Small-town Italy: Vernazza

Explore this highlight of northern Italy's Cinque Terre.

Gorgeous morning in Vernazza.
  • Gorgeous morning in Vernazza.

Life seems mellow and tranquil in the tiny, idyllic seaside town of Vernazza in Italy’s Cinque Terre. But the community suffered a traumatic experience in October 2011 when torrential rains led to a flash flood that devastated many of the ground level businesses in the town and killed three residents.

Pictures of the 2011 flood greet visitors to Vernazza.

Pictures of the 2011 flood greet visitors to Vernazza.

A visitor might never know of this tragic episode were it not for a dramatic and poignant collection of photos greeting visitors as they descend the stairs from the train station into town. The photos capture the grim expressions of shell-shocked business owners in the days after the flood as they stood in their shops and restaurants amidst a carpet of mud.

Thanks to its status as a tourist hotspot in the Cinque Terre, however, and the solid structural integrity of its buildings, less than two years after the tragedy, Vernazza is recovering and thriving.

The Cinque Terre (“five lands” in Italian) section of the Italian Riviera consists of five small coastal towns (Vernazza, Coriglia, Monterroso al Mare, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) within a few miles of each other in the Genova region on the northwest coast of Italy.

The entire area is part of the Cinque Terre National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s connected by train to La Spezia to the south and Genoa to the north. A hiking trail also connects the five towns.

I visited all five towns in the cluster and, while Monterroso al Mare, one train stop to the north, has a longer, more crowded beach and a livelier nightlife, Vernazza was, to me, clearly the most appealing of the five. After days of scouring the art museums of Florence, it was a pleasant contrast to visit here.

Vernazza's Doria Castle.

Vernazza's Doria Castle.

I met Daria, the owner of my B&B, at the foot of the train station in front of the aforementioned photos. He escorted me to my room, immediately grabbing the heaviest of my two bags and leading me up what seemed like endless flights of stairs. (Locals here must be in good shape to climb these stairs everyday!) Despite the climb, I was happy with the room as I wound up with a stunning view of the local castle.

Vernazza takes little time to cover by foot. The picturesque harbor that juts out into the sea is a five-minute walk from virtually anywhere in town. Several outdoor cafes and restaurants encircle the harbor, allowing you to plant yourself down for the better part of a day if you choose. It’s a particularly fine spot to recharge one’s batteries during an expedition around Italy. Be sure to sample the gelato from one of the three fine local gelaterias.

Pasta dishes with seafood are the specialty of the region. You might consider trying a spaghetti dish mixed with the local seafood (spaghetti con frutti di mare) or a local specialty called tegame alla Vernazza, which consists of anchovies mixed and baked with potatoes and tomatoes. Evening entertainment is often a fixture along the harbor with live bands and performers. As evening turns to night, the Blue Marlin bar becomes the center of Vernazza’s nightlife. Those looking for a more robust nightlife, however, should head to Monterroso, one train stop to the north.

A visit to Vernazza should include an exploration of the few back alleys to get a sense of the rhythm of the relaxed local lifestyle. One of the primary charms of Vernazza and the other towns in the Cinque Terre is the lack of corporate development. UNESCO’s strict construction and renovation restrictions have allowed the area to remain as it has for decades. Locals have even faced jail time for repainting their homes!

To explore the surrounding area, buy a Cinque Terre pass that allows for hiking and train travel between the five towns. The latter can get quite crowded midday during high season. Some of the hiking trails were closed during my visit. I recommend that, even if you don’t hike the trail between the five towns, at least hike up the steep trail overlooking Vernazza for a magnificent view. It’s a particularly striking sight in the early morning.

Vernazza is not a place to escape from tourists during a summer visit to Italy, especially now that the Cinque Terre is becoming more of a chic place to visit. But tourism – together with locals' resilient spirit – is what's enabled them to recover so quickly from the flood that could easily have destroyed the town.

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Great article, Derek. I was there in 2002, a year after 9/11, and the place was devoid of tourists. In fact, I was visiting in the high season and showed up with no reservations. I simple went to the tourist information office and they booked me a private room. Thanks for the memories.

My pleasure, Sam. I’d love to have visited Vernazza in those days but it wasn’t on my radar. Yes, it’s been discovered-I even bumped into people from San Diego there. But it’s still a unique place and well worth a visit.

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