The unpredictable cliff formations of the Italian Riviera have allowed the villages known collectively as Cinque Terre (the five lands) to be constructed in unique patterns that hug the mountainside. Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are meant to be experienced on the hiking trails, carved into the mountainside, that the locals use themselves. While hiking along the terrain, you are able to see the unmistakable beauty of each trail and village. A local train makes frequent stops in each village throughout the day. But taking the train will deprive you of experiencing the areas of the trails that are home to gardens, vineyards, and old bridges. While each trail boasts beauty and intrigue, the individual villages have developed their own unique splendor well worth the hike.
Monterrosso al Mare
The city farthest north, Monterrosso al Mare is the only city built on flat land. From its shores you can see glimpses of the other four villages. Because of its long shoreline, Monterrosso has the greatest variety of hotels and beachside restaurants. During the summer, this white sand seashore is filled with tourists and sunbathing Italians in vacanza (on vacation).
At the end of the trail from Monterrosso al Mare is a small point that looks down on the entire village of Vernazza. The colors of the buildings are strikingly bright, and the clear, turquoise ocean provides a perfect backdrop for the village. At the top of the cliff closest to the water, there are remains of a watchtower and castello (castle). The watchtower was used to monitor the ocean for any signs of pirates. If there was an approaching attack, watchmen would set up a fire signal to warn the other villages and call larger neighboring cities for help.
Corniglia is the smallest of the five villages and the most difficult to get to; even if you take the train, you will have to hike down thirty-three flights of stairs called the Lardarina. Corniglia has access to the ocean; however, with the village at 330 feet above sea level, the water is down another steep set of stairs. Trekking all of these steps will be worth the effort if you plan to enjoy a sunset on the shoreline. Looking out on the glistening ocean at dusk is relaxing after a vigorous day of hiking.
The beginning of La Via dell’Amore (the path of love) starts in Manarola and ends in Riomaggiore. In the 1920s, after some malfunctions with construction of the railroad, a trail connecting Manarola and Riomaggiore was built. This allowed young men and women to venture outside their towns, and soon the trail became a lovers’ meeting place. After World War II, it became known as La Via dell’Amore, not only because it was the meeting place for young lovers but also because the walls along the trail are covered in graffiti with declarations of love. Along with the graffiti, there are padlocks on pillars, bridges, fences, and other structures along the trail. It has become a popular ritual for couples to bring padlocks to this area, install them onto a fence or another structure, and throw away the key—symbolically sealing their relationship. La Via dell’Amore is covered in these symbols of commitment.
At the end of a stroll through La Via dell’Amore, you will come to the final and southernmost village. Riomaggiore is the second largest village and the only one with a parking lot. This is the only place you can access by car. Cars are not permitted in any of the five Cinque Terre villages. You may also choose to start your hike here with La Via dell’Amore or jump onto the train to Monterrossa al Mare and work your way through each village. Before heading from one village to another, be sure to devote a generous amount of time to experience the food. Italians usually take two to three hours out of their afternoon for pausa (a pause) to gather with their loved ones and enjoy a large leisurely lunch. Do as the Italians do and take your time savoring each dish because each is an experience in itself. You won’t want to miss any opportunity to capture a beautiful moment along the trail or throughout your exploration of each village. Each is full of memories waiting to be made.
Few things are more compelling than Italian music. How, then, could you explore the boot of the Mediterranean without the velvet tones of Italian melodies to set the scene? While you’re experiencing the art and architecture that put Italy on the map, be kind to your soul and take in Italy’s celebrated musicians as well. May we suggest—
“Il regalo piu grande,” by Tiziano Ferro
“Una peosia anche per te,” by Elisa
“Vivo per lei,” by Andrea Bocelli