Perched on the Italian West Coast, an hour north of Pisa, the Cinque Terre, has been kissed by the sun and cultivated by hand. Literally translated at “ the five lands”, the Cinque Terre is a mountainous coastal region, with magnificently fertile terraced farms, knock-out scenery and home to the famous five traditional villages. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. It’s the rainbow of subtle pastels, that make these villages so photogenic to explore on foot. Narrow multi-storied homes, painted in creams, yellows, ochres, and crimsons – and all green-shuttered. Each village is connected by train, that winds its way along the steep coastline and through the verdant national park, which enjoys the status of UNESCO, as a World Heritage-listed landscape. The mountainside is covered by terraced vineyards, lemon groves, olive groves , ribbons of bougainvillea and fields of fragrant herbs. Following the Saracen raids in the 12th century, 200 years of back-breaking work ensued, as villagers built the entire stone wall network, which equals the length of China’s Great Wall. A dogged determination must have been in their DNA, transforming the cliffs into terraced fruit bowls.
A variety of walking trails criss-cross the region, but the most revered is the Blue Trail, an 11km-long coastal path which threads the five villages together. Buy a one-day Cinque Terre card, which will cost you 6 Euro, and make a start on the Blue Trail early in the morning, to avoid to the crowd crush and punishing afternoon heat. And make sure you’re equipped with water! Via Dell’amore , (Lovers Lane) , is the legendary coastal path that connects the first village, Riomaggiore to its neighbour, Manarola. Much of the Blue Trail is hilly, and you need a reasonable level of fitness to complete it, but Lovers Lane is flat, well-paved and could easily be accomplished by Kim Dotcom. It will take you about five hours to complete the full Blue Trail route to Monterosso, although allow more time, to take a breather in the various villages, browse the shops and recharge with a steaming espresso. Plus, there is a monstrous cat colony, between Corniglia and Vernazza, complete with donation boxes and food bins, that transfixes passing tourists. The felines are friendly, albeit homeless, which would not impress Gareth Morgan.
You might have heard about the recent floods and rockfall that promptly closed the walking trails in 2011 and Lovers Lane, last October. Thankfully, the debris has been cleared and the walking trail has re-opened. If you have doubts that your legs will withstand 11kms of hardy hill walking, rest assured that you can village-hop on the regional train, which runs every 30 minutes.
Riomaggiore is the Cinque Terre’s southern gateway, easily reached from La Spezia or Pisa. A cluster of colourful houses slither down a ravine to form the main street, Via Colombo. The street bustles with traditional stores including a butchery, bakery and general store. Riomaggiore also has some of the region’s best seafood restaurants.
Manarola is a beautiful coastal village wreathed in vines. More grapes are grown around here than
any other Cinque Terre village. Don’t miss the imposing medieval bell tower, which served as a key defensive look out in the Middle Ages.
Corniglia is balanced precariously along a ridge high above the Mediterranean Sea. Four-storey houses, narrow lanes and stairways weave their way around the ridge. The village’s pretty central square is a popular rest-stop for coastal walkers, before the steepest stretch of the walkway begins!
Vernazza gets my gold-star for photogenic prowess. Set around a tiny harbour,
you’ll think you’ve wandered onto a film set, as you descend down the hillside. The small waterfront piazza features a gorgeous small stone church, built in 1318, and dedicated to the region’s sailors. Vernazza’s main cobbled street, Via Roma, leads from the harbour to the train station, and has some fantastic souvenir shops, specialising in local handicrafts. The ceramics are particularly good. Monterosso is the most developed of the Cinque Terre villages, with a new town and the old town. Follow the signs to Vecchio, to encounter the village charms of yore, the winding alleys and traditional green-shuttered homes.