The Picturesque Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast of Italy are a photographer’s delight. These five villages cling to narrow bays and steep hillsides between Porto Venere and La Spezia. Their vibrantly coloured houses, rocky seafronts and marinas full of little fishing boats guarantee every photo is a work of art. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, but little road access to the villages, thus helping the area to keep its charm by restricting development. The rugged coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The hillsides are heavily terraced and are used to cultivate grapes and olives. Although the local people also used to rely on fishing, the main source of income is now from tourism. Energetic tourists come here to do the Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail), 11km up and down steep paths from Riomaggiore to Monterosso Al Mare.
We were on a tight schedule, so we chose to leave the car near the train station at La Spezia, take the train to Riomaggiore and walk only the first section. Walking down the main street we were met by the sight of Riomaggiore’s small beach, a boat ramp and tall houses ‘glued’ to the sides of the ravine.
The trail to Manarola is called the Via Dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane) and at 2km length is relatively easy going. At one point there is a lookout with a lovers’ seat and thousands of locks, some engraved with lovers’ names, attached to the fencing at the cliff edge. To reach the station you need to walk up the steep main street, through a long tunnel.
From there we took the train via Corniglia (a former Roman village which clings to the top of a hill) to Vernazza, the most picturesque of the villages, stopping there for the night. We did not visit Corniglia as it is a steep climb up the terraced hill to get there, even after leaving the station, but we saw it in the distance from Vernazza.
Accommodation in the Cinque Terre can be hard to find due to the restricted development, but after an internet search I discovered a number of B&Bs and rooms for rent in Vernazza. Our room (in the green building) appeared to be on the second floor from the front, but was actually at path level at the rear due to the steep terrain. It was a skinny room like a hallway, but it had a bathroom and kitchenette as well as the bed-sit, so it was fine.
The room faced the beautiful church – Santa Margherita d’Antiochia – and the main piazza below. This was a very popular place for locals and tourists to gather since there were a few restaurants and gelato bars around its edges, as well as a tiny beach next to the sea wall..
Since it was hot, we were keen to have a swim. The marina is a bay naturally formed by a promontory with a medieval castle atop, and a breakwater pier to improve the bay’s shelter. The small beach was quite crowded and the boats were moored in quite close, so we watched to see how people were accessing the area to one side. They were walking through the church, in their swimming gear, and exiting the back through an arch onto an area that led through rocks to the sea! Much as it felt disrespectful, we then did the same. Negotiating the rocks was a challenge as they were covered in soft mossy seaweed that made scrambling over them slippery and dangerous. Then we had to scamper back through the church in our wet bathers!
We explored the village, gelato in hand, bought souvenirs – Limoncello of course – found a nice place for dinner in Piazza Marconi, and retired to bed. Unfortunately, the socialising in the piazza below continued into the small hours, and with the windows open since there was no air conditioning, it made for a restless night.
Next morning it was on to the train again to visit the last village – Monterosso Al Mare. Here there is an extensive sand beach with lounges and umbrellas packed cheek by jowl. There is more development here – a new town and an old town – with lots of hotels, restaurants and shops. They get a lot of tourists.
Back on the train to La Spezia, we wished that we had been able to spend more time in this beautiful area. But Venice was beckoning and we were excited to be going there. Perhaps we will return one day.