Frugal Traveler 11.2014
The stunning profile stretched into the distance before me: miles of craggy coastline punctuated by five pastel villages, each nestled amid cliffs and sparkling sea. But on a pleasant afternoon in mid-October, only one other person was admiring this spectacular view of Cinque Terre, on the northwestern coast of Italy.
“It’s lonely on the trail today,” said Kerstin Bahrfeck-Wichitill, a speech pathologist from Dortmund, Germany, voicing a sentiment you’ll never hear on the Cinque Terre’s more famous hiking path, the Sentiero Azzurro.
On paper, the five villages that constitute the Cinque Terre seemingly have it all: Mediterranean beaches, beautiful hiking trails, fantastic fresh seafood and picturesque cobblestone lanes.
“Cinque Terre is very popular with the Americans because of Rick Steves — his book is their bible,” Grazia Lizza told me in Italian earlier that day as she escorted me to her rustic agriturismo, L’Erba Persa, in the nearby town of Levanto. But where there is a holy book, there are flocks of followers. And therein lies the most common complaint about the Cinque Terre: crowds.
As is often the case, crowds mean higher prices. But, as I found on a recent trip, the Cinque Terre can still be explored on a frugal budget. I set out from my home, about 40 minutes away, to see what I could do with the equivalent of $100 in euros in my pocket. The only expense excluded from that weekend budget was lodging (though that, too, would be modestly priced, at least compared with what’s typical).
I did, however, need a place to stay. So, for the first night, I had booked a room through Airbnb at L’Erba Persa, set on a biodynamic organic farm that is home to dozens of animals — cats, dogs, donkeys and pet rabbits — in Levanto, a sleepy town one train stop north of the Cinque Terre, where prices are slightly lower than in the villages themselves. My double room was perfectly serviceable, with a shared bathroom, and included breakfast for $73.
The Levanto location wasn’t just a money-saver, it was also ideal as a starting point for the first hike I had planned. Most visitors to the area are lured by the famous coastal path No. 2, the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path), that connects the five main towns: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Hiking this trail, which was damaged by mudslides, first in 2011 and multiple times since then, requires purchasing a pass (from 7.50 euros, about $9 at $1.22 to the euro, per day) from the Cinque Terre National Park, even though only two segments of the trail (between Monterosso and Corniglia) are currently open.
But there are numerous other trails crisscrossing the area with similarly dazzling views that aren’t accompanied by the feeling that you’re marching in a parade with half of Europe. And, best of all, these less congested paths are free.
From Levanto, I set out for Monterosso on path No. 1, a moderately strenuous, two-and-a-half-hour hike along the coastline that crests at Punta Mesco, a promontory overlooking the entire coast, which was where I met Ms. Bahrfeck-Wichitill. We finished the hike together, descending into Monterosso in the late afternoon.
Monterosso is the largest of the five towns and the only one with a long, sandy beach. In the summer, the tiny public beach is uncomfortably crowded, so I usually arrive in the afternoon to take advantage of the half-day discount at beach clubs that charge for use of their colorful umbrellas and sun beds. But in the off-season, access to the entire beach is free, so I sauntered onto the sand and watched a handful of Italian teenagers splashing in the huge waves.
Not feeling quite that adventurous, I headed up a hill in town to the Convento dei Cappuccini, where tucked inside a small chapel I found a museum-worthy Crucifixion painting attributed to the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck. Views, beach, art — check, check and check — and I still hadn’t spent a centesimo.
Of course, one doesn’t come to Cinque Terre without expecting some good food. Instead of taking the typical route of a seafood feast at a waterfront restaurant, which could easily cost more than 50 euros and zap most of my budget, I headed to Focacceria Il Frantoio, where I bought a huge, warm rectangle of focaccia al formaggio (2.10 euros). But after seeing a line of customers all ordering pan fritto, puffy fried bread stuffed with cheese (1.50 euros), I had buyer’s remorse. At aperitivo hour, I sipped a glass of Cinque Terre white wine (3 euros) at Midi Bar, where various graying locals paused from their passeggiate — leisurely promenades — to greet other patrons.
