Our Italian adventures continued as we left Florence (which you can read about here and here) and headed west by train to the Italian seaside: the Cinque Terre. The five lands (translation of Cinque Terre – pronounced CHINK-weh TAY-reh) seem to cling precariously to the Ligurian coastline, their buildings like pastel colored jewel boxes stacked on top of each other, somehow defying of the laws of gravity.
The five villages of the Cinque Terre are located at the southern end of the Ligurian coast and include (from north to south): Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. They have been perched precariously on the seaside cliffs in the northwestern region of Italy since medieval times. Rick Steves describes the Cinque Terre’s tumultuous history in his travel guide on Italy (2009):
“In the feudal era, this land was watched over by castles. Tiny communities grew up in their protective shadows, ready to run inside at the first hint of a Turkish Saracen pirate raid. Marauding pirates from North Africa were a persistent problem until about 1400. Many locals were kidnapped and ransomed or sold into slavery, and those who remained built fires on flat-roofed watchtowers to relay warnings – alerting the entire coast to imminent attacks. The last major raid was in 1545.
“As the threat of pirates faded, the villages prospered, catching fish and growing grapes. But until the advent of tourism in this generation, the towns remained isolated. Even today, traditions survive, and each of the five villages comes with a distinct dialect and its own proud heritage.”
The villages are linked by clearly marked hiking trails, some of which follow along the coastline and others that climb up into the steep hillsides that take you through vineyards and gardens. It is possible to hike the entire length between Monterosso al Mare to Riomaggiore in about four hours, but doing so won’t leave much time to enjoy the villages. (They are also linked by the train which runs frequently and is super easy to navigate.) I recommend allowing a full day to hike the trails and to be able to poke around in each of the villages. You will need a trail pass which can be bought at the train station or the trail heads. (In 2011, a one day pass cost €5.)
Very few cars or Vespas are driven in the Cinque Terre due to the narrow and steeply winding streets as well as in most areas of the villages, the only way to get from one place to another is to take the stone stairs that have been laid or carved into the cliffs. And when I say stairs, I mean if you lived there, you would have buns of steel.
We were staying in Vernazza in a small apartment hosted by the owners, Maria and Giacomo Capellini. The kindly and elderly Giacomo met us in the town piazza, a quick five-minute walk from the train station. After greetings in English and Italian, he scooped up our bags as though they were full of feathers and led us across the piazza to the apartment building. Then, with the strength of a mountain goat, Giacomo swiftly climbed the 62 steps (yes, we counted them later) up three flights of stairs to our apartment. By the time Mappy and I made it to the door we were panting and sweating and our sturdy host wasn’t even the tiniest bit out of breath.
Giacomo and his sweet wife, Maria, helped us get settled in to the charming and quaint apartment and oriented to the tiny village of Vernazza. Mappy and I were nerdishly excited about having our very own clothesline right outside the balcony doors.
By then, we had become total laundry nerds. In our defense, it had been quite hot in Italy and we were walking an average of six hours per day while sightseeing. Plus, we had seven miles of hiking to do the next day and all of that makes for lots of sweaty, stinky clothes. Because we already had a couple of strikes against us being foreigners who didn’t speak the language very well, we thought it best to at least smell fresh when ordering our wine and gelato. So, we had quickly become experts at hand washing our clothes in sinks all over Italy. Having our own Italian clothesline right outside the door made us simply giddy with excitement. Like I said: Total. Laundry. Nerds.
We quickly unpacked our stuff and then went down by the seaside to enjoy the view and the cooling breeze while scoping out where our next gelato fix would come from.
One of the reasons I chose Vernazza as our home base was because it has a nice, flat beach. Several of the other villages have rocky, steep beaches and one – Corniglia – doesn’t have a beach at all because it’s high up on a cliff. The beach in Vernazza is right off the piazza and there are kayaks or small boats you can rent to go out on the azure Ligurian Sea. (The five villages are also accessible by boat or kayak if you are the sea-faring type.)
Vernazza has a central main street where the majority of the shops and restaurants are located. The entirety of the village can be leisurely explored in less than an hour. Teeming with tourists and locals by day, the small village (population: 500) takes on a whole other feel at night. The jewel box buildings glow in the lantern light, couples and families walk along the beach or shoreline at sunset, and the outdoor cafes and restaurants circling the piazza come to life with boisterous laughter and conversations.
Mappy and I chose to eat dinner that first evening at a restaurant perched high up on the cliff above the piazza so we could take in the view. After 8 gazillion steps (no, I didn’t count this time), we were rewarded with the most amazing view of the trip so far.
The next day we planned to hike as much of the trail between the five villages as we could while also allowing ourselves time to explore each of the villages at our leisure. We were in Italy and had come to embrace La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, which to us meant not making each day a mad rush to see everything. We also took it to mean we should eat gelato every day and sample as many flavors as possible, a mission we took seriously.
