There are many trails leading to the scattered villages and hamlets of the Cinque Terre’s dramatic landscape. Some are more forgiving than others. The route I regretfully chose between Manarola and Riomaggiore was short but extremely steep. The near-vertical climb and descent passed through terraced fields and vineyards carved out of the hillsides over the centuries. The plots are supported by low stone walls called muretti, similar to the terraced vineyards of the Ribeira Sacra in Spain’s Galicia region.
In places they have fallen into disrepair as locals abandon the harsh farming life for the riches of tourism, but they create a unique landscape that dates to Roman times. People may have been scratching a living from these cliffs for a couple of millennia, but the picturesque villages of Manarola and Riomaggiore date from the 13th century. The general view is that Riomaggiore is the more workaday of the five Cinque Terre villages, with more of a regular village feel. Manarola is tiny and touristy, but exquisitely pretty.
We were staying in Manarola, a tranquil and peaceful haven from the sights and sounds of modern life. This is especially true if you’re here in the early morning before trainloads of day-trippers arrive. At night, the village is blissfully empty and you can experience the sense of isolation that for centuries defined life in these tiny communities. Sitting on our balcony sipping wine and watching the sunset over the Ligurian Sea, the muffled voices of people in the alleyway below, will live long in the memory.
So will the climb up the trail towards Riomaggiore. The route passed steeply between buildings and soon had me breathlessly admiring the village from above the rooftops. It was a hot day and there was barely a breath of wind to cool me on the walk. The only good thing about the climb was the ever expanding views over Manarola and down the rugged coastline. Soon I reached the ‘summit’ and started an equally steep descent into Riomaggiore.
Vineyards spread out across the hillside around the village, the fruit of which produce wines that were famed in ancient times and are growing in popularity today. Riomaggiore is a pretty place that stretches from the small fishing harbour along the course of a ravine, houses are stacked up the hillsides. The whole village is an assault course of stairways, crowned by the remains of a small 13th century castle.
Walking along a terrace above the main village, I arrived at the 14th century Church of San Giovanni Battista. Children played football in the small square in front of the church, and families strolled on one of the few flat areas in the village. Heading downwards to the harbour, the village was quite quiet but things got busier at the water’s edge, people were sunbathing on the rocks and ice cream sales were booming.
I pottered around the village – or rather lugged myself up and down a series of improbably steep stairways – before deciding to take the train back to Manarola. It takes around 60 seconds on the train, and I didn’t even break a sweat. The sun was starting to sink and I hiked up to the terrace above the village for views back to Manarola’s sublime harbour at the witching hour of golden sunset light. It was magnificent.
The pleasant-looking bar that overlooks the village was packed, so we wandered up to the village cemetery and found an empty bench from where we could watch the sun slowly sink into the ocean. Afterwards we had more delicious seafood in a harbourside restaurant and then strolled Manarola’s now empty streets.