The five brightly painted fishing villages of the Cinque Terre are tightly packed into the precipitous cliffs and coves along the Ligurian coastline. Below lie the rich waters of the Mediterranean, above vertiginous cliffs have been ingeniously and laboriously terraced out of the rock into improbable vineyards and gardens. Founded in the 13th and 14th centuries, life for these small isolated communities must have been hard. Carving a livelihood from the ocean and the terraces, perilous and unrelenting.
Today, the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore still feel remote, but life has changed dramatically since the arrival of the 19th century railway. Tourism has had an even bigger impact. Beginning in the 1970s, it has become so pervasive (invasive?) that locals are debating limiting the number of daily visitors. Even in late September this World Heritage Site was busier than anywhere else we visited other than Lake Garda.
Fishing boats still ply their ancient trade, but today their catch is likely to end up on the plate of a tourist rather than feeding local families. Not that I’m complaining. Sat on a balcony high above the village of Manarola watching the sun set over the ocean eating fresh anchovies with local lemons, and a cuttlefish ink seafood linguine washed down with one of the region’s minerally white wines from a nearby vineyard, is one of the finest meals I’ve eaten … a birthday treat.
The villages are pedestrianised – cars were banned several years ago – which makes them people friendly, and it’s easy to get from village to village either on foot or by train. The railway is a monumental feat of engineering, skirting the ocean at the foot of the cliffs or passing through tunnels carved out of the rock. The best advice is to take the train, but we drove to Manarola, where we were staying, and witnessed first hand the nightmare of driving in the Cinque Terre.
If you were determined, you could visit all five villages in a day – some people do. This though, is a place that rewards slow exploration – especially if you plan on walking the trails that lead to villages high above the ocean and connect the coastal communities. We had four days and even that felt too short. Manarola, an exceptionally picturesque spot teetering on the edge of a rocky outcrop, was the perfect base.
We arrived in the afternoon and after some difficulty found a spot in the village car park. The shock of the parking fee was compensated for by our apartment close the 14th century Church of Saint Lorenzo. It had a balcony and panoramic views over the village and ocean. It’s hard to imagine ever tiring of that view. Our days were spent hiking – a gloriously breathtaking (in every sense if the word) walk to Corniglia was a highlight – or taking the train, interspersed with eating and ‘researching’ local wines.
We visited the nearby village of Riomaggiore, most southerly of the five villages, and said to be the oldest, and took the train north to Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Despite being out of season the weather was fantastic and, in Monterosso, we were able to spend half a day on the sandy beach close to the train station and swim in the clear blue waters of the Ligurian Sea. An unexpected delight for people coming from northern Germany.
I can imagine making repeated visits to the Cinque Terre, but outside of a coronavirus pandemic that has severely limited the number of tourists, it might be a very different experience.