PICTURE PERFECT — This breathtaking view is of the harbor Cinque Terre in Italy. Photo for the I-O by Cindy Peterson
Special to the I-O by Cindy Habets Peterson
For many people, Italy conjures up the renaissance glory of St. Peter’s cathedral, the gliding gondolas snaking through the canals of Venice, and the rolling, sun-kissed hills of Tuscany.
But for those travelers who choose to leave behind the bustling cities and vast museums lies a distinctive destination. Venture by train to a tiny six-mile stretch of rugged coast and discover the Italy of ages past come alive.
Nearly hidden and forgotten for hundreds of years, the five villages of Cinque Terre (which translates “Five Lands”) nestle up against the rugged cliffs they call home. On a stretch of land in Northern Italy called the Gulf of Genoa, the villages of Cinque Terre lie virtually unchanged since the time when Italian trading ships ruled the seas.
Life in Cinque Terre moves with the rhythm of old Italy. The steep hillside vineyards are still cultivated by hand, producing Cinque Terre’s signature dry white wines with a hint of sea air lending to their unique flavor. The cliffside wine terraces were formed by over several hundred years, the total length of which is calculated to be at least the length of the Great Wall of China. To this day, agriculture and fishing continue to dominate the economy.
So keen was the Italian government to preserve this piece of the old world that it designated Cinque Terre a National Park, the first of its kind which preserves not only natural landscape but also the culture and way of life. From agricultural cultivation methods to the colors of the houses, stepping onto their winding stone paths seems a step back in time.
The uniqueness of this type of park led UNESCO to declare Cinque Terre a “Humanity World Heritage” site.
Each of the five villages has a unique character and is worth exploring.
Riomaggiore: the southernmost town nestled between its rocky beach and the steep hillside keeping it sheltered from the larger world.
Manarola: thought to be the oldest of the five towns, with its Church of San Lorenzo dating back to 1338.
Corniglia: seemingly aloof compared to its neighbors on the sea. Climb the 337 steps to be rewarded with its commanding cliff-top views.
Vernazza: with it’s clock tower and buildings tumbling out over a narrow stretch of peninsula, chosen by many visitors as a home base for exploring the park.
And Monterosso al Mare: the modest resort town boasting a well-used beachfront where families can splash and play in the warm Mediterranean water.
The beauty of Cinque Terre is best explored through its network of hiking trails, the best-loved of which hugs the coastline linking all five of the villages.
For a day that won’t soon escape memory, begin at the local market choosing fresh fruit and Italian meats and cheeses for a picnic lunch. Be warned though, Italians don’t take kindly to fruits being picked up and checked for freshness – it is strictly a “you touch it, you buy it” policy. A stern Italian mother seems on-hand at every tiny market to ensure that tourists follow the rules. Load a backpack and set out to explore the park.
A day of trekking can be started from any of the five towns. Don’t miss the trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore, called Via Dell’Amore, or “Love’s Trail”. Exploration can include anything from a relaxing meander between two villages to an all-day adventure of the seaside or inland trails.
A one-day hiking pass for all the Cinque Terre trails will run you a mere 5€ (~$7). Pay a 3.50€ supplement to include unlimited train travel between the villages of Cinque Terre and nearby La Spezia. Visit the marine park and nearby Portofino by ferry for an unbeatable sea view of the coast.
Evenings in Cinque Terre are best enjoyed with late afternoon drinks taken on one of the colorful patios sprouting a vibrant rainbow of umbrellas and lively conversation. Stroll to a local restaurant for fresh seafood straight from the dock and homemade Tagliatelle pasta with fresh pesto sauce, made from locally grown basil, olive oil, pine nuts and cheese.
To further entice visitors, Cinque Terre offers up all of its beauty and culture at an affordable price. Accommodations can be found for half the cost of the larger cities. Add in low-cost park and transportation passes, and restaurants serving up economical homemade dishes and local wines to complete the equation for a budget-friendly Italian vacation.
Getting there: By Train (recommended): From Rome, Florence or Pisa, direct train service to La Spezia with connecting service to Riomaggiore. By Car: Cinque Terre can be accessed by car but most villages have limited vehicle access and parking so be sure to take that in consideration when choosing where to stay if arriving by car.
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