Under the Ligurian sun
The soft, papery petals of a bougainvillea plant brush past my right shoulder, their vivid purple glowing in the sun. On my left, a dense tangle of blackberries and fig trees fails to obscure the sudden dropoff to the Mediterranean, several hundred feet below. Sunlight on the turquoise water winks invitingly at me. But I can’t be lured by the hypnotic blue; the dusty stone-and-dirt path below my feet is disconcertingly narrow, with room enough only for one person at a time.
One foot in front of the other, steady as she goes. When I meet another hiker, we take turns balancing precariously, hugging the scrub on either side of the path, laughing at our awkwardness. We’re not really worried. They may be precipitous, but the pathways of Italy’s Cinque Terre region are far too enticing to inspire dread.
Literally the “five lands,” the Cinque Terre are a string of pastel villages clinging to the steep slopes of the Ligurian coast, less than 60 miles southeast of Genoa. For hundreds of years, before the train punched its way through the mountains, the zigzag footpaths were the only way to traverse the hills between the towns. Not surprisingly, with the relatively flat sea at their feet, the locals became boaters.
But the medieval laborers who gouged out the Cinque Terre’s walking trails did not neglect the land. They moved rocks and built walls and created a plunging landscape of terraces, green with grapevines. Before tourism came to the Cinque Terre, fishing and winemaking were the region’s mainstays. Now visitors come for the sun, water and views as well.
The harbor in Vernazza.
In the town of Vernazza, a reproduction of a medieval tower keeps watch over the tiny harbor and houses a small, impromptu museum. (I followed the signs for the “Bar — Self Service” to the glowing Pepsi machine in the tower basement, where the “museum” consists of old prints of the town.) Postcards from the early 1900s document a more decrepit Vernazza, as well as a nascent Italian tourism industry.
Today, the entire region has been designated a national park, which means no cars (although motoring visitors can park their cars at the top of each town and walk down) and a daily fee to access the many trails snaking across the hills. In summer, Italians, Germans and Americans all head to the Cinque Terre, often with families in tow, for the epitome of the sun-kissed Mediterranean holiday.
Near Genoa, and along the coast towards France, the Italian Riviera plays host to glitzy harbors and upscale shops. But the Cinque Terre towns are too small, too rustic and too quiet for much late-night swinging. Instead, visitors hike, sun, swim and eat.
The biggest summertime event is the soccer tournament, played out nearly nightly on Vernazza’s tiny sandy beach. Some nights, kids from different towns duke it out; other nights, Vernazza’s own barmen, waiters and waitresses take each other on. Adoring small boys patrol the harbor side of the minuscule court, ready to plunge into the dark water to rescue wayward balls. Locals and tourists alike line the stone walls above the beach, cheering madly each time a team scores and ducking when a wild ball ricochets off a pink house wall. Somehow, the balls always miss the green-shuttered windows.
By midnight, the scene is winding down. Not until the church bells above the harbor begin to bong at seven a.m. does the town start to get ready for another day of vacation.
It’s possible to walk between all five towns in under six hours, but it’s better to stop and savor each town instead. Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town, is the Cinque Terre’s best imitation of a luxury resort, with a long, sandy beach lined with shady umbrellas, plush hotels and bars that stay open late. Vernazza, the next town south, has a large piazza right on the water and the best natural harbor.
Corniglia is the only town that shuns the waterfront, clustering instead atop a hill. Manarola is perhaps the most picturesque, with vineyards creeping down into the town and spectacular rock platforms in the harbor for daring divers. And unassuming Riomaggiore has the most Cinque Terre pride, with enormous murals eulogizing the nameless workers who painstakingly turned the terrain into a stairstep landscape.
Connecting all the towns via mountain tunnels are the local trains, chugging along the coast a few times each hour, offering an easy way to backtrack or skip ahead when tired. Only the most intrepid — and impatient — visitors hike the Cinque Terre in an afternoon and call it a day.
