I’m on a cliff, looking down at an impressionist painting of azure blue against a cerulean sky as delicate as egg shells. There’s only the fragrance of rosemary in the air and bird song, the sound of cicadas and the crunch of boots on gravel to keep me company. Tiny fishing towns, houses with green shutters and faded facades hanging on to precipitous cliffs, laundry hanging from the balconies and the smell of the ocean. This is the “Italy of my dreams.”
There’s wine, great views, sun, sea and sand and life in the slow lane. There are no McDonalds, upscale malls, speeding Vespas or camera-crazy tour-groups here. There’s not much going on here—but that’s the point! The Cinque Terra (meaning the five lands and pronounced cheen-quay terrah) a stretch of five villages along the Italian Riviera between Pisa and Genoa is a marvelously scenic region of cobalt sea and silvery olive trees! These villages were linked to each other for centuries, only by boats or mule paths along the dramatic cliffs and were totally out of the tourist circuit. To preserve the Cinque Terra’s natural wonders, this whole region has been declared a National Park and is UNESCO protected territory since 1997.
We make a small, unpretentious sea-side town Levanto our base for exploring the Cinque Terra. Levanto has a gorgeous stretch of beach, olive growing on the hill-terraces and a public park with a hiker’s statue—because of its popularity with hikers. We pick up the Cinque Terra card which gives us unlimited rides on the local trains to the villages and access to the scenic hiking trails too! Hiking buffs are seen everywhere with their lethal ski spears and mountain boots! We see the iconic Rick Steve’s travel guide with many western tourists—he introduced this area to the western tourists.
The Sentiero Azzurro or the Blue Trail connects all the five hamlets, and is a five hour hiking trail. All trails are clearly sign-posted, and classified, based on how arduous they are. We decide on a mix of train-hopping and hiking between the five villages, and enjoying this region in bite-sized chunks.
Monterosso, the first village, is only four minutes away from Levanto by train. It is the most sophisticated of the five villages, with a resort-town vibe and the largest port. We see the yachts of the rich and famous dock here, and hear that it has a thriving late-night scene. The modern part of town is separated by a tunnel from the old town, dating back to 643 C.E. The old town has the caruggi, the typical medieval narrow streets; there used to be 13 medieval towers here, now only three are left! In the center of the old village is the black and white striped 13th century church of San Giovanni Battista. There is a 14th century convent on the craggy hill and we trek uphill, for a marvelous view of the Ligurian Sea. The beach has soft, white, talcum powder sand and is packed with sun worshippers, umbrellas for hire and deck-chairs matching the color of the ocean. We take the commuter train to Vernazza, the second village, through tunnels with small peep windows showing us tantalizing and flickering, glimpses of our destination—a small boat, the azure seas, a craggy face and a sheer cliff.
Vernazza is clearly the pick of the pack—the most picturesque of the villages. It is an ancient Roman village, dating back to the 1st century C.E. Colorful homes line the cobblestone path, from the station to the perfect natural harbor. It’s packed with shops brimming with souvenirs, gelato and restaurants fragrant with the aroma of fresh Pesto sauce—a Ligurian specialty. We walk along Via Visconti, the town’s bustling main street and reach the harbor with its rock- strewn shoreline. Fishing boats dawdle on the shore and outdoor cafes sport brilliant, yellow umbrellas.
Local denizens catch the sunshine, read their newspapers on the benches, and tourists sunbathe on the rocks. We see Santa Margherita D’Antiocha, a small, rustic, church dating back to 1318 C.E. built on the sea rock, which oddly seems to turn its back on the Piazza.
The narrow and twisting stairs to Castella Doria, a 11th century lookout tower (built to defend the town from pirates!) is better than any gym workout, but we are rewarded with the most stupendous views of the entire region. The azure sea, the slopes dusted with Fuji color wildflowers and the boats and ferries afar … time seems to stand still here. We find a local shop in the square selling gelatos and choose double scoops of Tiramisu this time (We have 15 days in Italy and about 40 flavors to go through).
