Delicately balanced on sharp ridges or squeezed into tight ravines, the random tangle of pastel-painted houses and traffic-free laneways of these five small Italian coastal villages known as the Cinque Terre are a true travel wonder to behold. A local railway connects the five villages running through tunnels gouged from the hillsides with occasional openings to glimpse the wide blue ocean, the green terraced vineyards or the colorful houses.
Far beyond the occasional glimpse from a train is to experience the Cinque Terre by walking the panoramic Blue Path – a rugged walk of around five hours to explore all five lands. Any day sees a good number of walkers on the tracks between each village providing chances to chat with folks from all over the world or to lose yourself in thoughts of different times and places.
I’d suggest starting at the southern most Riomaggiore, its main square and rockwalls full of stacked fishing boats, its houses clambering sharply up the ravine either side of the main square. This village seemed less touristy with the locals going about their every day life, hanging washing or scouring the local market for bread, fish and vegetables. With the waves breaking against the rocks below, a short cliff-edge walk of little more than twenty minutes along the evocatively named Via dell' Amore (Lover’s Lane) leads to Manarola.
With its history dating back to Roman time, Manarola’s confection-like village sits perched on a large black rock, the hills behind reserved for steeply terraced vineyards that have grown there for centuries.
It is a long and steep walk to the next village of Corniglia, perched on a cliff (including an oxygen-sapping 370-odd step staircase to the village center) and a similar steep and uneven (and longer) walk, meandering through vineyards and past ancient dry-stone walls to Vernazza, probably the best of the five villages. It is an excellent spot for a late lunch at any number of nice cafes and eateries, seemingly all serving supremely fresh seafood and pasta (and washed down with the local wines). The wafting cooking aromas in the gentle sea breezes lifts tired legs and energy-sapped spirits. The nearby Doria tower on a craggy rock spur (pictured at the top of this article) offers a staggering view over the village it once guarded and the Cinque Terre coastline, along with refreshing strong Italian coffee.
For many, this can complete the walk. Vernazza provides a treasure-trove of narrow car-free laneways, ancient fortifications and interesting (though touristy) shops to explore and wander.
For those with energy to burn, the final leg to Monterosso beckons a further 1.5 hours away. To me, Monterosso is the least interesting of the five villages and the peace of motor-free townships is broken. The hike continues to follow the contours of the headlands and provide scenic coastal vistas along the length of the Cinque Terre.
Remember that there is always the train to get between any of the villages that you don't want to walk and there is also a network of boats that ply the waters between the small townships.
Cinque Terre is one of the true travel wonders of Italy. Get out into the fresh air and enjoy this Italian coastal treasure.
A simple map of Cinque Terre is available here.