The first-timer's guide to visiting the Cinque Terre
A railway links Riomaggiore and Monterosso and is part of a line that connects Genoa to Pisa. The journey is an endless series of tunnels through the cliffs, punctuated with dramatic glimpses of the sea with stops at all five towns grafted precariously on to the rocky landscape. Riomaggiore, the most southern of the five towns, has a safe harbour where the open fishing dinghies are lifted off the sea by a small crane. This was an unspoilt town where everyday Italian life passed you by below and in the evening the locals also do intense people-watching from their window high above the twisted streets and lanes.
Each evening we bought fresh seafood mix from the little delicatessen, along with some crusty bread, black olives and a small slab of fresh Parmesan cheese. A bottle or two of the smooth crisp white Cinque Terre wine made our bounty for the evening complete. This is the same wine that the Roman Caesars were known to imbibe upon for more than two millennia, and the Etruscans before them drank and transported the wine in sheep bladders around the Mediterranean as far as Portugal in the west and Persia and Turkey in the east.
From Riomaggiore you enter the Cinque Terre National Park for a EUR6 day pass. This entitles you to second-class train rides between towns and electric bus rides in Monterosso. There are passes for 3 and 7 days, and for an extra charge, full access to sea ferries between the towns. We followed the trail along the seaside to Manarola, that can be seen from Riomaggiore, jutting out on a small promontory.
Corniglia, the middle town was my favourite place set on a high steep outcrop. It is hard work getting up the hundreds of steep steps to the top, but once there you are in the quintessential comfort zone of an ancient Italian town, with small winding cobblestone streets crammed with atmosphere. In baskets out front of several stores are bottles of lemon, mandarin and peach fruit liqueur – 30% plus proof alcohol and meant to be used as a cordial with soda. A few of these in the heat of the day and Corniglia becomes home for the rest of the day and the night to follow.
The walk to Vernazza is through many groves of century-old olive trees with gnarled trunks. Ever-present is the soft musty mulch underfoot of crushed dry olive leaves on the tracks. Little wrens and chats flit through the trees with constant soft cheeping noises so that one experiences a sort of dream-like sensation of being cosseted and drawn into the very arms of the warm, unique ancient landscape. Vernazza is encrusted onto a long finger of rock jutting out into the sea and was the most 'touristy' of all the towns we walked down into with its perfect little harbour and seaside chapel and trendy and relatively more expensive ‘el fresco’ restaurants.
We gave up the walk after a late lunch and caught the train to Monterosso, the largest and the most northern of the five towns. The town is divided into two sections, with the major hotels in the northern end and the more atmospheric cluster of older buildings within the southern part. I liked this town the least, as it is closest to Genoa and has all the usual tourist traps, resort style accommodation and expensive pursuits that drive many a person mad and back into the hills. One evening from a high vantage point on the cliffs of Riomaggiore, the five lands, which we found so individually unique, become connected by their lights; a necklace of shining jewels glowing in the purple of the approaching night. Together the towns are famous for their wines and their olive oil, but the tomatoes, beans, chicory and other fresh farm-grown produce is first rate, as is the local seafood specialties of mussels, sardines, sea bass, octopus and small tasty cuttlefish.
Cinque Terre tour is a unique experience. It is a land for gentle contemplation while sitting in a swing-back chair, sipping crisp white wine, eating fragrant crusty bread, leaving the world of madness and rush-hour well behind. Next time we will stay longer! Weeks longer.