The Cinque Terre area, an UNESCO jewellery, is a beautiful collection of green hilly landscapes, deep blue waters, colourful old houses and chatty locals (at least our host was one of the chattiest people I’v ever met). The five villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare offer a wonderful sense of calm and idyllic lifestyle, suspended in time and broken only by the train whistle, which connects the five villages, accessible also by foot along a cliff edge pathway, known as Sentiero Azzuro (“Light Blue Trail”).
I visited Cinque Terre with some friends at the beginning of May, when the temperatures were perfect for sunbathing (and occasional swimming on some hotter days), away from the cloudy chilly England. It was just a couple of months after the landslides that nearly destroyed some of the villages, especially Monterosso and Corniglia. I have to admit I was surprised by how quickly and well the towns managed to restore themselves, probably in view of the tourist season, the main source of income for most inhabitants.
Monterosso and Vernazza are the oldest villages, dating back to the 11th century, while the others developed gradually under the Genoa supremacy. The towers are from the 16th century and were built to protect locals against the Turks attacks. Although so close to each other, each village has its own soul and particularities.
Riomaggiore (the village where we took accommodation) is the largest of the five by population and it seems more like a little town, populated by craftsmen and fishermen – in fact here I had the best fish dishes in a long time. Locally sourced, fish is always fresh and unbelievably tasty (I particulalry enjoyed the local seabass), served with generous quantities of olive oil (don’t worry, it goes very well), also locally produced on the hilly terraces and with grilled vegetables. I also appreciated the farinata, typical Ligurian snack, a sort of very thin crispy and oily pie that comes in many varieties (pesto, anchovies, tomatoes, courgettes – my favourite, and so on).
Manarola, with very colourful houses, is the second smallest of the five and has a particularity – the old mill wheel in town, which gave the name of Manarola (from the Latin “Magna rota” – “Large wheel”). It has been traditionally known for fishing and wine-makingon its hills – in fact the local wine, Sciacchetra is very appreciated. It is connected with Riomaggiore through a walking trail (unfortunately part of it was closed, due to the landslides this year) beautifully names Via dell’Amore – Love’s Trail.
Corniglia is the smallest village, tucked away on a cliff about 100 metres above the sea, hence with no direct opening to the beach (in fact it has no beach). It is reachable by climbing Lardarina, a set of 382 steps or alternatively there is a little road for cars (however cars are not allowed in the other villages, as protected by UNESCO) and an occasional bus that goes up every 30 min or so.
Vernazza is probably the most beautiful of the five, also third largest after Riomaggiore and Monterosso. The little harbour is the most pitoresque site, you will see it featuring in many guide books. It has a little beach and also great walks up its hills, leading up to landmarks such as Doria Castle and the Sanctuary of Madonna di Reggio.
Monterosso al Mare is quite large, to me it seemed larger than Riomaggiore and it has the largest sandy beach of all, with wonderful views over the lush green hills around and dotted by lemon trees. It is divided into the old and new town, separated by a tunnel, both for pedestrians and cars (very few, I have to say). I’d also recommend it for souvenir shopping and also for clothing and little trinkets, but maybe it was just me that I didn’t have enough time to discover the shops in the other villages.
The five villages can also be visited by boat, a little ferry that connects them offers great views from the sea and I would say it’s a must-do if you happen to visit the area. The ferryboat offers the option to visit La Spezia and Levanto (the larger cities on the far east and far west coast) and Portovenere, another beautiful town. A one-day trip between the five villages costs 15EUR (as of May 2013) and if you want to visit Portovenere it is a bit more pricey, about 26EUR. Fore more details, here is the timetable for boat and train: http://www.cinque-terre.org/en/train-boat and http://www.cinqueterre.eu.com/en/boat-excursions.