Italy's Greatest Hit
The Cinque Terre is a hot tourist destination for hikers from all over the world. So where are the Italians?
By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page P01
I love the great outdoors: the Zen of walking amid majestic, unspoiled scenery for hours on end.
I really love it, however, on civilized terms: with a hot shower, a well-prepared meal and clean sheets at the end of the trail.
Give me those creature comforts in Mediterranean coastal Italy, where a stiff espresso and plates of pasta and seafood wait in the village around the next rocky bend, and the result is something fairly close to heaven.
So, I'd long figured, the Cinque Terre was pretty much made for people like me. Me, that is, and a good percentage of the 2 million people a year who visit these "Five Lands."
The Cinque Terre is a string of five small fishing villages nestled in the rugged Ligurian coastline between Genoa and Pisa and exalted by poets from Dante and Petrarch to Byron and Shelley. But it wasn't until about a decade ago that the region was "discovered" by American tourists. Billed as a backpacker's Shangri-La, it was an alternative to the overpriced chic of the nearby Italian and French Rivieras. Cheap accommodations, rustic cuisine and flowing local wine beckoned.
It wasn't long before travel agents began packaging the Cinque Terre with honeymoon vacations and tours of Italy's greatest hits. American college kids studying abroad also arrived, filling the bars and creating a kind of "Talented Mr. Ripley"-meets-frat-house scene.
The villages were, and thankfully remain, free of automobile and motor-scooter traffic. Cars must be parked on the outskirts of the towns, which are linked by coastal railway and seasonal ferries. The best way to explore the Cinque Terre has always been on foot, along old mule tracks and paths through hills that were cultivated for wine grape production in the 13th century with an intricate series of dry stone wall terraces -- Liguria's answer to the Great Wall of China.
With the throngs of visitors has come help to preserve the Cinque Terre. In the late 1990s the steep terraced cliffs were designated a national park, a large swath of the sea became a protected marine area and the whole area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So how is this Mediterranean paradise faring in the 21st century? Last fall, my family and I went to find out.
In general the Cinque Terre lived up to our high expectations. When the sun shines, the setting is magnificent -- blue sea, big skies, steep terraced cliffs and Mediterranean villages that seemed to sprout out of rocky berths.
The Cinque Terre is worthy of the best of Italy.
But there's been a price to pay. At times -- because of the sheer number of tourists -- the Cinque Terre doesn't feel very Italian.
Of course, that was to be expected. When you take an aging population of about 5,000 villagers and introduce thousands of foreigners at a time, it is bound to resemble a U.N. occupation force with credit cards rather than weapons.
Yet for me, half the joy of traveling to Italy is not the landscapes, the museums or even the delicious regional cuisines. It is the theater of typical Italian life. The language is a big part of it, and over the past year I've doubled up on Italian instruction to better understand and speak the language.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company