June 29, 2013: Our friend Stefanie suggested we visit Cinque Terre when we were in Italy. It looked interesting, so we decided to check it out.
Cinque Terre means five lands. It’s a string of five small, colourful villages perched along a remote stretch of rugged coastline an hour or two south of Genoa. The area is noted for fishing and wine making, with terraced vineyards climbing the steep hillsides that make up the region. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was designated as a national park in 1999 (Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre).
Getting there was part of the adventure. As we once again tried to avoid driving on the toll superhighways, our GPS lady sent us on a wild route along super twisty, narrow secondary country roads seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which Chris took great pleasure in driving, much to the displeasure of my tummy. At one point, she even tried to send us up a driveway on private property, but luckily a nearby signpost got us headed in the right direction.
It’s recommended that you park outside of the region in La Spezia and take the train in because parking is at a premium. In fact, you can only drive into one of the villages; the largest, Monterosso al Mare. Of course, we didn’t learn about this until after our visit and we didn’t even know you could get there by train until we had already arrived. But luck was on our side and we managed to snag one of the few remaining spots in the town’s parkade.
Initially, we decided that visiting two of the towns would be enough for us. The towns are connected by a scenic walking trail that hugs the coast and meanders through vineyards and around bays, or you can hop on any of the regional trains or ferries that run between them, as most visitors do.
We chose to walk, since it was such a beautiful sunny day. It was suggested to allow one and a half hours from Monterosso to the next town south, Vernazza. The trail is narrow with lot of ups and downs; sometimes there are stone stairs, but mostly bare dirt with lots of exposed tree roots. Nearly everyone was wearing proper hiking boots and some even carried walking sticks. Chris opted for flip flops instead.
The steep, terraced hillsides have been used to grow grapes, olives and lemons for centuries. When the grapes are harvested, they are carted down to the towns along a cog-wheel single track rail system. Sadly, we heard that the terrace walls are not being properly maintained and erosion is taking its toll in some areas.
Although there were a lot of tourists in the towns, the trail itself wasn’t too crowded except where everyone stopped to take pictures at the most scenic of places. The views were spectacular and well worth the effort. When Vernazza’s picturesque harbour under the shadow of Doria Castle came into view, we were ecstatic, anticipating the cold bevvies that awaited us.
Still an active fishing village, Vernazza itself dates to the 11th century. The main street and Piazza Marconi were flush with camera toting tourists eating gelato, munching on fried seafood from large paper cones and buying souveneirs, but it was easy to get away from the crowds in the narrow side alleys and up the steep steps at Doria Castle. Not many people bothered to make that climb.
Vernazza was charming but it wasn’t the image imprinted in our heads. So we decided to hop on the train and go to the furthest of the five towns, Riomaggiore, walk the popular Via dell’Amore (Street of Love), a cliff hugging trail that connects it to neighbouring Manarola, and then take the ferry back to where we started.
Apparently, the terrace walls aren’t the only thing in disrepair. The Via dell’Amore was closed due to damage from a storm. So our new plan to hit four of the five towns was quickly revised again. After picking up a bottle of local Vino Rosso recommended to us by a wine merchant, we took the ferry back to Monterosso, getting to see each of the five towns in turn from a water perspective. As it turns out, Manarola was the one we had been holding in our mind’s eye.
Picturesque? Absolutely. Between us, we took more than 250 photos today, not including all the ones we deleted. And if the sun had stayed with us, we probably would have taken many, many more.
Tomorrow’s destination: Portofino