I’ve visited Cinque Terre many times and each time is a new experience.
Although it used to be one of Tuscany’s best kept secrets, Cinque Terre or, “The Five Lands,” is now a hot spot for vacationers – but its many visitors do not detract from the rugged charm of this unique little slice of the Italian Riviera. If you ever find yourself wandering one of the crowded main streets there, take a little detour onto one of the quiet back roads and you’ll soon feel as though you’ve been transported back to a simpler time – before automobiles, before electricity, when most folks simply lived off the land. Cinque Terre remains as beautiful and breathtaking as ever.
The Five Lands are probably best known for their excellent hiking and late summer is my favorite time to go. As you trek through the wilderness between each village, there’s an abundance of wild figs and cactus pears ripe for the picking.* The cactus pears can be tricky as they do have thorns; the larger spikes can be dealt with if you’re careful but they also have almost microscopic ones that — if they end up on your skin — can be difficult if not impossible to remove without a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. You may be asking yourself, “So, why bother?” It’s a risk vs. reward thing. The figs are much easier to deal with!
If you start your journey in the southernmost town, you will be setting out from Riomaggiore and from there you’ll pass through Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterrosso al Mare in succession.
Riomaggiore is the largest of the five towns and is famous for its pastel colored homes that hug the cliffs and for being the beginning of the trail called the Via dell’Amore or, “The Way of Love” connecting it with Manarola. At present, only 200 meters of this trail is open due to damage from a rockslide that occurred in 2012 and the projected reopening date is sometime in 2021 but this town can still be the starting point for your hiking adventure. Here you’ll also find the Castle of Riomaggiore, a 13th century structure originally intended to protect the inhabitants against barbarian attacks.
Manarola is another village that features colorful houses that seem to cascade down the rocky cliffs along the coast. This town is famous for its wine production, indeed the name “Manarola” itself is derived from the local dialect’s word for “mill wheel” attesting to the town’s agrarian origins. The hiking here is spectacular featuring many picturesque trails that lead you through the local vineyards and olive groves.
The interesting town of Corniglia lies in the middle of the Five Lands and dates back to Roman times. Historians base this on the markings on terracotta wine amphoras found in the ruins of Pompeii. The smallest of the villages, Corniglia sits around 300 feet above sea level and if you arrive by train, you’ll have to climb the 382 steps to get to the center of town. Along the way, you’ll likely run in to some local artists and artisans selling their wares. I bought some beautiful watercolor paintings from one of them once.picturesque trails that lead you through the local vineyards and olive groves.
With the only natural port in the Cinque Terre, it’s thought that Vernazza was once used as a center for defense against pirates. Today you’ll find many restaurants, cafes and stores. After enjoying some fresh seafood you can head up to the fortress overlooking the coast.
Before the railroad arrived in the late 19th century, Monterosso al Mare was once only accessible by sea or the narrow trails that led inland. This town boasts the only truly sandy beaches in all the Cinque Terre but if you came to hike, you won’t be disappointed as there are about 32 trails for you to discover and enjoy.
There is little to no traffic in the Cinque Terre, indeed since parking is very limited, automobiles are actively discouraged. Although you can drive there, most people arrive by train. Not having to deal with a car can be a welcome respite from other major cities. Of course, if you’re on a Bella Italia Escorted Tour, you won’t have to worry about that at all ?
*(Disclaimer: Obviously I cannot and do not personally recommend that you handle or consume wild fruits that you find in the wilderness.)