Captivating Cinque Terre

By Amber Dowler March 14, 2013
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Italy’s coastal gem combines the allure of classic heritage with unspoiled scenery.

FEW ADVENTURERS COULD RESIST the siren’s howl that radiates from the coastline that makes up Cinque Terre.

Snug in the Italian Riviera, this collection of five seaside towns entices hikers from around the world aiming to get high on the aromas of sweet vineyards, fresh flowers and Mediterranean cuisine.

The terraced terrain is laced with hiking trails of varying intensity, connecting the five towns that remain beautifully unspoiled by cars or corporations.

The five towns that make up this region each contribute something unique to the collective appeal.

Manarola, Cinque Terre

With equal adoration to all, an argument can be made for beginning a tour of Cinque Terre in Manarola, the second train stop after entering through La Spezia station.

We ventured to Cinque Terre as a day trip from Florence, approximately a two-and-a-half hour train ride each way. Manarola, colourful as it is charming, spills into a rocky nook of the Ligurian Sea.

This less popular, historical town is idyllic for selfishly taking in the fierce beauty of Cinque Terre. From the train station, set your sights to the top of town to embark on the sweet Vineyard Walk.

This dirt path leads curious visitors along old stonewalls on the hillside above town where locals pluck grapes from the etched vines. The path winds around to confront the glittering blue sea and visible stretches of the main coastal trails.

At the T, bear left to descend back into town. If you don’t mind spending some extra time here, submit to the urge to pursue the salty slope to the water.

The lulling waves beg you to dip into the deep swells that embrace multiple towering rocks. Those seeking an adrenaline rush can climb a rope ladder up the steep rocks to take the 7m plunge into the water below, while amused locals watch from the railing above.

Cinque Terre: ‘Blue Trail’ coastal trek

After bestowing all of your affections on quiet Manarola, take to the main coastal trek, Sentiero Azzuro or ‘Blue Trail’, to acknowledge the presence of four other breathtaking settlements.

Between Manarola and Corniglia, the hour-long walk takes you along the coast before crossing the headland and stealing away to dip into the site of an old railroad line.

The finishing climb into town includes 33 flights of stairs, nearly 400 steps. Perched high above the water, Corniglia is the only town without beachfront access, but it is similar to Manarola in its peaceful, lazy splendour.

You won’t find many choices in restaurants here, but the views are incredible, and you might want to refuel before embarking on the difficult stretches ahead.

From Corniglia to Vernazza you can expect a lot of climbing and descending along narrow passages. However, it’s hard to complain about the difficulty of the journey when you’re passing through olive and lemon groves that ignite your senses and still manage to surprise you at every turn.

This walk takes about 90 minutes to complete before emerging at “the jewel of Cinque Terre.”

Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre

You’ll spot the colourful umbrellas and picture perfect Piazza Marconi as you approach, and soon discover for yourself why Vernazza is the most talked about beauty of the Cinque Terre family.

The pastel coloured buildings frame the blue-green harbour and sundrenched beach. Vernazza is an ideal resting place after the arduous hike. Grab some fresh gelato and enjoy the slow pace of life that generations of Italians have cherished in this unique area.

From Vernazza, the final leg of the hike is the longest at about two hours, including a lengthy descent into Monterosso al Mare.

The only town of Cinque Terre built on flat land, Monterosso al Mare (Monterosso by the sea) is known as a resort destination with the most luxurious accommodation and thriving nightlife.

Experience the two faces of Monterosso: old town centro storico, the charming historical side equipped with an impressive 16th-century lookout tower, and the modern Fegina, where you’ll find the train station, parking lots, and a tourist information centre.

Not to be missed in this northernmost area is the gorgeous view from the beach at night time. Here, you can catch a glimpse of all four of the other towns lit up against the dark sky.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

The last walk to be included on the stretch of the Blue Trail is the Via dell ’Amore’, or walk of love, between Manarola and Riomaggiore. This simple 20-minute stroll is the only paved section of the entire path.

The carved corridor passes right alongside the sea, and sheltered nooks and ‘loveseats’ enhance the appeal. Riomaggiore, named literally for the major river in the town, oozes a quaint charm, from its crooked streets to its painted murals.

The entire Blue Trail walk, from Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare can be completed in five hours, not including stops for meals and exploring within the towns.

There is a small tax required for travelling on each trail, or visitors can purchase a pass that includes a train fare. Cinque Terre’s High Path, between Portovenere and Levanto, expands 40km and requires 11 hours from end to end.

Even if you don’t want to tackle the High Path in its entirety, shorter trips above each of the villages will reward your exertion.

Though now known as a popular destination, Cinque Terre can still be appreciated for its seclusion and anonymity, particularly in the southern towns.

This is a place where heritage and history haven’t been overcome by commercial access, and blending into the Italian way of life is as easy as meandering through the winding streets and enjoying local fare.

The generous landscape of these five lands tugs at your attention from the moment you emerge from the train tunnel.

Source: Australian Geographic Outdoor, July/August 2012