The five medieval villages of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) on the Italian Riviera some 55 miles southeast of Genoa draw their rough beauty from the nearly vertical cliffs and canyons that kept them secluded for 900 years. Until the railroad arrived in the 1870s, the only ways in and out were footpaths and the sea. Even now, when you step off a train (all the village centers ban autos) you enter a community that invites you to slow down and leave the outside world out.
Italy’s pizzazz can wait. Here there are no world-class museums, no grand cathedrals, no traffic—just the earth and the elements and what people have done with them.
The day my wife, Katherine, and I arrived in Manarola, our first of the five towns, we put away our checklists. Instead of sightseeing, we walked and saw: hills stacked with pastel houses, a fisherman winching his boat up to the piazza from the rocky harbor, sunset glowing gold on the coast.
In the morning we climbed high on the terraces above the town. Later we hopped a train to another of the villages, Vernazza, eight minutes up the line through several of the dozens of tunnels in these mountains. As we strolled, we saw few signs of the 2011 floods that had buried much of the town in mud. Rebuilt shops and restaurants tempted us to sample folds of focaccia, invented in the surrounding region of Liguria, topped with pesto, also Ligurian.
Near the harbor we noticed a rough sign on a stone tower: BELFORTE RISTORANTE BAR. The manager squeezed a table onto a tiny terrace overlooking miles of coast and sea. By and by our waiter brought a plump, freshly caught fish and filleted it.
“Here is yours,” he said to Katherine.
“And here,” he said, showing me the head and spine, “is yours.” Our laugh spread to the other diners and led to conversations that lasted the rest of the afternoon.
We could as easily have based ourselves in Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, or Monterosso al Mare as in Manarola. Each terre has its charms, and none is more than 2.5 miles from the next. Local trains run every hour or so, as do ferries in summer, and footpaths still link the towns, though they sometimes close for safety.
Parts of the trails are steep and rough, but overall they’re doable for a reasonably fit hiker, especially if you start in early morning before the peak of heat and crowds. When it’s open, the 6.9-mile Sentiero Azzurro, or “Blue Trail,” passes kitchen gardens rich with squashes, lemons, tomatoes, and peppers; then terraces for gnarled olive trees and grapevines; then wilder growth such as Aleppo pines, heather, and lavender as the trail rises. Between Vernazza and Monterosso you’ll see a coastal panorama of all five towns.
This is no checklist. In the Cinque Terre you can say ciao to your traveler’s momentum and let your senses guide you. And then, as we did, make plans to come back.