Cinque Terre – Liguria, Italy
This dramatically mountainous strip of Ligurian territory, bordering the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean and cradling the so-called ‘Five Lands’, or five ancient fishing villages, forms some of Italy’s most extraordinary and best preserved landscape. The rocky cliff-faces, stretching between Cape Mesco in the west and Cape Manara in the east, plunge precipitously into the sea, but, down through the centuries, their fertile, sun-drenched hilltops have miraculously been cultivated and shaped by the hand of man. Acres of steeply terraced vineyards cover the upper slopes, while olive groves extend at the lower levels, reaching down almost to the water’s edge. The terraces are ingeniously supported by over 7000 kms of the dry-stone walling so typical of this region, which requires no cement to sustain it. Among the prestigious white wines produced here are Morasca and Chiaretto del Faro; as well as the delicious, sweet dessert wine Sciacchetrà; and not forgetting Limoncino, a potent lemon liqueur! Likewise as of old, the local fishing industry still thrives.
In recent years, the Cinque Terre have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thereby becoming a protected National Park and Marine Area, so as to conserve their unique and uncontaminated beauty for generations to come.
An exceptional asset of the Cinque Terre region is that both housing development and the creation of major traffic thoroughfares have been severely restricted for conservation purposes. This means that the area is largely traffic-free and cars are not permitted past village entrances. Easy access to most of them can, however, be gained via the local Genoa to La Spezia coastal railway, which runs a regular service through a string of tunnels, affording tantalizing glimpses of the shoreline in between. There is also a water-bus link, ideal for ‘village-hopping’, as well as longer-distance boat excursions operating from Portovenere, La Spezia and Genoa. This coastline and its villages are especially resplendent when viewed offshore from the gentle waters of the Mediterranean, with the sun in your back. In this way, the mosaic of pinks, oranges and deep reds of the house-facades take on a warm glow from the brilliant or mellow light that bathes them. Otherwise the best means of exploration, for the fit and active, is on foot, along the extensive network of centuries-old hiking trails and steps, which used to form the only inland communication routes connecting the settlements. In this way you can truly commune with the splendour of your natural surroundings, which alternate between terraced vineyards and olive groves and the lush, vibrantly coloured, headily perfumed vegetation of the wild southern ‘maquis’. As a spectacular backdrop to all this, there extends the glittering seascape of the tranquil Mediterranean. Perhaps the most famous stretch of scenic coastal path, known as ‘Lovers’ Lane’ (Via dell’Amore), partially hewn out of the rockface skirting the sea, makes a leisurely, comfortable stroll on the flat between Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Historically, Saracen invasions and pirate raids forced the original inhabitants of this region to live high on the hills and work the land there, harsh and wild though it was. As the shore became safer, they moved down to the coast to fish and populated villages tucked into inlets and coves, alongside river mouths or perched above sheer ravines. This sharply indented rocky coastline conceals tiny shingle beaches, like those of Riomaggiore and Vernazza, along with little harbours where boats can pull in and take shelter in stormy weather, like at Manarola. In the summer months the local fishermen share these spots with visiting sunbathers. Attracting more such sun-seekers, the secluded beach of Guvano, situated between Vernazza and Corniglia, is accessible only on foot; while the largest sandy beach, complete with amenities, lies in the lovely sheltered bay of Monterosso al Mare.
The origin of the name ’Cinque Terre’ dates back to the Middle Ages, when the word ‘terra’ implied ‘village’. En route eastwards from the port of Genoa, rounding Cape Mesco, you come first to Monterosso al Mare, the only resort with an extenisve sandy beach and a promenade that links its historical centre to the modern Fegina district. Further eastwards, set at the mouth of a river, lies Vernazza, whose rocky promontory forms a natural sea-wall, providing protection against rough and stormy waters. Indeed, this naturally sheltered harbour was for a long time the only safe haven and disembarkation point of the Cinque Terre. Corniglia, the next village along, perches on a sharp ridge surrounded by picturesque vineyards and is the only one not located directly on the waterfront. Yet perhaps the most authentic and unspoilt of all the villages are Manarola and Riomaggiore, whose narrow tower-houses cling to the steep cliff-face in a colourful, densely-packed jumble, looking confidently out to sea.
Owing to its stark, rugged countryside and ancient, unspoilt villages, where the simple lifestyle has altered little over the centuries, this locality makes few concessions to modern tourism. The visitor who cannot do without every imaginable service, comfort and amenity in a neatly planned holiday package risks disappointment here, as the very nature and beauty of this region require some sacrifices in our modern-day expectations of convenience. Those who truly love and respect the Cinque Terre, this unique, timeless corner of our planet, do so for its being exactly the way it is.