If the word doesn’t ring any bells, think “those colorful houses from the pictures”. Go ahead and search for “Manarola”. I can wait. Remember it now? Alright, let’s proceed then. Probably the most famous of the Cinque Terre towns, Manarola is a world-known fairytale location. It’s a small village perched on the cliffy Italian seaside facing the Mediterranean Sea, where houses are painted with warm colors. I don’t know about you, but this description alone is enough to make me go there!
Albeit a touristic powerhouse, getting there requires a bit of planning. The train is the most usual transportation mode, but you can’t just catch any national line running along that area. Cinque Terre has a railroad of its own, one that starts in La Spezia (near Genova). This city could very much be your starting point to visit Manarola, since nights on the town itself are exorbitant. While a single train ticket isn’t very expensive, remember Cinque Terre is composed of… well, 5 towns. So usually people buy a special pass valid for some days that lets them go back and forth however they want.
Once you’re in the countryside railroad, things get better. Not only is it one of the prettiest rides you’ll ever experience, but you’ll generally get out right in the middle of each town. In fact, the little train will sort of become part of your life there. My first fear when getting to Manarola was the possibility that this was an overrated destination. Not just visually, but in terms of the mood of the place too. And regarding visuals, boy… it is NOT. The first time I got there was at sunset, so I immediately was confronted with the classical photo climax. I tried to be a smartass and get to a vantage point where no one was standing. But I soon realized that it wasn’t worth it (too much vegetation and top-down view, similar to Vernazza). Eventually, I started seeing where everyone was going in order to capture the traditional town shot.
And when I got there, it hit me. You’re looking at pure beauty alongside hundreds of other tourists. A beauty that transpires a peaceful existence working in the fish and winemaking industries. I felt like I was violating and ruining everything. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was both witnessing one of the prettiest sights ever, while at the same time drowning in a sea of restless tourists. The station at La Spezia in the morning had more people than I ever saw in Milano. It was difficult to simply roam the town streets. Near the seaside / marina you also had people coming from the ferries. And of course, the crowds at the Instagrammable places were ludacris (Rollout forever!). Of course, if you stray from the main street, go uphill or to the actual hills, things change. The amount of people decreases exponentially. You can then relax a bit more and focus on the details and the locals. You’ll also find much less people once the sun sets down: obviously. There’s much I have to say about overtourism (and my own share of the blame), but I’ll address that in another time. Surely, I’m not the only one to notice this.
But I digress.
I was happy to see that restaurants weren’t particularly expensive. Small grocery shops also help the low-cost tourists such as me. I highly recommend going to the top of the town. You can visit the old church (Chiesa di San Lorenzo), see the cityscape from above and go all around it through narrow and charming alleyways, ending again at sea level. Look up to the balconies and see the clothes drying across buildings, and small terraces you can trespass for 1 minute to enjoy the view. Sitting near the shore eating a real Italian ice cream is also a must (if you can find a seat of course).
I can’t NOT recommend visiting this amazing UNESCO place, but I was changed by this experience. Surely I imagine you can’t possibly visit it without bumping into many people (maybe in the winter though). So… tread carefully and be warned of what you’ll find. And leave a positive and conscious footprint on the place.