If we ignore the television antennas on every house, we could be in another time. The rural villages, amid olive and chestnut groves on steep rocky terrain overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea, seem unchanged for centuries.
We have just walked along the Road of Love from Riomaggiore, and tiny Manarola lies before us. The walk is spectacular as the path skirts the cliffs and offers wonderful views along the Cinque Terre coastline of the Italian Riviera.
Four small villages and one larger town make up the Cinque Terre (The Five Lands). The westernmost town, Monterosso, is the tourist hub of the region but lacks the picture perfect aspect of the smaller villages.
We take a train to Riomaggiore with the intention of walking through the national park to the other villages. This has been stymied, however, by landslides which have closed the track in several locations.
Riomaggiore dates from the early thirteenth century and, is known for its historic character and its wine. Perched precariously on a steep hillside leading down to the rocky shoreline, this little town has a magic all its own.
It has a small beach and a tiny wharf framed by a jumble of tower houses painted in traditional colours. In the high part of the town, we admire the parish church of San Giovanni Battista, built in the 1340s. Everywhere we go there are crowds. We finally find a little pizzeria and take stock of our situation.
There is almost a complete lack of English even in the information centre so we mill around with Brits, Americans, Canadians, Australians and groups from Asia trying to determine what options we have. Finally we line up to buy a park entry card and head off towards Manarola.
The Via dell’ Amore is flat and paved and nearly anyone could manage this 20 minute hike. There are great views of the sea, cliffs and vineyards.
Manarola spills down a ravine to the wild and rugged coastline. The tiny harbor has a boat ramp, picturesque buildings and the town’s swimming hole. There is no beach. We wander around, take photographs and try to pack the beauty into our memory.
All the towns in the Cinque Terre have railway stations so we decide to move on by train. It’s only a four minute ride to Corniglia but the train service is patchy. Finally a train arrives and we travel almost all the way in a tunnel.
Corniglia is different from the other towns because it is perched high above the sea. It is surrounded on three sides by many picturesque vineyards and terraces, while the fourth side hurtles steeply down to the waters below.
We follow a road from the train station which takes us to the village. It is a long, steep climb but the alternative of over 400 steps in 33 flights of stairs doesn’t appeal. Part of the charm of Corniglia is that it isn’t as frequented by tourists as much as the small fishing villages.
We wander the narrow lanes and visit the eighteenth century square with its Oratory Santa Caterina. We buy a coffee and relax under the large trees then walk through the village to the marvellous viewpoint. While it is less spectacular than the other villages we have seen, we like Corniglia but now it is time to move on. It’s down the stairs and off by train to Vernazza.
This is similar to the other towns in having no vehicle traffic within the heart of the village and this helps it remain one the truest “fishing villages” on the coast. There is a small beach within the protected harbour and some nice restaurants overlooking the scene. We walk down the steep road to the shore then climb to Doria Castle which was built in the 15th century to protect the village from pirates. Our camera works overtime as there are spectacular views in all directions.
Monterosso is the largest and busiest centre. The town is divided into two parts with one half having a crowded sandy beach and restaurants, bars and hotels and the other having narrow streets and historic buildings. The medieval Torre Aurora or Dawn Tower separates the two and they are connected by a tunnel. The old part of town is where you will find the San Francesco Church with its art works and it is great just wandering the streets seeing the varying sights.
There is a good range of hotels from 4-star hotels to simple B&B properties, some with lovely views. The town also has some lively restaurants which give an opportunity to taste local seafood, edible mushrooms, olives, pine nuts and Sciachetra, a sweet wine variety.
You can reach this coast by train from Genoa in a little over an hour. I suggest starting in Riomaggiore and working westwards. Despite what most information tells you, all the villages are accessible by car but this is not the recommended form of transport. All the villages have restaurants, bars and some accommodation. Prices tend to be high.
Point to Ponder:
The toughest part of politics is to satisfy the voter without giving him what he wants.
For more information on Italy see Experience Northern Italy an ebook available at www.amazon.com/kindle then search Len Rutledge.