Retired in Rome Journal: Santa Margherita is the “quiet countryside park to Cinque Terre’s Disneyland”

The view of Santa Margherita from my balcony at the Hotel Continental.
The view of Santa Margherita from my balcony at the Hotel Continental.
Da Michele, Santa Margherita's best seafood restaurant.
Da Michele, Santa Margherita’s best seafood restaurant.
The view of the Gulf of Genoa from Corniglia's seafront.
The view of the Gulf of Genoa from Corniglia’s seafront.
View of Manarola from Corniglia.
View of Manarola from Corniglia.

MAY 21

SANTA MARGHERITA, Italy — They should change Cinque Terre’s name to Sei Terre. It doesn’t have the same ring to it. In fact, Sei Terre sounds like the name of someone’s dog. But they need to add this lovely town of Santa Margherita to the beaten-to-a-pulp path of its more famous five neighbors to the south. After three days of squeezing past tourists in Texas Rangers jerseys, I have found the true paradise of the Ligurian coast.

I am writing this on my balcony of the Hotel Continental. I’m staring down at palm trees saluting me with giant leaves standing at attention. An ombrello tree offers shade to a pool and the hotel’s private beach next to the royal blue Gulf of Genoa, which explodes in color when the sun’s out. Multi-million dollar yachts are docked 200 meters away with the charming multi-hued dock front as a backdrop. The only sounds I hear are birds singing nearby.

This is the scene to which I awakened.

Santa Margherita is the quiet countryside park to Cinque Terre’s Disneyland. I haven’t seen this many Americans in one place since my last football game at Nebraska. In Santa Margherita I haven’t seen one San Francisco Giants cap, one University of North Carolina Mom T-shirt, one protruding gut, one college kid walking through a quaint harbor holding a liter bottle of beer in his hand. Santa Margherita is as peaceful and beautiful as an Italian model without the attitude.

Three days in Cinque Terre were enough even if I only hiked one day. I took the little regional train to Corniglia where even a 1.80 euro fare is a ripoff. These towns are five-10 minutes apart by train, meaning I barely sat down before I had to deboard. Corniglia is the least pretty of the five Cinque Terre towns. It’s the only town with no direct access to the sea. It’s built atop a 330-foot-high cliff where a wide viewing platform provides terrific panoramic views of the sea. To get there, I wandered up the quiet, windy road from the tiny train station through vineyards and little apartment houses advertising “Mare Viste” (Sea Views). But once in town I had to descend down a narrow alley where any slip might make me send a few dozen postcards cascading from a souvenir shop’s wall. Art shops sold crude drawings from scenes in all five towns I didn’t recognize. Near the lookout point to the sea, a young, tipsy American and his gal pal sat on stoops chugging from a giant bottle of Forst, the Italian beer brewed in Alto Adige near the Austrian border.

The sea view in Corniglia was worth the trip but having to stop on the pathway so the procession of tourists started moving again was maddening. The shopkeepers were remarkably pleasant considering how many Americans refused to even attempt saying the word “Grazie.” I’d feel like a sheep in a petting zoo.

Not that I wanted out of Cinque Terre but I aborted my visit to Manarola after about 10 minutes. Manarola is the prettiest village next to Vernazza. It sits atop a cliff but the best views of the town are from the sea. Watching tourists sunbathe on the rocks jutting out into the gulf only made me hotter in temperatures that were creeping into the high 70s.

Remind me never to come to Cinque Terre in July. Twice the crowds in 90-degree temperatures would turn heaven into hell real fast.

The last train out of Cinque Terre from Vernazza was at 5:23 p.m., leaving me only 17 minutes to get off the train, grab my bag at the hotel and buy a ticket to Santa Margherita. I took no chances. I took about three photos in Manarola, turned around and sprinted back to the train station where an earlier train took me to Vernazza and a leisurely hour train ride to paradise.

Night in Santa Margherita is something out of an Italian romance novel. Eighteenth century lanterns illuminate palm trees that line the main promenade encircling the harbor where bright blue lights mark the slips for the private yachts, kind of like spotlights on a darkened stage.

I took the hotel’s recommendation and went to Da Michele, known for having the best grilled fish in town. I had grilled orata, a local white fish similar to a dorado and it was cooked to perfection: just slightly crispy brown on the outside and flaky on the inside. The grilled vegetables — the red peppers, the zucchini — were like something off a barbecue in Texas. Blue flowers filled white planters. White-coated waiters provided a touch of elegance, off-setting my backpacker look of blue jeans and white cotton long-sleeve shirt.

Sitting outside under palm trees without a tour group in sight, I learned once again that Italy offers surprises where you’re not even looking. Santa Margherita was a wait station on the way home. This morning it’ll be a future destination for an extended stay.

Read tomorrow’s blog. I’ll outline the perfect Italian vacation and Santa Margherita will get a starring role.