The growth in popularity of the Cinque Terre region of Italy, most of which can only be reached by boat or train, has put a strain on the local infrastructure. Locals, many of whom use the trains to commute to work in nearby cities, are frustrated by trains packed with cruise passengers and other tourists. Often there is nowhere to sit, and barely anywhere to stand.
To alleviate some of this strain the train operator has recently increased the number of local trains running between La Spezia and Levanto. Trains will now run at least every 30 minutes, a total of 44 trains per day in each direction, stopping at all of the Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso).
Last week the world news media picked up a story claiming the Cinque Terre would be limiting visitors, and that you would need to purchase tickets in advance to get access to the area. As with so many things, the media sensationalized this way out of proportion.
Over the past 20 years the popularity of this section of the Italian Riviera has climbed steadily. It's easy to understand why. Home to five tiny little villages, dripping with old world charm and essentially inaccessible by car, it presents an idyllic retreat from the hustle of the modern world.
But that popularity – over 2.5 million visitors last year – has put an enormous strain on the region's fragile infrastructure. Many of the tourists now visit the region as a day excursion from cruise ships, meaning they not only burden the infrastructure, they leave comparatively little money behind to support it.
The whole region is a national park, and the head of the park recently announced plans to put sensors in each village to gauge the number of tourists, to develop an app that would let people know which villages were the most congested, and, ultimately, to limit the number of visitors. Knowing how the Italian bureaucracy crawls along (see The MOSE Project), when I read the initial reports in the world media I was skeptical, to say the least, that any such project could be completed in such a short time.
The park head has now backtracked on his statements, and locals in the know have brought a little more context to the situation. For an excellent overview of the region, and up-to-date news on what's going on, check out Cinque Terre Insider, a blog run by an expat American who has been living in one of the villages for more than 10 years.
Back in the 1970's and early 80's, the Cinque Terre was an undiscovered little slice of the Italian Riviera, visited mainly by middle-class Italians on summer holiday. Enter guidebook author Rick Steves. Thirty years and millions of guidebooks later, visitors to the Cinque Terre now encounter narrow streets full of Americans, elbow to elbow, and all with Rick's guidebook tucked under their arm, all in search of the "undiscovered Italy."
Just a bit south of the Cinque Terre is the Bay of Poets, once home to English expats like John Keats, Percy Shelley and DH Lawrence. This has been my own slice of the Italian Riviera for the last 15+ years. Unlike the Cinque Terre, it has no train station, meaning you'll need a car. But, like the Cinque Terre, narrow roads and a lack of large hotels keep most of the big tour groups away. It seems that the New York Times, too, has stumbled across this little gem. Get there before it is overrun.
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