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Settled between the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea and sharply rising hills, Vernazza, with its small harbor, old fortification and army of staircases, evokes the very essence of small-town Italy. Lazing about at a restaurant, knocking back a few  glasses of chianti and nibbling on thin-crusted pizza as the sun sets over the water is the perfect way to relax on a European vacation.

Emerging from the darkness of the train tunnel, it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the harsh light from the afternoon sun over the Mediterranean. To my left was a steep hillside, slipping by as the train crawled along. To my right was the sparkling water of the sea. I grinned, knowing I was about to be taking in the sun and exploring one of Italy’s most scenic areas – the Cinque Terre.

I’d never heard of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre before planning for the trip in 2004. It was to be my first exposure to Italy, and it didn’t disappoint.

I stepped off the train, hoping to inhale the aromas of pesto and baking focaccia bread, but it turned out that it would have to wait until I was out of the train station.

Finding a hotel took just a few minutes, and then my family and I were headed down a cobblestone street to the main square by the harbor to meet the owner, who would show us to our rooms.
Vernazza stairs on Italian Riviera
Suitcases clacking over the uneven stones, we made our way to the town, walking past multistory buildings with their shutters open, laundry hanging in the breeze to dry, and the din of conversation as locals and tourists alike sat at outside tables, eating lunch and passing the time.

Under a roof of brightly colored umbrellas at a corner restaurant on the square, we met the hotel owner. She smiled, then led us up a series of narrow alleys, with stairs just about every step, to our hotel. Lugging our suitcases up four floors made us all happy we’d packed light, and we got settled in our rooms, which had views overlooking the greater part of the tiny town and the sea.

Vernazza, Italy
The woman didn’t bother taking our money, checking our passports or holding a credit card.

“You can pay when you leave,” she said. “If I’m not downstairs, I will be at the restaurant I met you at.”

I guess we didn’t look like a pack of thieves.

Down we went to the beach, to take advantage of the last hours of sunlight. Unlike the beaches of Nice, where we had just spent a few days, the beach at Vernazza was sandy, not rocky. It was crowded with a mix of locals and tourists, who either swam out into the harbor or sprawled out on the sand. A few local kids started a game of soccer nearby.

Vernazza Italy Cinque Terre
Wanting to get a better view of the town before it got too dark, we set out for the trails that link all five towns of the Cinque Terre.

Hiking Italy: Cinque Terre - Vernazza

Winding through terraced farms along the hills, the trails are a perfect place to hike and see some breathtaking views. Unfortunately, with only one night in the area, hiking for several hours wasn’t really an option. A train that runs inland of the towns is, however, a good alternative to the hiking if time or physical abilities don’t allow for the walk.

We ate dinner at a restaurant on one of the harbor terraces, enjoying our first sampling of real Italian food. Unlike the fare served in places like The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, true Italian food is not loaded up with heavy sauces and meatballs. It’s typically simpler, but made with fresh ingredients and no less savory.

At night, I spent the time wandering the town’s streets with my sister before rejoining my parents and hitting the sack.

The following day, we bought fresh focaccia bread infused with olives, cheese and garlic, as well as pesto and panini. The pesto made there is, in a word, delicious. I haven’t really found a comparable pesto in the States, but that might have something to do with the fact that eating it over there just makes it taste better.

It was with mixed emotions that I got on the train a short while later. 2004 was the first time I visited Italy, and Vernazza was the first town I came to. I enjoyed the slow pace of life there, the relaxed attitude of the hotel owner and the charm of the picturesque buildings and boats bobbing in the harbor. I really wanted to spend a week hiking between the towns, roaming the vineyards on the hills and eating everything I could lay my hands on. The flip side of that was that I really, really wanted to get to Rome.

Rome turned out to be a fantastic place. No trip to Italy would be complete without visiting the Eternal City, but it would likewise be incomplete without taking the time to savor life in one of the small towns, be it a Tuscan hill town or one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre.