We broke the “real” traveller’s cardinal rule for Cinque Terre.
We didn’t hike any of it.
It wasn’t planned that way, but that’s how it worked out. I lugged my hiking gear through Europe for naught, but I regret nothing. We spent our first couple of nights in the nearby seaside village of Levanto, which was an unexpected delight and is now my ultimate relaxation destination. We took the ferry from Levanto to Vernazza to approach by sea and we were rewarded with a gentle cruise across the velvety, deep blue Ligurian Sea and the mountainous, green countryside which kept Cinque Terre one of Italy’s most charming secrets for centuries.
Cinque Terre, or “Five lands” is made up of five small villages dotted along 18km of coastline between Genoa and La Spezia in the Italian province of Liguria. The villages are inaccessible by car and only became accessible by rail in the 19th century, which led to locals migrating into other parts of Italy and all but abandoning the traditional way of life. It was until that 1970s that tourism both reinvigorated and forever changed the five villages and today it seems that most travellers have set their sights on the colourful, UNESCO World Heritage Listed towns.
From north to south the villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Corniglia is the only one inaccessible by sea, perched high on a rocky outcrop.
We were lucky to board the ferry at it’s first port in Levanto, and at the first stop in Monterosso we were met by a horde of disappointed tourists who squished their way onto the small ferry, unable to find a seat and wobbling for the rest of the journey.
Vernazza is the Italian Riviera’s “truest” fishing village and has a history dating back to 1080 when it was used as a naval base to defend against pirates. From the ocean, it was easy to spot the 15th century Doria Castle, built as a lookout for pirates. Vernazza is easily recognised for the buttercup-yellow bell tower in the main square, Piazza Marconi, which adjoins to the small harbour.
Colourful dinghies lined the harbour on water so clear that the boats looked like they were floating in midair. I imagine Vernazza’s first impression on most makes them feel like they’ve been sprinkled with pixie dust, so charming is it’s first impression, but I was ready to pass out. It was the first of many times in Italy that my body would go into a headspin after I ate carbs – or most probably, gluten. Italy is an inconvenient country to be carb-free, but fortunately, there is much more to Italian cuisine than bread and pasta.
We found food first. Chloe ordered a delicious pizza while I opted for a salad, hoping that the magical healing powers of greens would make me feel a little less…well, green. It was one of the prettiest salads I’d ever been served, artfully decorated with local Ligurian olives, but I could hardly eat it. Two hours later, I had an urge to eat gelato and I was cured. I have no idea how a gelato made my nausea disappear, but I used it as an excuse to eat gelato every day for the rest of the trip. You know, just in case…
We were seated beside three English women in their late sixties, who I recognised from our ferry. One had the forceful, articulate voice of a high school English teacher, which cut through the peaceful buzzing of Vernazza. She was telling the others how “loud” her blouse was, and how she wasn’t even sure she should wear it on the trip. It was a pale blue, loose-fitting tunic with small, dark flowers dotted sparingly over the fabric. I wondered what her idea of a conservative top would look like, and what she thought of my strapless summer dress, covered in vertical rainbow stripes, that I’d bought the day before in Levanto. The dress is cute, but like so many clothing souvenirs, it only really works in the region where I bought it.
We wandered around, simply enjoying the brightly coloured buildings and narrow, cobbled alleyways before sitting by the water for a while, just enjoying being in Vernazza. We’d spent the previous couple of weeks intensely sightseeing in Paris, Avignon and Nice and it was a relief to just be somewhere rather than always doing something.
Have you been to Cinque Terre?