On the Water: Venice and Cinque Terre


Venice is the one place in Italy that has been high on my bucket list since childhood. I love being near water, so a city laced with canals and bridges sounded so enchanting....and it is. Venice´s history as an important port city in the spice trade (in the 13th century, 70% of spices heading to Europe from the far east passed through Venice) lent eastern elements to Venetian architecture, e.g. Islamic-style dome canopies and arches mixed with the more traditionally european Gothic elements of St. Mark´s Basilica. The visual result renders Venice totally unique among Italian cities, with its domed silhouettes, rambling allies, and crumbling layers of centuries-old paint, all cast in hazy blue light. I couldn't put down my camera. 

We found, however, that the experience of visiting Venice is not quite as enchanting as its physical beauty, which attracts throngs of tourists (including us, of course), souvenir hawkers, and overpriced, sub-par Italian food (compared to the food in other Italian cities) accompanied by menus translated into four languages. The result is Venice: The Theme Park, complete with uniformed gondoliers at every bend. This atmosphere created a kind of duel experience: irritation with the jostling crowds juxtaposed with real appreciation for the city's history, art, and architecture. To appreciate St. Mark´s Square, the center of tourist activity, I had to imagine it vacuumed of all of the people (including people who paid for handfuls of birdseed in order to coax pigeons (yes, the same dirty birds we have at home) to land on their arms). However, Venice was built upon the revenue and influences of revolving shiploads of people from all over the world, and may have been even more crowded in its spice trade heyday than it is today. Somehow 13th century robed crowds seem more appealing.

Our favorite night in Venice was when we got a tip about some less-touristy bars that serve cicheti, or bar snacks, which you order with glasses of wine, and eat standing up at the bar. At one in particular, the bartenders were openly swigging wine behind the bar and cracking jokes with the patrons. It was pretty entertaining. Despite the crowds, I'm thankful to have experienced this city full of water.

In contrast to Venice: The Theme Park, Cinque Terre´s wilder cliff-side beauty was a welcome change. The Cinque Terre (five lands) consist of five towns built along the coast of the Ligurian Sea on the Italian Riviera. We stayed in the third and most remote town, Corniglia. Upon arriving at our AirB&B apartment there, we were greeted by the owner's grandfather Beppe, who lives in Corniglia and apparently manages the apartment. Throughout our stay, we'd see him around town and would call out “Ciao, Beppe!”. He'd respond with a string of Italian, of which we would comprehend a tiny bit thanks to his helpful gesticulating. Beppe was so droll and charming that we'd smile and nod as if we understood every word. Like Beppe, most of the residents of the Cinque Terre towns appeared to be elderly, probably due to the remoteness of the towns. The residents have likely lived in the towns for their whole lives, or have chosen to retire by the sea. If there are more of the former, it seems likely that the population will deplete in the near future, and I wonder how tourism in the region will evolve as a result.

We were excited to explore all five towns via a network of hiking trails that connect them, but on our only full day in Cinque Terre, the trails were closed due to heavy rain rain the night before (an apparent trend for our coastal trips). Luckily, there is also a train that runs between the towns, and we purchased a 6-hour pass for only 4 euros. Despite the trails being closed, it didn't rain much that day, and we even got to stroll barefoot on the beach in the northernmost town, Monterosso al Mare. The towns are primarily residential, with shops, restaurants, and old stone churches and watch towers to explore. Cinque Terre's main attractions are stunning coastal views, my favorite of which were those of the towns themselves – clusters of houses clinging to the mountainside like barnacles in shades of pink, orange, and yellow to complement the sunsets. We would love to come back someday and walk the trails in drier weather, but enjoyed our brief stay in this lovely place.