Manarola: Finding A Glimpse of Old Italy in Cinque Terre

By John Caldwell

The narrow stairways that lead to the third floor of Casa Santa Formosa in Venice are so steep I feel as if I’m falling backward.

Hauling an overstuffed rollerboard and laptop bag up these shallow marble treads at the end of a long day of travel is like carrying a large animal out of a dark tunnel with an icy floor.

Manarola is the second smallest of the Cinque Terre towns. Photos by John Caldwell.
Manarola is the second smallest of the Cinque Terre towns. Photos by John Caldwell.

But when we reach our room and open its three tall windows to see a curving canal with little arched bridges that connect a medieval church piazza to multicolored Venetian houses, I turn to my husband Todd and say, “well, we can’t complain about the stairs. In fact, I don’t think we even need to leave the room. This view can’t be topped.”

I’m certain of this, even posting about it several times on Facebook. That is until we arrive in the Italian Riviera three days later. The little village of Manarola in Cinque Terre is our second stop in a late-September trip through Northern Italy, one that will later take us through Siena, Florence and Rome.

The view from our hotel room in Venice
The view from our hotel room in Venice

We exit the train and are greeted with another steep climb, having to haul our bags from the station at sea level up to Hotel La Teretta at the top of town.

Our host, Francesco, serves us some Prosecco (a local sparkling wine) and leads us to the private terrace of our room. Looking down through the tiny village, where pastel-colored houses piggyback up hillsides covered by vineyards framed by the Mediterranean, I turn to Todd and admit, “It looks like I was wrong about that view in Venice.”

The view from our private veranda in Manarola
The view from our private veranda in Manarola

Getting what we hoped for

By extolling Vernazza’s charm in his books and television shows, travel guru Rick Steves has been credited with turning Cinque Terre into a must-see destination, and for diminishing its old-world qualities by pointing so many people in its direction.

We chose Manarola to avoid the crowds in Vernazza, its better known, and some say more picturesque, sister town to the north.

We want some of the old — a glimpse of a time when people seldom left these once-remote seaside villages — and we find it in Manarola.

As we stand on our veranda, I’m wondering again if we even need to leave the room. Terraces lined with grapevines, supported by ancient, stacked-stone walls define a curving hillside directly across from us, where burly men carry wicker baskets filled with the just-picked grapes that will be used to make the area’s namesake white wines.

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An old man and his young helper repair one of the walls, the echo of their hammering and shoveling the only thing breaking a calming silence. The ocean at the bottom of town is far enough away not to be heard, but close enough to fill the air with a salty aroma.

Taking Manarola's "Vineyard Walk"
Taking Manarola's "Vineyard Walk"

This region is also known for its fresh seafood, and Manarola is at least partly known for Trattoria da Billy, a longtime purveyor of local dishes made only with local ingredients. Francesco secures us a table for dinner and we head out along a narrow path, past modest stucco houses that break up the view of the ocean, to a multi-level restaurant hanging on a cliff on one side of town.

Photos of the current owner carrying goat-sized fish through the harbor while wearing nothing but a bikini swimsuit (standard attire for local fisherman) cover the walls inside the restaurant’s modest dining room.

We start with a 12-course seafood antipasti, which includes squash blossoms stuffed with white fish and slices of raw Tuna bathed in balsamic. The owner asks us how we’re doing, and then launches into a tirade about tourists who don’t appreciate his food.

I appreciate his passion, but he can't understand. He's got this view every day. Where we come from, there is no comparison, and we intend to soak it up every chance we get.“They come here just for the view,” he says, as he delivers a platter of red pasta topped with a whole lobster. “We start early every morning with fish we just caught and spend all day in the kitchen. We only serve 70 people a night.”

A perfect day in Cinque Terre

We start the next day on Manarola’s “vineyard walk,” a dirt path that cuts along the hillside above town. Workers fill baskets with grapes while we enjoy views of town and the Mediterranean coast. The path leads around to face the sea and down through a centuries-old mausoleum before dumping us out on the main walk, which snakes along the coast, connecting all the towns in Cinque Terre.

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We circle back to Manarola’s harbor, with its diverse audience of colorful buildings, each with an unobstructed view of the fishing boats that come and go each day.

Arriving in Vernazza on foot. Do they have cold beer?
Arriving in Vernazza on foot. Do they have cold beer?

In the fall, the basketball-court-sized main square, a short walk up from the harbor, is pleasantly devoid of crowds. Little artisan shops share the street with cafes that display a variety of focaccia and pizza in a colorful array behind glass.

“What’s your favorite?” I ask the guy behind the counter at one of the food shops. He points to a pile of Focaccia con Pesto, the local specialty.

At the other end of a tunnel that leads to the train station, we pick up the “Lover’s Walk,” a picturesque section of the main path that clings to the granite cliffs between Manarola and the town of Riomaggiore to the south.

Couples, hoping to seal their love for eternity, have attached thousands of colorful padlocks to the railings along the way.

I found that beer!
I found that beer!

From Riomaggiore, we catch the train to Corniglia, just north of Manarola. Situated on top of a hill that juts into the sea, Corniglia offers long views of the Italian Riviera with an unspoiled, medieval-village backdrop.

We find it hard to leave, but Vernazza calls to us from the other end of a three-mile stretch of coastal path.

It’s a challenging hike with memorable vistas, and at the end, we’re rewarded with an almost aerial view of Vernazza’s peach and yellow buildings as they cling to a rocky, hook-shaped outcropping that seems to point at the larger village of Monterosso, visible to the north.

True to what we read about it, Vernazza is packed with pushy tourists. But we love it anyway.

A color palate of tall stucco houses lines a narrow main street that spills out into a bustling harbor. We grab a table under a group of umbrellas that fight for space on the concrete pier.

One large pesto pizza and two cold beers later, we join about a hundred people on the harbor’s tiny beach for a swim. The water is clear and warm, but the crowds are a bit much.

“Let’s hop the ferry back to Manarola,” I say. Todd agrees.

Happy hour with a view on our private veranda
Happy hour with a view on our private veranda

Manarola’s harbor has no beach, but it does have really wonderful deep-water swimming. We jump in from its big rocks and climb out on metal ladders that extend into the water.

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Little sailboats go in and out as sexy sunbathers jockey for a spot to lay their towels. We’re enjoying the most beautiful swimming pool in the world.

Sunsets and savory food with a view

The sunsets in Manarola are awesome.
The sunsets in Manarola are awesome.

It’s late afternoon and a sunset, best watched from our veranda, is in store. At a little shop just off the harbor, we buy some cured meats, a lump of local cheese and a bottle of Chianti for a ridiculously low price.

Despite the steepness, it’s a pleasant walk back to our hotel. The river that carved this little canyon has been covered by a concrete roadway that winds through the center of town. We can’t see it, but it makes a relaxing sound and it cools the air.

As we climb, an old woman wearing a yellow apron appears in a second-story window and yells in Italian at a worker on the street.

A man sweeps the front stoop of his shop a few doors down as a little truck filled with baskets of grapes drives by. There isn’t another tourist in sight. I feel like I’ve stepped into an old Italian movie.

Back on our veranda, the sun sets over the clusters of houses that hug the canyon walls. Todd pours me a second glass of wine as I snack on a piece of focaccia topped with prosciutto.

“I know I’ve said many times that southern Spain can't be topped as the perfect place to retire,” I tell Todd. “But I think I was wrong about that too.”

John and Todd

John Caldwell is a writer, editor and content designer based in San Diego. He toured Italy in 2010 with his husband Todd

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