whittled pastel jumble of homes filling its ravine. These days the castles, which used to protect the towns from marauding pirates, guard only glorious views.

This 10-kilometer stretch of the Italian Riviera is the rugged alternative to the glitzy Riviera resorts nearby. The traffic-free charm is a happy result of its natural isolation. Just sun, sea, sand — well, pebbles — and people. For me, this is Italy at its most relaxed.

For a home base, choose among the five villages. Each has a distinct personality — gently and steadily carving a good life out of the difficult terrain.

Until the coming of the train and tourism, these towns were very remote, and heavily dependent upon the sea. Even today, traditions survive.

While nothing like past generations, small-scale fishermen still earn their living working their nets while the tourists play. And each day, restaurateurs count on these men to keep their diners smacking their lips.

And each of the five villages actually retains a distinct dialect.

Beppe: Every village have a different dialect.
Rick: What’s an example?
Beppe: Example, for talk about “married,” in Vernazza is “sposato.”
Rick: Sposato. And if you’re married in Riomaggiore?
Beppe: Accompagnato.
Rick: Very different. So when you hear somebody, you know what village they live in.
Beppe: Yes, sure.

From the main street, you can pop into a series of narrow stepped lanes — called carrugi. These zigzag every which way. In the densest parts of town, these lanes became interior passages. If you keep climbing, eventually you’ll pop out up at the top, near the castle — handy for fleeing attacks.

The castle is nick-named Belforte, “the place of loud screams,” for the warnings shouted from its tower back in pirating days. A tower has stood guard here for a thousand years. Visitors climb to the top for the view and to imagine past raids.

Today, the castle functions as a tourist lookout, a perch from which local daredevils dive…

…and a restaurant. And, the fort’s lowest deck is perfect for a romantic meal. For a sweet dessert wine, sip the local Sciacchetrà. It’s served with biscotti… ideal for dunking. Savor the view and the unforgettable setting.

But this submarine-strength door hints that the weather’s not always so calm. Mammoth waves can slam into this wall. And, as photos inside attest, winter storms can engulf the entire tower in waves.

Life here is subject to the dictates of the weather. And the people of the Cinque Terre know the weather by the wind.

Rick: Bellissima giornata.
Giuseppe: Una bellissima giornata.
Rick: It is nice.
Giuseppe: Yes, but I think that the weather will be changed.
Rick: Yeah, why?
Giuseppe: Because we have now a wind from Syria, called scirocco. Normally, the seas will be too rough. Then, after scirocco, we have a wind from Libya, called libeccio. And that storm coming, come in from the sea.
Rick: So, from Libya, libeccio.
Giuseppe: Yes.
Rick: From Syria…
Giuseppe: Scirocco.
Rick: Scirocco. Bad news.
Giuseppe: Yes, yes. And, normally, we have after libeccio, the wind from the north, called tramontana.
Rick: Tramontana.
Giuseppe: This wind coming down from the north and cleaning the sky. You’d be, again, una bellissima giornata.
Rick: Good for the tourists.
Giuseppe: Yes, for us.
Rick: So, if you know the wind…
Giuseppe: In Cinque Terre, if you know the wind, you don’t need the weatherman.

But the weatherman was no help when a freak rainstorm hit the region in October 2011. Like many towns built in a ravine, Vernazza paved over the stream that once divided the town in order to make this people-friendly main drag.

The city was buried in an angry torrent of mud 10 feet deep. With the steep hillsides serving as a giant funnel, the flash flood overwhelmed the tunnel containing the town’s stream. While every street-level business in town was destroyed, the townsfolk have rebuilt, and are careful to keep their expanded drainage system ready for the next episode of violent weather.

Vernazza has recovered. And its main square has some of the region’s finest restaurants. And we’re settling down for the classic dishes of the region: pasta with pesto and anchovies.

Waiter: Gnocchi con pesto. The pesto is a local sauce; it’s come from Liguria, the region where we are now. When you come here, you must try pesto.

Basil, which loves this temperate Ligurian climate, awaits its fate in the mortar. Fresh garlic, sea salt, and toasted pine nuts get mashed into a fine paste first. Then the basil is added. Gradually the chef works it all into a rich green sauce. Like so many Italian dishes, virgin olive oil is mixed in. The pesto is finished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. And then it’s poured over the pasta. Tonight, we’re enjoying it on gnocchi.

