The Cinque Terre (Five Lands), a six-mile stretch of coastline along the Italian Riviera, seductively draws tourists, her allure building every year. Hanging off the cliff sides, this grouping of five villages, the coastline that hugs them, and the surrounding hillsides all coalesce to form the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leave your vehicle at your hotel, if you came in one as we did, and join the tourists who use her walking paths, trains, shuttles, and boats to move from village to village. At least these tourists seem more laid-back than those we had seen in other large cities.
Although Cinque Terre has been “discovered”, there remains an air of authenticity here. The enchantment of the Cinque Terre is found in the colorful houses and shops, appearing to be stacked one on top of another, running down the ravines and hillsides to the shore. Her real charm is in the lack of corporate development. There is something provocative about the locals refusing to give in to the trappings of the modern world. Their philosophy of living a good life is through religious devotion, family ties, hard work, and lots of wine and laughter. Throughout the centuries these hardy locals have terraced the hillsides, building houses, planting vineyards, olive groves, and family gardens, tending and harvesting them.
We had hoped to be spontaneous about sleeping arrangements here but the more we read of the Cinque Terre, even in the shoulder months of September and October, the more we thought an advance hotel reservation may be in order. Knowing we might be crowd weary at day’s end, I chose a hotel above the Cinque Terre, in the small village of Volastra. We couldn’t have been more pleased with Hotel Il Saraceno and her proprietress, Antonella. Arriving late afternoon when restaurants were closed, we walked to the market for local fare of cheeses, salami, bread, antipasto, and wine. The terrace back at the hotel became our banquet table and Antonella contributed wine glasses for the affair. Waking to cappuccino and a wonderful breakfast spread each morning and coming back to a quiet little hotel above the bustling villages each night made this the perfect respite.
We had planned to hike the Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) when we arrived, a trail that connects all five villages. Unfortunately sections have been closed for repairs since the devastating floods and mudslides of October 2011 and are yet to reopen. We hiked all that was available and enjoyed the views from each section. Purchasing the Cinque Terre Multi-Service Card, which included the use of walking trails within the National Park, as well as the train and shuttles, completed the logistics for navigating from village to village, and it paid for itself quickly.
Given Cinque Terre’s location on the Mediterranean, seafood is plentiful here. Acciughe ( ah-CHOO-gay), aka anchovies, is a local specialty and not the salty version we know of in the states. These are fresh from the sea, cooked in various dishes. I enjoyed a layered casserole of whole anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, white wine, oil, and herbs…very tasty!
The villages each have their own unique qualities so each draws its own special crowd. From north to south, here are the “five lands” of the Cinque Terre:
1) Monterosso al Mare
This is the oldest of the five villages, founded in A.D. 643, when locals moved from the hills to the coast to escape barbarians. It is the only town built on flat land, has both an old town and new town, separated by a tunnel, and is the only village with a proper beach. It was one of two villages hit the hardest by the floods of 2011.
Founded around the year 1000, it has the closest thing to a natural harbor and this is where the action is in town. We spent much of our time in this quaint village down at the harbor, watching old men puttering with their fishing boats and students sketching and watercoloring, as we enjoyed sunny days, picnic lunches of friggitoria (bite-sized seafood piled into a paper cone), and gelato (of course). Many feel Vernazza is the jewel of the Cinque Terre.
Vernazza was hit the hardest on October 25, 2011, when 22″ of rain fell, burying much of the town under ten feet of mud. With the affluence brought on by tourism, some locals had abandoned their land, leaving vineyards unworked and stone walls crumbling, all which slid into the village, adding to the devastation – a tough lesson for the residents.
The quiet middle village, Corniglia is the only town not on the water, although steps lead down to a rocky cove. Some say that vases of wine found at Pompeii were those made in this peaceful little village. Wine is still the life blood today.
Tucked in a ravine, mellow Manarola has a little harbor at its base. It’s hillsides, blanketed with vineyards, have more grapes than any other village. Great photos can be taken of the colorful village and harbor from a point on the peninsula. Our first hike was from Volastra down to Manarola, a steep descent through olive groves and vineyards, with gorgeous views of the Mediterranean.
Largest of the five villages, Riomaggiore was built in the 8th century by Greek settlers fleeing persecution in Byzantium. It is the laid-back working man’s town, with colorful murals honoring the workers who built the 300 million cubic feet of stone walls, made without mortar, that runs through Cinque Terre.
I had read that Cinque Terre has a way of mesmerizing those who visit, with many planning to leave but still here. We had much yet to see in Italy so we made our escape after a fantastic 4-day visit.
Next Up: “Under the Tuscan Sun”