the Most Beautiful Village in Cinque Terre?
I’ve often heard Manarola described as the most beautiful village in Cinque Terre, so I took a look around in order to figure out what makes it special.
On first acquaintance there was nothing much to distinguish Manarola from the other villages in Cinque Terre. The houses in soft shades of yellow and red faced westwards and supported their backs against a steep cliff. I’m sure there’d be a magnificent view of the spectacular Ligurian coast from the windows and balconies of numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts. Loud beach towels left to dry on the railings indicated a sea perfect for swimming and snorkeling, if you are comfortable jumping off the rock or climbing a ladder into deep water. And the crowded, narrow streets were filled with fascinating eye-catchers.
A Tiny Cosmopolis
Manarola is the smallest of the five villages in Cinque Terre with only 400 permanent residents and a history dating back to the 12th century, when olive, wine and lemon farmers from the hills moved down to the coast and started fishing. All cars and motorised vehicles are completely banned in the village. Instead Mediterranean blue boats line the streets. The natural harbour is too small for mooring, so every morning when the still active fishermen return from the sea, they haul their boat up on dry land and park them at the side of the street.
Given that the main street in Manarola is little more than 7 metres wide, the boats add to the cramped feeling of the place, and I’m glad to be visiting in November and not during summer along with most of the 2,5 million tourists who ascend on Cinque Terre annually . The numbers are so high that local authorities plan to impose a visitor limit from the summer of 2016, so check out for a Cinque Terre app selling tickets to the area before you visit.
Even off season you are surrounded by a multitude of travelers, and during my first hour in Manarola I discerned a commonwealth of English accents mixed with Russian, Japanese, French, Polish and several other unrecognizable languages. Mass tourism has turned this typical Ligurian village into a cosmopolis.
Where to Eat in Manarola
I studied people’s faces for emotional indicators, but most looked bewildered and lonely as they walked around in hiking boots and sensible clothes, sandwiched between a practical rucksack and a heavy camera. Like me they were probably tired from the obligatory Cinque Terre hike and nervous at the prospect of missing a photo opportunity or not making it to all the villages before sundown. Tourism can be stressful. Especially when visiting unmissable, once-in-a-lifetime, Unesco World Heritage, dream destinations like Manarola. In addition, the path to Coniglio and the lover’s trail to Riomaggiore were closed at the time of our visit, so the only way to and from Manarola was by public transport, and there was a push and shove every time a train entered the station platform.
As an antidote to stress, I considered renting a room for the night. It would be nice to sit on a terrace with a novel and wait for the sun to go down, but even though the thought of staying, when the last migratory visitors have left town is appealing, Manarola is said to have some of the best restaurants in Cinque Terre with places like Trattoria dal Bill, which was very popular on Tripadvisor, Marina Piccolo that had what the Michelin guide inspectors called a “pleasant outdoor service and simple standard”, and La Cambusa, where they sold highly praised pizzas, focaccia and the deep fried chickpea flour bread known as farinata.
Proof of the Pudding
Still, I discarded the idea of staying, and spent the rest of my time in Manarola soaking up the atmosphere. The autumn light was softer than the summer sun, but there was still a sharp contrast between light and shadow that threatened to ruin most of my trophy photographs.
I didn’t see (m)any ordinary shops like grocers, bakeries or banks around, and wondered how the people who live here, manage to survive. They probably take the train to La Spezia every time they need to to stock up on provisions, and leave local shopping to the tourists. The choice of goods in local shops ranged from ceramic plates decorated with patterns of lemons and grapes on a deep blue background, in designs that reminded me of Amalfi. The pottery shops also sold fridge magnets, wine corks, ceramic tiles and other pocket sized souvenirs, while the outlet next door supplied postcards, snow domes, t-shirts, mugs, aprons, tea towels and other tangible memories. I missed the small museum dedicated to the sweet, local sciacchetrà wine, but heard afterwards it might have been closed temporarily.
After a while I think I went beauty blind, and stopped clicking away with my camera. This would explain why the photos were slightly disappointing when I got home: There were too few of them, they were poorly lit and unfocused, and I didn’t even have the wherewithal to walk a few hundred metres along the track to Punto Bonfigliolo for a perfect, backlit panorama that would have proved beyond a shadow of doubt why Manarola is considered the most beautiful village in Cinque Terre.