The most typical main course here: fish. Acciughe, or anchovies, a regional specialty — served the day they’re caught. If you’ve always hated anchovies (the harsh, cured-in-salt American kind), try them here, fresh — and cooked in a variety of ways.

From each town stretches steep, terraced hills. The ingenious monorail wine train — called a trenino — carries workers high above the villages, where small family vineyards are tended with knowing care. The Cinque Terre takes great pride in its white wine. Traditional farming techniques are complemented with modern know-how, as the delicate vines are prepped in anticipation of a hot growing season.

Historically, each family has its own small vineyard. With the lure of the modern world it’s not easy to keep these labor-intensive traditions alive. But those who appreciate the heritage of their land seem determined to keep things going.

These hillsides have been terraced for centuries. Someone — perhaps after drinking a bit too much of the local wine — calculated that the Cinque Terre has over 4,000 miles of dry-stone walls. Built without mortar, they require almost regular maintenance.

The dry-stone-masons of the Cinque Terre are famed for their skill at artfully building and preserving the trails and terraces.

And the craft survives to this day, with skilled artisans like Giuliano Basso.

In the Cinque Terre, everyone enjoys great views — and that includes the dead. I’m joining my friend Monica on one of her visits to the cemetery perched high above her town.

Ever since Napoleon — who crowned himself king of Italy in the early 1800s — declared that cemeteries were health risks, people in these villages have buried their loved ones outside the towns.

The result: dramatically situated cemeteries high in the hills. With evocative photos and finely carved memorial reliefs, any are worth a visit. In cemeteries like these, some are buried in a graveyard, while most are in niches called loculi.

The sanctuary is quietly busy with locals remembering lost loved ones.

Rick: When you come to the cemetery, it’s like visiting your family.
Monica: Yes, my family, my friends. I know everyone here.
Rick: So, do you have relatives here in this wall?
Monica: Yes, here I have my grandparents.
Rick: Ah, Licari! Armando.
Monica: My grandfather and my grandmother.
Rick: Each one is a little bit different. It has a personality.
Monica: Exactly. Every one, want the people, have something like before.
Rick: And people are coming every month, every year?
Monica: No, every week.
Rick: Every week.
Monica: Every week, and it’s not necessary to cry when you are here. You are happy because you are together with the people of your family, with your friends.

Monica: Lina is the first bed and breakfast in Vernazza. She rent room, for the first time, to American people. Here is an American boy.
Rick: Look at that, with his rolling suitcase.
Monica: Exactly, exactly. And Lina is waiting in the main road for someone arrive. Here I have Massimo grandparents.
Rick: This is your husband’s grandparents.
Monica: Exactly. They died, both, in one week.
Rick: Within one week.
Monica: And here I have my cousin, Sauro.
Rick: Oh. The flood came and took him away.
Monica: Exactly. And they found Sauro in France.
Rick: In France!

From the beach resort half of Monterosso, a tunnel leads under the castle and into the old town. Here you’ll find more restaurants, characteristic shops, and a world of colorful lanes. Sure, it’s touristy, and virtually every storefront caters to visitors’ needs. But there’s a low-key ambience where you’re reminded we’re all in this life together, so let’s enjoy the moment.

It’s aperitivo time, and as everywhere in Italy right about now, families are out — kids and parents — children enlivening main squares. One tradition that thrives oblivious to all the tourism is that special time when people are out, socializing…enjoying the cool of the early evening.

Back in Vernazza, I’m enjoying the passeggiata with Irene.

Rick: Buona sera!
Irena: Ciao! Ciao Maria! Ciao!

A stroll here — especially with a local friend who knows everyone in town — gives a good insight into this close-knit Italian community. A community that I’ve been visiting since all of us were a lot younger.

Friend: Mi scusi!
Rick: Ciao Antonio! There’s my friend!
Rick: Does this bench have her name on it?
Irene: Uh, yes! [In Italian: He wants to know if this bench has your names on it!]

Italy’s Cinque Terre is an irresistible mix of nature, culture, and human activity — well-worn locals, sunburned travelers, and inviting family-friendly piazzas. Sure the place is now well-discovered. But I’ve never seen happier, more laid-back tourists. While the Cinque Terre now endures the storms of the modern world, the region’s charms are as endearing as its people are resilient.