There are those who will testify, cursing certain guidebook writers in the same breath, that not long ago Cinque Terre was a secluded haven known only to Italians and few other Europeans. The five villages, as the tale goes, once offered quiet, intimate experiences at non-touristy prices; and along the empty trails, one could pass an entire morning in almost pastoral bliss, with only the placid sea and verdant hillside as company.
Whether mythical or not, this version of Cinque Terre is difficult to imagine today. Awaiting a connection at La Spezia, visitors occupy virtually every meter of free space. Hoards of American college students spill out of the tourism office, merging with a French tour group to form a noisy, chaotic mass, and swelling our Carrizo to well beyond maximum capacity. Experiences, all, to dampen any hopes for a peaceful weekend retreat.
Yet, travellers take heart. While mainstream tourism, in all its manifestations—the inflated prices and lengthy queues, those odious laminated menus in multiple languages—has undeniably infiltrated here, this magical spot on the Ligurian coast nonetheless merits a visit. Its special appeal, difficult to put down to one particular word, must simply be experienced to be appreciated. And “doing” Cinque Terre has become so streamlined, requiring little more than a bankcard, a backpack and comfortable shoes, that with little planning you can set out after breakfast and arrive in time for lunch.
Here’s just a taste of what awaits in the idyllic “five lands”.
Along the trails, interspersed with shimmery olive trees and the brightest sunny-yellow lemons, wildflowers and succulents decorate the stepped terrain so characteristic of the Ligurian region. A sea at times a brilliant aquamarine, at others profound grey, beckons from below as you proceed from village to village. The eye then lights on one like an apparition, rewarding your efforts with a breath-taking composition of cascading pastel houses set against an azure backdrop. Truly a landscape to tickle the artistic impulse, colourful Cinque Terre will inspire.
Visitors have the opportunity to witness a centuries-old ways of life here. As portions of the trails slice right through privately owned land, the occasional glimpse of local men and women tending their vineyards, olive and lemon groves affords greater appreciation of the region’s agricultural methods. With lucky timing you may even spot a funicular in use, the motorized hauling carts used by locals to transport goods to and from gardens lining steep ravines. Mornings head down to the marina, where local fisherman prepare for their day’s work, and on the way back enjoy the first wafting scents of freshly-baked focaccia.
Cinque Terre will not disappoint your taste buds. All the specialties of Liguria are available here, such as pesto alla Genovese. Seafood lovers, try the cozze or muscoli alla marinara (muscles steamed in wine, herbs and garlic) or an insalata di mare (a mixed seafood salad served chilled). As for pesto, trenette and trofie are the pasta shapes traditionally used, accompanied by steamed potatoes and green beans in the traditional manner. Acciughe sotto limone (anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil) make for a common midday snack, or a quick stop at the village focacceria will more than satisfy for lunch.
In a region famous for its lemon production, one expects nothing less than the freshest limonata (lemonade) as well as the best locally made limoncino, a popular after dinner liquor made from lemon zest, alcohol and sugar. The Cinque Terre wine, a dry white made from three local varietals (Bosco, Vermentino, Albarola), accompanies perfectly your seafood dinner; while the Sciacchetrà, made from the same grapes (after having been dried, like vin santo) is a sweet, fruity dessert wine. It also complements certain strong cheeses nicely. No trip to the five lands is complete without a taste of these.
Cinque Terre, despite its now extreme popularity, has still managed to stave off most of the modern world’s unpleasantries. Noise, for one, since vehicle traffic is limited. Few buzzing motorini, even fewer cars. Mornings one wakes to songbirds, and but for the hourly ringing of church bells, nights are dark and still. Even at the peak of day, with every piazza and vista point swarming with tourists—even then a certain peace prevails here. To maximize your tranquil time, start your hiking early, then find a green nook along the path for a picnic. Rest during the afternoon on your apartment’s terrace. Then, take advantage of the after dinner lull, when most everyone has turned in after a long day of hiking, by exploring your village in the calm of night.