Italy’s Cinque Terre
The perfect moment approaches, that combination of the town lights and the rich colors from the setting sun. High on a path above the town, I am joined by other photographers, hikers, newlyweds and vacationers all enjoying the view of a most improbable village in a extraordinary setting. The town is Manarola and it is one of the villages making up Italy’s Cinque Terre National park.
Cinque Terre is a unique and romantic world. The name translates to “five lands”, and is named for the five unlikely villages built on unpractical and inaccessible cliffs along the Italian Riviera. Four of the towns are built into ravines with pastel buildings decorated with green shutters all leaning into each other. The streets are filled with artisan shops and charming restaurants serving seafood caught that morning. The relaxed tourists fill the streets and cafes and appear in good spirits. The absence of cars and the lack of national chains complete the illusion of a simpler time long past.
Access throughout the park is only by train through series of tunnels carved into the mountains. This requires a schedule, a watch and some degree of patience. If you can master all three, the trains are charming and only add to the experience. I booked into a small family run hotel in Fuereventa, an Oceanside village, just outside of the national park. From there a short train ride brings you to Levanto. Here you can buy a single or multi day pass for unlimited use of the trains within the park. It is important to note that if you are staying in one of the villages outside of the park you will need an additional ticket as the pass is for the national park only.
The first town is Monterosso, this village is the closest Cinque Terre comes to having a traditional resort town complete with a few cars, hotels, rentable beach umbrellas, and a live late-night scene. The town center radiates with old world charm with quaint shops and several charming restaurants and cafes.
Next is Vernazza, arguably the jewel of the Cinque Terre. Here you find an active marina filled with small boats and sun tanners basking on the rocks. Above the bay are the remains of the castle and fortress. The castle is open to the public and can be explored for a small entrance fee. There is a nice sandy beach popular for swimming on the south side. B&B's and restaurants line the hills above the town with wonderful views of the town and ocean bellow.
Corniglia, was settled by a Roman farmer naming it for his mother, Cornelia. According to a local legend Cornelia’s son produced a wine so fine that it found fame in distant Pompeii. Today wine remains the lifeblood of the town with vineyards surrounding the town on three sides with last being a 100 meter high cliff descending to the ocean.
The next town, tiny Manarola is the second smallest in Cinque Terre. It is a nest of pastel colored buildings cascading down its ravine to the harbor. Here starts the famous walking trail joining Manarola and Riomaggiore called Via dell'Amore, or Love's Trail. Legend holds that this footpath was a meeting place for lovers from the two towns.
Riomaggiore, the other end of Via dell'Amore, is a collection of slightly leaning colorful buildings with wonderful colors, lights and shadows. Following the trail to the north provides for a great view of the town, the location of one the views popular in books and postcards. Just make sure you bring a flashlight for the way back if you are returning after the sunset.
All villages in Cinque Terre National Park are connected by a walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail). The section of the trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola, the Via Dell'Amore, is pleasant, paved and it is wheelchair-friendly. The rest of the trails vary in difficulty, so be prepared with proper attire and water in the hot summer months. The steps seem at times endless but the view is something you will never forget.
Cinque Terre is a place to slow down, relax and celebrate. There’s no need to see monuments, no "must see" museums; instead go for a boat ride, a swim, a romantic walk in the hills or just kick back at a beachside café. Finish the day with a wonderful dinner of fresh local cuisine and then enjoy some of the famous local wines watching the sun set over the Mediterranean.