If you love people and you love beaches you’ll love Monterosso al Mare. It’s the only Cinque Terre town with a real beach. And when I was there in early July the beach was jam-packed. I’d say packed like sardines, but seafood, particularly anchovies, is a culinary specialty of the region and the locals might not appreciate the metaphor.
I hate both people and beaches. Let me rephrase that. I hate large crowds of people. And I get bored out of my skull after about five or ten minutes of just sitting on a beach. But I do like many people one-on-one. And uncrowded, unspoiled beaches can be beautiful.
Despite the crowds and the beach that was spoiled by the presence of the crowds, Monterosso is a beautiful town by the sea with lots of charm and great restaurants. So, in spite of myself, I very much enjoyed my visit there.
If you visit the Cinque Terre region and you’re going to spend more than one day there then you’re going to have to pick a town to stay in. And if you’re from abroad and spend all of the time and money necessary to go there and you don’t make it more than a day-trip, then what the hell are you thinking? You’d have to be an idiot. You wouldn’t want to think of yourself—or have others think of you—as an idiot, would you.
So, which of the towns should you stay in?
By the way, I’ve seen the town labelled as Monterosso al Mare on maps. I’ve also seen it labelled as just Monterosso. Most of the signs I saw left out the “al Mare,” which is Italian for “the sea.” As far as I could tell Monterosso and Monterosso al Mare are the same place, but I’m prepared to find out some time before I die that I’m wrong about that. Truth is, I am wrong about far too many things.
If you’re one of those neurotically insane people who are uncomfortable in family-run bed and breakfasts, or even small inns where the proprietors expect you to make small talk every time you walk through the lobby, Monterosso is probably your best bet for a home base in Cinque Terre. I’m one of those neurotically insane people. So, that’s where I stayed for the three nights I spent in Cinque Terre.
Monterosso is the largest of the main towns of Cinque Terre. It’s where you’re most likely to find a room in what, in a real city, would pass for a hotel rather than a quaint inn or a charming bed and breakfast. To my mind, quaintness and charm are wonderful to look at, but I wouldn’t want to have to spend the night there. Such places are way too intimate for me.
Tunnel or Scenic Walk
Monterosso has both an old town and a new town. They’re separated by a pedestrian tunnel, but there is also a more scenic walk by the sea, over the hill that the tunnel passes through.
That was a stupid thing to say. “More scenic” was redundant. No matter how well decorated the tunnel might be, what’s the likelihood that an outside walk beside the sea would be less scenic than a tunnel, unless the walk had a garbage dump on the side away from the sea.
The outside walk does not go past a garbage dump. Quite the contrary. It goes up and over a small, rocky hill that juts into the sea.
The exterior walk is a little, but only a little, more strenuous than the walk through the tunnel, but it’s, obviously, much prettier. Oh, and the “pedestrian” in “pedestrian tunnel” is a bit of a euphemism. Taxis and other authorized vehicles are allowed to use it. That’s another advantage of the scenic route. You won’t run into any cars on it because they would have trouble negotiating the stairs over the hill.
When a vehicle drives through the tunnel, pedestrians have to move to the side of the roadway. The good news is that, when I was there, vehicle use of the tunnel was very rare.
There’s not enough room for two-way traffic in the tunnel with or without pedestrians. Traffic lights at either end of the tunnel ensure that what little traffic there is flows in only one direction at a time.
The Old and New Towns of Monterosso
In Monterosso’s new town the buildings are, not surprisingly, relatively new. The buildings in the old town are, even less surprisingly, older. Then again, it would have been rather silly to put the old buildings in the old town and the new buildings in the old town, wouldn’t it? But I digress.
To my uneducated eyes, the buildings close to the water in the old part of town did not look all that much older than the buildings in the new town. You have to walk almost a block back from the sea to get to the older buildings. Among them were a couple of small churches across the street from each other. They both displayed understated charm.
But even these older buildings did not appear all that old to me compared to, say, the older of the buildings in Venice.
In both old and new halves of Monterosso pedestrians definitely have the priority on the streets. In some parts of the old town, the “streets” were exclusively for pedestrians. Although, this might require a broader than appropriate definition of the word “street.” Some long stairs apparently count as streets because there are houses with numbered doors off either side of the stairs.
Church of the Capuchin Friars
Speaking of stairs, if you are in Monterosso and you are in the mood for a hike up a lot of them, head up to the Church of the Capuchin Friars. The relevant stairs are in the old town. You’ll find them about halfway between the pedestrian tunnel and the elevated railway tracks. You’ll know you’ve found the right stairs if the centre of them are done in red brick. And houses don’t line the sides of those stairs.
Near the top of the hill is the small, but lovely Church of the Capuchin Friars. When I went inside, recorded Gregorian chants were playing. It was very peaceful. And this is coming from someone who normally doesn’t have a peaceful bone in his body. High angst is my normal state. So when I say it was very peaceful that’s probably saying a lot. Or maybe not. It’s a personal thing. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
I said “near the top of the hill” because the top is occupied full-time by dead people. There’s a cemetery there inside the ruins of a castle.
Considering that the cemetery is inside ruins, I was expecting that its occupants would all have been dead for hundreds of years. That wasn’t the case. The earliest date of death I saw was the late 1800s, but there were also some graves of people who died within the past few decades. I didn’t look at every grave marking, so the range might have been larger than that.
The bodies were mostly buried in vaults built into walls. There were also some family crypts with multiple vaults. And at the very top of hill there were a few dozen of what, in my cultural frame of reference, would be considered to be normal graves.
It probably says more about the pathetic way my mind works than anything else, but I couldn’t help spending considerable time thinking that funerals there must be horrendously arduous. I walked around and couldn’t see any roads that came right up to burial spots. All of the routes I saw required climbing at least some steps. And, in the case of some burial locations, a funeral would require carrying a casket up a large number of steep steps.
As further evidence of the sickness of my mind, I admit that, while there, I wondered whether anyone had ever had a heart attack during a funeral procession and joined the guest of honour. On the bright side, at least no one would have had to lug the body of the newly deceased up to the cemetary.
Well, that was a rather macabre way to end a post about the lovely town of Monterosso, wasn’t it? But you get what you get when you come to this blog. And that is what you got.