For dinner, I headed to Gastronomia San Martino, a no-frills deli that sells both pre-made dishes by the kilo and cooked-to-order pastas. I was tempted by the trofie al pesto — short, twisted pasta accompanied by the region’s famous green sauce — but the friendly chef and owner, Moreno Alessio Galati, steered me toward the pansotti con salsa di noci, ravioli-like pasta stuffed with ricotta and herbs and topped with a rich walnut sauce. The filling meal, including a half-bottle of local white wine, cost a mere 11 euros. The company of Mr. Galati, who chatted with me while I ate, served as free entertainment.
On Saturday morning I left my bag in Vernazza, where a last-minute reservation got me a tiny room in the center of the postcard-perfect village ($95 on Airbnb). From there, I took the train to Corniglia and climbed 300-plus steps from the station to the cliff top village’s warren of cobblestone alleys. I peeked into the 14th-century Church of San Pietro, with its handsome Gothic-Ligurian architecture; even prettier were the coastal views from the Santa Maria Terrace.
I stopped for lunch at Km0, an adorable cafe serving carefully sourced regional products, from Ligurian anchovies to vegetables grown in the village. I had a delicious panino with prosciutto and creamy caprino goat cheese on whole-grain bread, plus a half-liter bottle of summer ale from the La Spezia brewery Birrificio del Golfo (total: 10.50 euros). Then, under gray skies, I began hiking the high-altitude trail from Corniglia to Manarola.
About an hour into the three-hour hike, the trail’s uneven steps and rocky inclines leveled out on the top of a mountain ridge — just as a terrifying thunderstorm rumbled toward me, with no shelter in sight. Lightning and thunder began to crackle, but I eventually escaped to the hilltop hamlet of Volastra, and from there, descended through terraced vineyards into Manarola.
From Manarola, I took a train to Riomaggiore to meet a friend who lives nearby for a thankful-to-be-alive beer (5 euros) on the cliff top terrace of A Pié de Mà, a hidden cafe with splendid views of the Mediterranean Sea, and on this day, torrential rain. The downpour had flooded the tunnel to Riomaggiore’s main street, as I discovered while slogging to Il Pescato Cucinato, a minuscule takeout counter serving paper cones filled with fried seafood. I ordered the calamari (5 euros), which also came with a few fried mussels and crispy shrimp, before heading back to Vernazza.
When I alighted in Vernazza, the town was eerily dark. Shops and restaurants were closed. Streetlights were out. Boats had been pulled out of the harbor into the main piazza, and flood barriers had been installed in almost every doorway. The sudden storm had triggered a severe weather alert, and after the devastating floods of 2011, no chances were being taken. There would be no night life.
On Sunday morning, though, I awoke to glorious sunshine. I’d planned to hike to a lookout point in Riomaggiore, but the trails were closed because of another forecast storm, so instead I went to Monterosso for breakfast at Pasticceria Laura. I managed to snag the morning’s penultimate cream-filled cornetto — the homemade pastries are a specialty there — to accompany my cappuccino (total: 2.40 euros), the best in town according to the regular next to me at the counter.
Back in Vernazza, shops were reopening and restaurants preparing for lunch as I climbed up to the Castello (admission, 1.50 euros), a cylindrical stone fortification with 360-degree views spanning both village and sea. Then, with 25.90 euros still left in my pocket (after accounting for train tickets), I decided to splurge on lunch. There was no question where I would go: Trattoria Gianni Franzi is my favorite of the restaurants clustered around the harbor, and the spaghetti ai muscoli, with fresh mussels from the Gulf of La Spezia and a simple sauce of olive oil, garlic and herbs, is my go-to order. With the cover charge, a bottle of fizzy water and a glass of white wine, lunch was a very worthwhile 22 euros.
For dessert, I walked along the harbor to Il Porticciolo, an artisanal gelateria where seasonal flavors are made fresh daily. I had a small cup (2 euros) with one scoop of cinnamon and one of crème caramel studded with chunks of caramelized sugar. On a bench outside, I savored this sweet coda to an eventful — and under-budget — weekend in the Cinque Terre.