Vernazza: The Budget-Conscious Crowd's Portofino
Looking for an inexpensive Italian coastal getaway that's got plenty of charm, sun, and beautiful backdrops? Vernazza, in the Cinque Terre, is one of my favorite towns in the country. I'm even loath to write about it because it's such a gem.
I was just back there for my annual pilgrimage, and despite being on the Rick Steves trail, crowded with day-trippers during high season, the place still has its own unspoilable charm--pastel-colored buildings with laundry hanging from the windows, old geezers who make a living room out of the seafront piazza, local kids diving off the pier, and rooms that can still be booked for 100 euros or less. Admittedly, most of the accommodations are not luxurious, and you have to climb a hundred steps to get to Gianni Franzi's rooms, where I usually stay, but I hardly spend time there except to sleep.
There is too much to entertain outside: I stay busy eating at Gianni's trattoria (plates of marinated anchovies in lemon juice, fritto misto, spaghetti al vongole, whole fish in the oven and the pesto the region's famous for), swimming off the aforementioned pier where a swimming-only lane in the cove means undisturbed laps, reading at an outside table at the bar in the main square, and taking hikes between the five picturesque villages that have given this area a UNESCO heritage designation. My favorite of the trails is between Vernazza and Corniglia--it is ruggedly beautiful and the views are spectacular (try to time ending your walk as the sun sets). At night, the town becomes more peaceful when travelers from La Spezia and Porto Venere head to their hotels and only residents and people staying in the village remain.
Next time I want to try Vernazza's La Mala, a newish boutique hotel that overlooks the sea. It's a bit more pricey than the other hotels, but reviews are good.