Italy: Charmed by Cinque Terre

Justine Tyerman finds Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Italy’s Ligurian Coast, just as she had envisaged.

Aerial view of Cinque Terre. Photo / Thinkstock
Aerial view of Cinque Terre. Photo / Thinkstock

Sometimes in life, reality lives up to the ridiculously-idealised visions you may have nurtured in daydreams for years. Cinque Terre - a cluster of five picturesque historic villages on the Italian Riviera - is such a fantasy, one I had treasured since watching a travel programme on television eons ago.

Even the place names - Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - evoked dreamy images.

So my excitement grew to hyperventilation-pitch as we snatched enticing glimpses of the Ligurian Coast and the walkway we planned to do, between the annoyingly-frequent tunnels on our train journey from Milan to La Spezia.

The splashes of bright sunshine, pastel-coloured dwellings glued to sheer cliffs and dazzling light reflecting off the blue-green sea alternating with the pitch darkness of the tunnels had the dramatic effect of building tension like a thriller.

So when we arrived at Manarola - an exquisite little village with fishing boats pulled right up the steep main street - I just stood there transfixed.

It was all true.

Our tiny, pink gem of an apartment, built into a cliff face above the sea, had a little balcony with a spectacular view of the rugged coastline all the way to Monterosso al Mare. Sipping sciachetrà (the wine of the region) and watching the shimmering pathway of the sun setting over the Ligurian Sea were ample rewards for the many long, late hours spent trawling accommodation websites before we left home.

But be warned, the villages are totally car-free and built into the near-vertical hillsides which give the region its unique character. Getting to your accommodation - up narrow cobbled alleyways and dauntingly-steep steps - is part of the rich tapestry of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) experience. So make sure you can carry everything you need on your back because trolley cases are useless.

Transport is by regular train and ferry services and the occasional electric bus.
Walking the Cinque Terre track is not tramping as we know it in New Zealand. Parts of the track are steep and narrow, but most of it is a meander along pathways through orchards and small settlements. A highlight was watching the local folk working in the vineyards and olive groves, perched on impossibly-narrow terraces, or rather ledges, which have been carved into the hillsides over the centuries.

We dawdled along the 10km path in the spring sunshine, sampling the local delicacies of anchovies, pesto, farinata and focaccia, cooling off in the heat of the day with gelato made from Corniglia honey, and refreshing plunges in the ocean.

The track could easily be walked in a day but if you want to absorb the beauty and the atmosphere of the region, spend at least three days in one of the little villages and explore some of the hinterland and history of the region.

Portofino, playground of the uber-rich with its obscenely-opulent yachts and mansions including villas owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani is definitely worth a day trip. Once there, take a 20-minute ferry ride to the utterly beautiful 1000-year-old San Fruttuoso Abbey.

We abandoned our plans for the rest of the day and spent the afternoon exploring the cloisters, church, tower and Doria tombs, and swimming or rather floating around in the incredibly salty, buoyant sea.

The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With the exception of Monterosso al Mare, the largest and most touristy of the quintet, the villages are tiny and accommodation is scarce and variable in quality.
Avoid July and August when the heat is unbearable and the track is so crowded the local authorities sometimes close it. Sadly, large parts of the track are closed at the moment due to massive slips last winter.


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