Searching for some of Italy’s most dramatic coastal scenery? Look no further than the five historic fishing villages of Cinque Terre, says Ben Lerwill.
Italy has no shortage of extravagant coastal scenery. From the citrus-tree folds of the Amalfi shoreline to the volcanic drama of the Aeolian Islands, it’s a country as synonymous with spectacular seaboards as it is with strong cappuccinos.
But there’s nowhere quite like the Cinque Terre, the stupendous stretch of Ligurian coast where five small villages – beautiful, tangled and centuries old – are tucked in among the coves and cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Genoa.Cinque Terre translates as ‘Five Lands’, a reference to this pretty quintet of settlements. Find out exactly what you can see on an escorted vacation through the region.
Originally constructed as fishing villages, they’ve long been established as some of coastal Italy’s most popular travel destinations, particularly over summer – and it’s worth noting that all five Cinque Terre settlements are well connected by rail.
People come here to walk, to eat and to absorb the deeply picturesque views – the whole area forms part of the UNESCO-listed Cinque Terre National Park, meaning much of what exists is protected. Culturally and scenically, it’s a remarkable region.
The largest of the Cinque Terre’s five villages, Monterosso is also the easiest to reach by car and has the largest beach. This in turn means it has a somewhat more developed feel than its four neighbors, although its handsome setting and still-manageable size – only some 1,800 people live here permanently – make exploration very worthwhile.
The village itself is split into two distinct sections, old and new, and in the former you’ll find medieval gems such as the early 14th-century church of San Giovanni Battista. Monterosso is well known too for its lemon trees and its anchovy fishermen – there’s even an anchovy festival each September – and as the furthest west of the villages it forms the start or end point of the Sentiero Azzurro, or Blue Route, the Cinque Terre’s most spectacular walking path.
Oh, Vernazza. With its cliff-clustered location complemented by a stout old watchtower, a sheltered natural harbor and a hodgepodge of tall, pastel-colored houses, it has precisely the kind of film-set looks that Italy excels in.
Car traffic? Not here. It’s a favorite with modern-day visitors but has been drawing attention for centuries – indeed, the wealthy Republic of Genoa took occupancy here as long ago as 1276. Historical buildings are therefore in rich supply, with highlights including the Sanctuary of Madonna di Reggio, an hour’s walk above town, from where you’ll be granted the classic Vernazza postcard shot. Back in the village itself, there’s a small public beach and some great little boutique hotels, as well as a number of authentic seafood restaurants. As with elsewhere in the Cinque Terre, it can get crowded in the peak summer period, so timing a trip here for spring or fall is worth considering.
The tiniest, highest and most remote of the villages, Corniglia has origins stretching back to the Roman era. If you’re coming by train you’ll need to climb the Lardarina, a flight of more than 370 steps to reach the village.
Needless to say, it’s worth it and back down at sea-level, Corniglia has a pleasant pebble beach. Corniglia is mentioned in one of medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio’s most famous novellas, and it’s not hard to see why the place has captured the imagination for so long.
The village’s jumble of flower-filled squares and painted houses occupy the top of a rugged promontory surrounded by vineyards – you’ll find a wonderful little Gothic church to visit and a web of narrow alleys to explore. Accommodation options are thin on the ground, but although you’re unlikely to spend the night here, it’s a rewarding day-trip.
Another crazily attractive cliff-top village, Manarola is famed among other things for its heady white dessert wine, Sciacchetra. The village itself has a powerful effect on the senses too, with its vividly colored homes squeezed into improbable formations on a high rocky bluff, and a series of ancient buildings giving credence to the claim that this is the oldest of the Cinque Terre settlements.It’s very close to Riomaggiore – there’s only around half a mile between the two – and, like its near neighbor, has a tunnel connecting the village and the train station.
There’s no beach to speak of, but you can take a dip in the harbor – it’s seen as one of the best deep-water swimming spots in the region. If you’re in Manarola over the December period, meanwhile, the village showcases what’s claimed to be the world’s largest lighted nativity scene, with thousands of lamps and some 300 figures dotted over the coastal hills.
The easternmost village on the shoreline is also its busiest, and even with thronged cafe terraces it remains a romantic place to visit. Riomaggiore is seen as the unofficial capital of the region, and its narrow harbor and steep-stacked houses – flanked by wide green hills – make it arguably the quintessential Cinque Terre destination.
A set of well-known artworks by Telemaco Signorini were painted right here in the 1890s, and the village has aesthetically changed little since its immortalization on canvas. Key points of interest include two 14th-century churches and the crag-perched Castle of Riomaggiore, from where you can enjoy a memorable view across the water.
It’s also possible to rent snorkels and kayaks down at the harbor – a neat way of working up an appetite before sitting down to calamari or lobster ravioli at one of the village’s sea-facing eateries.
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