Being lazy, I bunked in Vernazza and made it my base. I emailed one of the few hotels in town, the Albergo Barbara on the main piazza, and made a reservation months in advance. But simpler and easier is to do as most tourists do: get off the train and ask about renting rooms. Nearly every local family in the Cinque Terre rents out rooms or knows somebody who does; signs announcing affittacamere (rooms for rent) hang next to almost every door. Nobody home? Go into any open business and ask; chances are they rent out rooms, too. Some rent out entire apartments, which are perfect for families or groups eager to cook.
The harbor in Vernazza.
Mornings in Vernazza started with a pastry in one of the town’s several bars: maybe a chocolate or apple croissant, washed down with an espresso or latte. Next came a trip to the green-painted spina, or public tap, in the piazza to fill up my water bottles. Then I strolled up the town’s single main street, Via Roma, to browse for a picnic.
Three different grocery stores offer fresh produce, cheeses, olives, salami and drinks; the bakery, Forno (literally, “Oven”), sells superb focaccia, the puffy local bread sprinkled with olive oil and dented by the baker’s thumbs. It’s always sold plain and, depending on the whim of the day, dotted with soft stracchino cheese, rosemary, tomatoes or mushrooms. Equipped with lunch, I was ready to hit the trail.
The two longest hikes, connecting Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza and Corniglia, are the steepest. But both can easily be done in less than two hours. Hilltop Corniglia has a lengthy switchback staircase on its south side that leads to the two easiest hikes, connecting Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The last stretch, between Manarola and Riomaggiore, is so wide and flat it’s paved, and known to strolling lovers as the Via dell’Amore.
The brevity of the hikes, coupled with the warmth of the sun, make frequent beach stops irresistible. Miles of twisting stone steps, chittering cicadas and dappled olive groves — I forgot them all as soon as I rounded the bend at Manarola and saw swimmers diving from the rocks into the water. Ah, bliss. I dropped my backpack and plunged in after them.
The water was startlingly cool and calm; black sea urchins glistened on the rocks and tiny silver fish darted below my treading feet. I clambered out, shook my hair and kept walking. By the time I reached the next town, I was dry. And ready for another dip.
Within a few days, I had traipsed through all five towns and sampled gelato in each. (Corniglia’s delicate honey-laced ice cream, miele di Corniglia, won me over.) But at night I liked to head home, for a stroll (or passeggiata) along Vernazza’s breakwater in the golden evening light.
As with all the Cinque Terre towns, Vernazza has plenty of bars and restaurants to feed the hungry. But once I found Il Baretto (“the little bar”), I couldn’t bring myself to leave. In the off-season the restaurant truly is a little bar, with just a few linen-covered tables for diners. But in summer, the staff sets up a dozen or so tables under an awning on the wide Via Roma, where diners can sit next to swaying potted oleanders and watch everybody else amble by.
The casually handwritten menu, filled with local seafood specialties, doesn’t do justice to the food. There’s squid-ink linguine with chopped shrimp and lobster. Baby octopus cooked in tomato sauce. Spaghetti alla bottarga, or spaghetti with salted tuna roe. And the unassuming acciughe con limone, anchovies with lemon, turn out to be a plate of fresh anchovies, light and delicate, sprinkled with olive oil and lemon. Not much, nothing special, but nothing tastes more splendidly of the Cinque Terre’s unique blend of land and sea.
Everything tastes livelier with the local white wines, fruit-fresh and sun-dry, again labeled blandly as “Cinque Terre D.O.C.” (Cinque Terre Denominazione dell’Origine Controllata). The best grapes of the region go into a rare dessert wine called sciacchetrà, sweet like honey; cakes soaked into this golden nectar often finish off an evening. It’s no wonder meals last so long here; there’s so much to savor.
On my final morning, I rented a kayak (available on Vernazza’s triangle-shaped beach for 8 euros an hour) and paddled along the coast toward Corniglia. Small motorboats bounced by; the statelier public ferries that ferry foot-passengers between the towns churned by at a more solid pace. But mostly it was quiet, with only the lap of the salt water against the sides of my small yellow boat.
Gulls called overhead; fish glided underneath. The sun chuckled across the water. The land was tall and green and the pink towns smaller than ever. Land, sea, sun. I was ready to stay forever.