As a Floridian, I have often heard Fort Lauderdale endorsed as the American Venice. For those who have never visited the Veneto Region in Italy, do not buy into the hype, nothing short of a marketing ploy. The bold comparison to Italy’s most romantic city should be cautiously perceived with a titter. The only thing likening the two cities, which in fact is the sole distinguishable trait that the whole of Italy shares with the Florida peninsula, is the predominant presence of water.
In its culture alone Venice far surpasses any American city, richly saturated with over twenty centuries of history, architecture, and art. The same can be said for all of Italy, a country characterized by such legacies as the rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire, the birth of the Renaissance, and the preservation of the cardinal Church of Christianity. Two hundred years of American civilization cannot possibly equate. The only thing to do, if one were truly yearning for an authentic impression of Italy, would be to purchase a passage and go. I did. I found Rome and Milan attracting high fashion and posh wealthy types, but there are other less obvious destinations to visit. So as any true Floridian should, I headed right for coast.
To contrast the sandy flatness of Ft. Lauderdale’s renowned beaches, checkout southeast of Genoa along the rocky strand of the Italian Riviera, to where five small fishing villages sit terraced into the cliffs at the northern crook of the Ligurian Sea. There are not many roads leading there, only one train services each of the five towns, and passage between them is managed by a series of winding, narrow, cliff-hugging goat paths that could prove dangerous for the less than fit. Today Cinque (meaning five) Terre (land) remains one of the world’s most spectacular secrets, a cluster of ancient sea villages hidden in the coastal seclusion of Italy’s Mediterranean coast.
The primary allure of the Cinque Terre is the preservation of its 12th century antiquity, a history long guarded from the mainland’s influence by a range of rugged and impassable bluffs. Until 1960, the shores were accessible only by boat. Visitors who now arrive by train through the port city of La Spezia can lose themselves in the labyrinths of steep cobble stoned streets and stone-carved stairways, or explore the countryside by way of a one-thousand year old footpath that links the individual towns. Monterosso, the principal and most populated of the five villages (succeeded to the east by Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore), boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Europe. For its beautiful beaches and intimate nightlife, this is the town to stay.
There are no roads for cars to enter the Cinque Terre, and only Monterosso has a level main street. While the old part of the village harbors pebbled beaches and wine shops, the new tunnels through a cliff to a section of casual bars, outdoor cafes and elegant bistros. After a day of hiking or swimming or lounging on the beach in the sun, many saunter up here for a few glasses (or bottles) from the town’s vineyards and a meal of the fresh seafood catches of the day.
Hiking between towns is the best way to acquaint oneself with the terrain. A ninety-minute jaunt from Monterosso, beginning at sea level and climbing steeply, will lead through a landscape of magnificent stone walls and terraced vineyards that lead to Vernazza, where one can watch the blue, red and yellow boats bobbing in the harbor, or rest in a tiny piazza filled with restaurants and shops. From Vernazza to Corniglia is an arduous two-hour climb, popular with the painters and poets who for centuries have toiled to capture the beauty of the region. Known for its delicious foods and wine, Corniglia sits perched on a headland high above the Mediterranean with no direct access to the sea. Hikes between the final two towns, Manarola and Riomaggiore, are the least strenuous of the path, particularly along the leisurely stretch named the Via Dell’ Amore. At any one town, you can hop on the train and return comfortably to your hotel.
Because the Italian Riviera is an ideal summertime destination, accommodations should be reserved several weeks in advance. When arriving on a whim, look for the one of the cheaper and more plentiful rooms in Riomaggiore or Monterosso. Foods and wines are locally harvested and relatively inexpensive, but consider a bigger budget before heading to Cinque Terre. It is likely you will lose track of the days or reconsider the length of your stay after arrival.
Written by Bradley Fink
Photography by Vito Arcomano