Travel

Weekender: Cinque Terre

Clinging to an isolated stretch of coast, this string of colourful villages feels blissfully cut off from the rest of ItalyMonday, 8 April 2019

By Adrian Phillips
Grape harvest, Manarola.

Until the middle of the 19th century, Cinque Terre was a part of the Italian Riviera pretty much unknown to foreigners. Lord Byron was famously enamoured of the region — he called it ‘paradise on earth’ — but he was one of a lucky few. And, these days, despite it being UNESCO-listed and attracting over two million tourists a year, it still has the air of a world overlooked.

Cinque Terre’s reputation for being isolated from modern life is down to both geography and attitude. Its five villages are pinned to the sea cliffs east of Genoa, with the mountains stacked behind them. Building on this rugged landscape is difficult, and the locals have resisted the temptation to allow developers in. There are few cars (drivers require a special permit) and no high-rise hotels. Most visitors get here via the railway from La Spezia or aboard ferries that ply the shoreline.

From north to south, the villages are: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Each is different in character: Vernazza dates from Roman times and is the prettiest; Corniglia takes the most effort to reach, perched high on the cliffs; and Riomaggiore attracts the biggest crowds in summer. Yet each is also firmly part of the whole. They have a shared history of poverty, their inhabitants scratching a living from the vines and olive trees that grow around the villages; and a shared pain in the memory of 2011’s flash flood, which killed 13 people and caused huge damage.

This is a place to walk, whether it’s a gentle stroll over the cobbles past colourful houses, or a hike along the eight-mile coastal path that links the villages (though some sections are still closed for repair after the flood). It’s a place to duck into medieval churches or climb watchtowers, to enjoy a plate of anchovies and a glass of local wine, and to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Something fishy

Anchovies are used as more than pizza toppings here. They’re a staple on Cinque Terre menus, served stuffed, salted, fried or squeezed with lemon. They also make a great portable snack, piled into a cone of paper. They’re particularly associated with Monterosso, whose fishermen take to the sea at night in small boats called gozzi, attracting the anchovies into their nets with lights — just as they have for centuries.

Wine time

The terraced slopes of Cinque Terre, lined with dry-stone walls, have been used to grow vines for millennia. Pliny and Petrarch made reference to Cinque Terre wines, and an amphora from Corniglia was unearthed at Pompeii. Best known is the sweet and strong Sciacchetrà, made from the local Bosco grape, which is dried on mats before fermentation. The wine is thick and honeyed, ideal with desserts, cheese or cantucci biscuits.

Three to see: Beyond the five villages
Portovenere
While the five villages attract the limelight, four miles or so south is the town of Portovenere, at the tip of the promontory that shelters the so-called Bay of Poets. Its 12th-century Church of St Peter is beautiful, with black-and-white striped walls, while nearby is a cove from which Byron swam across the bay to Lerici in 1822.
Lerici
Something of a local secret, Lerici is a popular getaway for Italians. The old town is a gorgeous tangle of alleyways, and the beach offers a pleasant promenade beneath the looming medieval castle. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned nearby, but before his death he and Mary Shelley anchored their sailing boat at Lerici.
Carrara
Head east from the five villages and you’ll reach Carrara, source of the marble used by the Romans for the Pantheon and Michelangelo for his statue of David. You can take a fascinating tour of the working quarry, deep inside the grey-white mountain — tickets are sold in the quarry yard. carraramarbletour.it

Did you know?
Some claim the houses of Cinque Terre were painted long ago so fishermen could spot their homes from out at sea, but the pastels actually appeared in the 1970s, as the villages were beautified for tourists.

Box of bones

Vernazza’s 14th-century church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, with its octagonal bell tower, is a retreat from the crowds. Legend has it a casket containing the bones of St Margaret washed up at this spot, and when a church was built to hold the relic, it was destroyed by a storm. However, the box appeared on the beach again. It was a sign, of course, so a new church was built.

Boating off the coast of Cinque Terre.

Eyewitness: On the waterfront

The engine vibrates beneath us, the water whipped white behind. I have a prime spot on the upper deck. These ferries run frequently between Portovenere and Monterosso al Mare, a 90-minute journey that offers a perspective on Cinque Terre that isn’t possible when you’re in the thick of its medieval streets.

Yesterday there was standing room only on the train from La Spezia to the Cinque Terre villages, and I disembarked at Vernazzo to join a slow-moving conga of tourists through the alleyways. I enjoyed the bustle, though, breaking the line to browse stalls selling trays of lemons, and squeezing into a beachfront restaurant to eat baby octopus grilled on wooden skewers.

Back on the ferry, I admire the cliffs, their steep sides striped with grape vines and olive trees. The cliff eventually rounds into a rocky cup, edged with shallow-roofed houses painted pastel peach, pink and mint-green, lines of washing strung from beneath their windows. We’ve reached Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages. A handsome church is silhouetted at the top of a hill to the right; little motorboats zip about the bay, leaving foamy trails on the sea’s surface. The ferry bumps against the jetty, disgorges a few passengers and accepts a few more, and then we’re thrumming our way northwards along the coastline again.

Next stop is neat Manarola, rising seamlessly from the cliff as if its houses have been sand-papered level with the rockface. Behind a sea wall of boulders is a calm pool where people swim, and beyond that a path zig-zags out to a promontory the shape of a dragon’s snout. More passengers get off and on. “Wow, we got a great view!” an American says, taking a seat in front. And he’s right.

The other villages follow. Cloud hangs low on the hills behind Corniglia; a young couple quietly drink a coffee on their balcony at Monterosso. In between is Vernazza. I watch as a boy scales a shark fin of rock near the shore and somersaults into the water. In the distance behind him, the packed train I rode yesterday worms along the cliff before disappearing into a hole in the mountain. Here on the water, away from the crowds, it’s easier to see how the Cinque Terre all fit together, to give context to a truly unique landscape.

Cinque Terre is in north-west Italy, about 60 miles from Genoa and Pisa airports, both of which are well served from the UK. Most visitors take the train from La Spezia, the region’s gateway city. A Cinque Terre Card costs €7.50 (£6.70) a day for unlimited access to trains, shuttle buses and hiking trails.

Follow @adrianphillips1

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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