Liguria - Places to Visit - Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is the name given to that part of the eastern coast of Liguria around the five small towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The towns are hard to reach, being hemmed in between the sea and the mountains, and this has greatly helped in staving off the devastating impact of mass tourism.
Even today, the only way to get from one town to the other is along footpaths that wind along the cliffs or by train. It takes about five hours to walk from the first to the last of the five towns, but, as they are also linked by rail, the journey can easily be broken into stages.
Differences in landscape, soil, height, and agriculture have meant that there is a tremendous variety of flora in the area, and some species of plants grow there and nowhere else.
Geologically, the landscape was created by a series of folds which were formed when the rocks were pushed, raised and pressed together in the Tertiary period.
Millions of years of erosion have slowly given shape to countless small peninsulars and bays between Punnet Corvo (Montenero) and Punnet Mesco.
Here, five villages Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso make up the Cinque Terre.
Over the years, the people have succeeded in imposing their will on this difficult landscape through terrace cultivation consisting of narrow strips of land on the hillside called "fasce".
Perhaps it is the air made salty by the sea spray on stormy days, together with the hard work that the farmers have been carrying out for hundreds of years, that have made the grapes so sweet and the olives and lemons so tasty.
We know, from archeological findings, that man has inhabited this stretch of coastline from very early times.
Jewellery and decorated shells are some of the traces left behind by prehistoric man. The ancient "Strada Etrusca" was brought back into use by the Romans, bringing both trade and commerce to the Cinque Terre, but it was abandoned again during the rule of the "Repubblica di Genova". It is probably because the road was abandoned again that the area has preserved all its natural and untouched beauty.
Man has had to build countless walls "muretti" and steps to support the steep strips of land, and from research carried out by naturalists it seems that, over thousands of years, the inhabitants of the Cinque Terre have carried out an enormous task in constructing and repairing these famous "muretti". So much so that the two-metre-high, eleven - thousand kilometre - long network of walls is comparable to the Great Wall of China. Even nowadays, it is not easy to reach the five villages, either by train or along the winding roads. But, perhaps, this is the surest guarantee for the preservation of this unique landscape.
One of the best way to see the Cinqueterre is to hike the many trails that join them. All Riviera di Levante tourist offices can supply maps of the sentieri (paths), many of which have been marked by the Italian Alpine Club. Be sure to ask about the current status of the trail you choose: they are constantly being closed for improvements. The most famous is the Via dell'Amore, which needs no translation. It departs from Riomaggiore, passing tidy vineyards, fragrant herb bushes and rocky outcrops for half an hour on its way to Manarola. The cactus-lined Via delle Agavi links Monterosso al Mare with Vernazza.
There are places to stay in the Cinqueterre suitable for all prices and pocketbooks, but it is probably more practical to sojourn in Levanto, Portovenere or Lerici. Portovenere is at the very tip of the Cinqueterre promontory, reachable by car and just as picturesque. While there, don't forget to visit the port and the castle, whence you'll enjoy a superb view of the Gulf of La Spezia, the Cinqueterre and the islands of Palmaria and Tino.
Though not as well known as many of Italy's other regional cuisines, the food along the Ligurian coast is second to none. Seafood, seafood and more seafood, and remember to try the local wines. First and foremost among them is the famous sciacchetr from the Cinqueterre.
You can park your car in Monterosso or Manarola, but the best way to get to the Cinqueterre is by train (make sure you take the local) or ferry (from Genoa, Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, Levanto or Portovenere). Purchase a special train ticket that allows you unlimited daily travel between the villages, and since they are only a minute or so apart, you'll probably use it often. When you board the train, try to find out which carriage stops at the platform in your destination. Otherwise you'll have to walk through passageways in the tunnel.
The Via dell'Amore was recently reopened after being closed for five years due to a landslide. The endangered part has now been enclosed in a tunnel for future safety. Another recently restored path is the Sentiero Azzurro.