Trip to Europe: Vernazza, the jewel of the Italian Riviera

You won’t find a more rewarding escape than little Vernazza, Rick Steves’ favorite of the five villages that make up Italy’s Cinque Terre

You can search the entire Mediterranean coast for the best rustic village, surrounded by vineyards and steeped in tradition, and find no more rewarding escape than little Vernazza, my favorite of the five villages that make up Italy’s Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre is a part of the Italian Riviera nestled in the mountainous coastline between Genoa and Pisa. Long cut off from the modern world, this remote expanse only became easily accessible with the arrival of the train.

Of the five towns of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza, dominated by a ruined castle and with the closest thing to a natural harbour, is the jewel. The occasional train running in and out of mountain tunnels is the only reminder that the modern world is still out there somewhere. It’s a tough community that has long lived by the sea and, in the latest generation, lives by sea-loving travelers. Church bells dictate a relaxed tempo. Yellow webs of fishing nets, tables adorned with umbrellas, children with plastic shovels, and a flotilla of small, gritty boats tied to buoys provide pops of color. And accompanying the scene is the mesmerizing white noise of children playing, cheerful dinner parties and the washboard rhythm of the waves.

Vernazza’s single street connects the port to the station before blending into the vineyards. Like veins on a fig leaf, paths and stairways lead from the main street to reach this cluster of watercolor houses that eventually dissolve into the vines above. A rainbow of laundry beating as if to keep the flies away from the corpulent grandmothers who obstruct the old doors.

At the upper end of town, Vernazza’s meager access road hits a pole, making it a dead end for drivers. No car enters this community of 600 people. As the breakwater holds back the waves at the bottom of the city, the pole holds back the modern storm at the top. But the city’s ruined castle no longer says, “Stay away.” The breakwater is a wide, inviting pavement lined with rocks, jutting out into the sea like a finger beckoning to distant tour boats.

While Vernazza’s fishing fleet has only a few boats, locals are still more likely to own a boat than a car. The boats are tied to buoys, except in winter or when the red storm flag indicates rough seas. In this case, they are parked in the small port square, usually reserved for restaurant tables.

The humble town congregates around its shingle cove, where well-worn locals enjoy the shade on the benches and tourists sunbathe on the rocks. In the summer, the beach becomes a football pitch, where teams made up of employees from local bars and restaurants provide nightly entertainment.

Vernazza has two halves. Sciuiu (vernazzan dialect for “flowery”) is the sunny side on the left as you face inland, and Luvegu (“wet”) is the shady side on the right. But from start to finish, everything is painted in one of the “Ligurian pastels”, regulated by a tasteful commissioner from the regional government. Above, the castle – now just a tower, broken stone walls and a grassy park – served as the town’s lookout post in the days of the pirates. Under the castle, an inner arcade connected the houses, ideal for fleeing attacks.

Village churches are always worth visiting. Vernazza is on the harbor and is unusual for its east-facing entrance, rather than the more typical west orientation. Hanging on the wall inside are three historic portable crosses – replicas of crosses that (locals like to believe) Vernazza ships once took on crusades to the Holy Land. During religious processions, these crosses are taken down and carried through the city.

In front of the church, a mini square decorated with a mosaic of river rock is a popular meeting place. This is where the old ladies of the city enjoy the last rays of sunshine of the day and where the children enjoy a rare flat ball court.

My evenings in Vernazza are spent sitting on a bench and people watching, either with an ice cream or a glass of local white wine (I usually borrow the glass from a bar, they don’t mind). During the passeggiata (evening stroll), locals meander lazily along the main street doing their vasche (laps). Sometimes I participate, being part of the parade in slow motion. Gelato in hand, I look up at the people peering out the windows of the faded pastel buildings like a gallery of portraits hanging from the ancient walls.

Being part of that sleepy Riviera scene, it’s so easy to throw my busy itinerary into the sea and be totally on vacation.

— This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public television and radio and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.

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