Beyond the village, we see vineyards on hill terraces that defy gravity. For centuries, the local farmers have carved steep terraces on the slopes, propped up by nearly 7,000 km (4,350 miles) of latticed stone walls! The locals say, that, there are more stones here than the Great Wall of China. The terraces not only produce much-coveted wines, but also luscious lemons and olives. As many of the youth have moved away from the region, the Italian government offers free 20 year cultivation rights to outsiders, who are willing to tend the stone walls and the vines of the Cinque Terra. The pride of the Cinque Terra is the sweet Sciachetra, a sherry-like dessert wine. It is said that the Romans called it the nectar of the gods and that bottles of this drink were found in the ruins of Pompeii. In the distance are miniature cog-wheel monorails rattling along the terraces moving equipment, grapes and workers vertically along the slopes.
Our next village is Corniglia, the only village not on the water. From the train station, a footpath, the Lardamia zigzags up nearly 400 steps to the hillside town which is impossibly perched ninety metres above the ocean. We choose to save our soles and take a convenient shuttle bus instead. It is a small village with to-die-for views of the Ligurian Sea, pink and white homes with billowing laundry and the highlight is a Romanesque church, the San Pietro built in 1334 C.E., tucked in to a pocket-sized pastel square. We rest our tired legs at a wayside bench and munch a piece of focaccia bread (stuffed with olives, herbs and cheese) to re-energize ourselves for the next part of our journey.
As we get off at Manarola station, our eyes are magnetically drawn to the pastel houses spilling down a steep black cliff overlooking the impossibly turquoise sea and harbor. A pedestrian tunnel from the station leads into the village square lined with shops and al fresco eateries. We love the lazy ambience and decide to linger here for lunch at a trattoria with the soundtrack of the rumbling trains in the distance. The local specialty seems to be sea-food but our vegetarian meal of Pizza Quattro Formaggio (four cheeses) and Trofie Pesto is marvelous, washed down by a blossomy local wine which leaves us totally blissful and lethargic. A dose of double cappuccino later we roam around the shops (this is the center of wine and oil production) and succumb to packets of seasoning and herbs and some crisp white wine!
Connecting Manarola and Riomaggiore, the last of the Cinque Terra villages is the Via Dell’Amore, the Lover’s Path, a relatively flat, paved trail that is carved into the mountain with inspiring views and romantic nooks. This is a storybook journey replete with rocks, the turquoise waters, the pine and oak groves near the waters, the vineyards on terraced mountain slopes and strategically placed stone benches to take rest. Other than the sound of an occasional hiker, there is only birdsong.
We come across a small roadside cafeteria and an artist painting the staggering views oblivious to our presence. The footpath follows the terrain of the land, curves and winds its way through the spectacular scenery. We come to an underpass with windows and colorful graffiti proclaiming love in various languages with images. There are countless locks fastened onto the railing by lovers who want to link their amore to this fascinating region! We reach the end of the trail and are now at the last village, picture-perfect Riomaggiore—a jumble of rose, yellow, coral and orange homes, rising in tiers leaning on each other. This village is built into a river gorge (thus, the name which means river major) and dates back to the 8th century C.E. when Greek refugees came here to escape persecution. Space is a premium here, we can tell, when we see flat rooftops as a playing ground for kids and pets. Near the station is a colorful giant-sized mural by an Argentinean artist featuring the workers who constructed the stone walls, without any cement, running through this entire area.
Back in Levanto, we are in time for a bewitching Cinque Terra Sunset. The strip of beach is deserted, except for a few teenagers and a couple on their passegiata (evening stroll). Sitting on a bench, we watch the corals fade to rose and then violet. The hills are bathed in a dusky glow, and the sound of the breakers on the shore is reassuring. It’s easy to be lured into the timeless web of Cinque Terra’s appeal—going back to an era, without mobile phones or television sets—when the high point of a day, was watching the sun go down. Our calves are toned with all the stairs, trails and hills that we have traversed. And our hearts are full, with the myriad charms of this place!
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog