Cinque Terre

One of the most beautiful off-the-beaten-track destinations in Italy is the Cinque Terre, or the Five Lands. Over the years it has become increasingly popular, thanks in part to the region being discovered by travel gurus, and scores of tourists descend into the five towns in the summer and overrun the locals (there are only 500 residents, for instance, of Vemazza and many more tourists than that). If you want to enjoy these unique UNESCO World Heritage sites, an off-season trip is the best way to do it.

The main attraction of this region is the coast and the five unbelievable towns perched on rocky clifls between sea and sky overlooking the Mediterranean in all its glory. Each of the five villages has its own character.

Monterosso
to the north is the one town with a sandy beach and has a beach resort atmosphere.

Vernazza
perhaps the most picturesque of the five, is a quaint village built around a picture perfect harbor.

Comiglia
perched on a steep promontory towers above the sea and offers great vistas up and down the rocky coastline.

Manarola
defies the laws of gravity with its buildings carved into the rocky clifls precariously suspended above the pounding waves.

Riomaggori
to the south and closest to La Spezia, seems to spring right from the sea and continues upwards with homes built high into the hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.

Trails - Route 1

There are two paths connecting the villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vemazza, Comigha, Manarola, Riomaggiore (in that order from north to south). If you take the high road, you will travel on Route 2. The low road, which brings you close to the water and which is the one that everyone takes on their first visit to the region, is Route 1.

If you don't stop, which will be an impossible task, you can make the journey in five to six hours. Route 1 is 11 km long, with a total elevation difference of 500 meters between the highest and lowest points on the trail. Because the trail is prone to rockslides, and the region has also been designated a national park, there are some sections of the trail that charge a nominal fee to ensure that the trail is maintained. You can purchase a Qnque Terre Card for the path, train and ferry service (1-day, 3-day and 7- day cards); or you can just buy a trail card at the huts along the way.

You can reach the villages via ferry from several places, including Genoa, La Spezia and Portovenere. There is also an excellent and frequent train service connecting all the villages enabling you to mix and match your hikes at will.

Each section of Route 1 is different. The path from Riomaggiore to Manarola is the easiest and widest. Walking hand-in-hand with a loved one, it's easy to see why this is called the Via dell'Amore (Lover's Walk). The distance from Manarola to Comiglia is also easy to hike, although the main trail into Comiglia finishes with a steep climb of 368 stairs. From Comiglia to Vemazza the trail is steep at certain places.

The stretch from Vemazza to Monterosso is by far the steepest. It winds through olive orchards and vineyards and is rough in places, but it also offers the best view of the bay and provides spectacular approaches to Monterosso and Vemazza.

Take a hike

One decision you have to make is whether to start easy, which would be the trail from Riomaggori to Manarola, or to start difficult, which is the stretch from Monterosso to Vemazza. If you want to hike the path in one day, I would recommend starting with the most difficult area first, when you are still fresh. You can also break up the hike by staying over night in one of the villages or you can hike to some villages and take the train to some villages. This is easily done with the Cinque Terre Card.

One unique attraction is the Cinque Terre National Marine Park. Scuba diving enthusiasts might want to really get off the beaten path and explore the underwater beauties of the region by visiting the Marine Park. Diving instructions and equipment are provided in Riomaggiore and Monterosso.

A good tip is to combine a trip to the five villages with a visit to Portovenere, which hasn't had the publicity, but does have all of the charm, of its more famous neighbors. From the cliffs of Portovenere you have a great view along the coast and can see why this area is known as the Gulf of Poets. The rugged natural beauty of the area attracted a host of romantic writers, such as Shelley, Byron and D.H. Lawrence. The easiest way to get to Portovenere is by ferry from the Cinque Terre, Lerici, or La Spezia. There is no rail connection and driving by car is not recommended as parking is difficult. There is also a bus service to Portovenere from La Spezia.

The promenade along the harbor at Portovenere is a pedestrian zone, lined with tall colorful houses, seafood restaurants, and bars. Fishing boats, excursion boats, and private boats dot the water. On the other side of the point is Byron's Cave, a rocky area where Byron used to come to swim. There are several rocky places where it's possible to swim but no sandy beaches. For swimming and sunbathing, most people head to the island of Palmaria, just across the strait.

For those who are excited by celebrity, Portofino is just around one of the bends of this fabulous region, so if you have time, drop in and check out whose yacht is in town. Also, Pisa is close by, so you can combine a trip there in the off season on your way to or from the fabulous Cinque Terre.

All photos ©Tony Middleton, inkwire magazine, June 2006.