Cinque Terre: Italy's Fiat-Free Riviera
By Rick Steves
|Vernazza's gorgeous coastline.|
The most fantasy-fulfilling stretch of the fabled Riviera lies not in France, but just across the border in Italy between Genoa and Pisa.
The Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh, which means "five lands") is a series of villages clinging to a remote stretch of the Riviera coastline. Each town is a variation on the same theme: a pastel jumble of homes crouching in a gully like crusty sea creatures in a tide pool, undisturbed by traffic or modern development.
The rugged villages of the Cinque Terre, founded by Dark Age locals hiding out from marauding pirates, were long cut off from the modern world. Today the villages, linked by a milk-run train, a ferry, and a spectacular trail, draw hordes of hikers. To preserve the character of the towns and the area's natural beauty, the government declared the Cinque Terre a national park a few years ago. Visitors pay a small entrance fee, which stokes a park maintenance fund and helps to maintain the trails.
Travelers who are content to rent a room in a small hotel, pension, or private home enjoy a land where the villagers have almost no choice but to go about their business as if the surrounding vineyards are the very edges of the earth.
Each village has its own flavor. To sample them all, you can follow the fragrant trail through sunny vistas from Riomaggiore to Monterosso — five hours if you don't stop much; far longer if you linger to soak up the scene. Here's what you'll find, walking east to west.
The first town of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, has seduced artists into becoming residents. The tunnel next to the train tracks takes you to a fascinating tangle of colorful homes. Riomaggiore's beach, an uncrowded cove, is a two-minute walk from town. From Riomaggiore, the Via dell' Amore (walkway of love) leads to Manarola. While you'll find no beach here, stairways lead to remote rocks for sunbathing. Picturesque Manarola rules its ravine and drinks its wine while its sun-bleached walls slumber on. Buy a picnic before walking to the beaches of Corniglia.
Corniglia, the only Cinque Terre town not on the water, sits smugly on its hilltop. Many hikers — lured by Corniglia's scrawny beach, the nude Guvano beach nearby, and the Cinque Terre's best swimming — never bother to tackle the 370 stairs that zigzag up to the town (or you can cheat and take the shuttle bus; I won't tell anyone). Those who reach the Corniglia are rewarded by the area's finest wine — touted on ancient vases found in Pompeii — and most staggering view.
The 90-minute hike on to Vernazza is as rugged as the people who've worked the terraced vineyards that blanket the region. Overseen by a ruined castle, with the closest thing to a natural harbor, Vernazza is my Cinque Terre home base. Only the occasional noisy train flashing by reminds you there's a modern world out there somewhere.
Adventurers in search of no-tan-line coves, refreshing waterfalls, and natural (and dangerous) high dives find them tucked away along the coast between Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
Monterosso al Mare boasts the area's only sandy beach and feels more resorty. Put in some beach time and then take a five-minute train or boat ride back home to Vernazza for the sunset and a seafood dinner.
The Cinque Terre...nowhere else does the lure of the Mediterranean, Italy, and village life combine so potently to shipwreck a speedy itinerary.