We decided to head south with the idea that we could catch the train from the southern-most village of Riomaggiore up to Monterosso al Mare and then hike the rest of the way back to Vernazza. We easily found the trail head in Vernazza and began the long ascent up into the hillside that would lead us to the next village: Corniglia.
Nearly two hours later (we had accidentally taken the longer, steeper trail), we arrived in Corniglia (pronounced like the name, Cornelia), the only one of the five villages not on the water. It is described in the guide books as the quietest village and that certainly was the case while we were there.
Corniglia is beautiful yet small and didn’t take much time to walk through. We weren’t hungry yet for lunch so we headed towards the connecting trailhead that would lead us to the next village, Manarola.
When we got there, signs were indicating landslides had temporarily washed out parts of the shorter trail between Corniglia and Manarola. The only other trail available was one that went even higher up the hillside and was nearly twice as long. By now, the sun was blazing down on us and the thought of taking an even steeper trail to get to Manarola was totally unappealing. So, instead of hiking we walked down the 400 steps (according to my Rick Steves guidebook) that zigzag down to the train station. Within ten minutes, the next train arrived and five minutes later, we were in Manarola. Easy peasy.
Manarola was much bigger and busier than sleepy Corniglia. I was fascinated by the way boats were parked like cars along the streets.
We walked down to the swimming area and wished we had been smart enough to have packed our swimsuits in our backpacks. The water was so clear and delightfully pleasant – not too cold, not too warm – and I wanted to jump in, clothes and all just to cool off.
The next village, Riomaggiore, was accessible by trail, a portion of which is called the Via dell’ Amore, the Pathway of Love. It’s an easy and flat stretch of trail. The villages of the Cinque Terre were relatively isolated from each other and the rest of the country up until the 1920’s. Because of this, villagers in each of the towns rarely married anyone outside of their village. Then in the 1920’s, the first trail was made between Riomaggiore and Manarola, though persistent landslides closed the trail more often than it was open.
By WWII the trail came to be known as a meeting point for lovers from the two villages. A journalist who noticed all of the proclamations of love in the graffiti that had appeared along the path coined the name Via dell’ Amore and it has stuck ever since. These days you will also find clusters of padlocks attached to the cables or railings along the path. The latest craze in Italy is to close a padlock on to a cable or railing with your loved one as a symbol of affection.
After a quick lunch in Riomaggiore, we took the train all the way up to Montorosso al Mare, the most “resort-like” of the five villages. Packed with people, we could hardly navigate through the town for the crowds.
We decided to make it a brief stop and then hike back to Vernazza. Unfortunately, it was later (and hotter) than we thought. According to the travel guide books, the 90 minute hike back to Vernazza is a scenic, up-and-down trek with very narrow sections that can be tricky to navigate. Feeling hot and tired, we opted to forgo the somewhat treacherous hike in 90 degree heat in favor of the quick five-minute train ride.
Fifteen minutes later (we did have to walk to and from the train stations after all), we were back in the apartment, ceiling fans whirring above us, ready to wash our clothes and hang them on the clothesline. We felt oh-so-Italian doing so.
After a long day of hiking and walking in the nearly vertical villages, we decided to spend some time relaxing in the apartment. Mappy drew in her sketch book and I sat by the open doors to the balcony writing in my journal listening to the lilting conversations between families and neighbors outside: local residents returning from work, talking while preparing the evening meal, or chatting with a neighbor outside in the alleyway. I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, though I didn’t mind. Italian is so beautiful to listen to that it was like listening to my own personal soundtrack as I wrote in my journal.
As we were having our evening gelato, the church bells began to ring and a procession of people made their way through the piazza tossing flower petals in their wake. We had the good fortune of witnessing another procession in honor of a patron saint, this time Vernazza’s revered San Giovanni. Children followed behind picking up the flower petals and tossing them in the air like confetti.
Before we left Vernazza, Maria and Giacomo invited us to their apartment for a glass of their delicious homemade wine. Even though they spoke only a little English and our Italian wasn’t great, we were able to chat with them for a while before catching the train. Meeting such lovely and friendly people like Maria and Giacomo always felt like the icing on the luscious cake during our time in Italy.
The Cinque Terre was a completely decadent way to take a break from all of the sightseeing we had been doing in Venice and Florence for the past week. The brilliant blue of the sea, the soul-warming sunshine, the winding hiking trails, the breathtaking views and the mouth-watering food and wine were like taking a vacation within a vacation. The Cinque Terre earns all of the adjectives travelers have been heaping upon her shores for decades and then some.
So, my adventurous readers, what are your thoughts or questions about the Cinque Terre? Would you have enjoyed all of that stair climbing in exchange for the gorgeous views? Sit a while and share. (There aren’t any stairs here in the kasbah so really, there’s not reason not to.)