Around a hundred kilometres south along the coast from Genoa, the Riviera di Levante is home to five medieval villages known as the Cinque Terre. Their colourful houses perch high on the cliffs in a landscape of lemon trees, vineyards, olive groves and terraced farm lands, in an area where generations of farmers have worked hard to get the best from the mountainous terrain.
The narrow road that zigzags between the hillsides is itself a delight, but once you reach the coastal villages, the man-made gems of the Cinque Terre National Park, there can remain no doubt why UNESCO named the area a World Heritage Site. Travelling south from Genoa, Monterosso al Mare is the first to be reached. Of the five, it has the best beaches, which means that it is the most modern and the one most affected by tourism. After a brief walk around the medieval streets and a pause to enjoy a snack at one of the sea-front cafes while breathing in the heady scent of the Ligurian Sea, it's better to keep going as yet more enchantment awaits just a little farther on along the coast.
Next comes Vernazza, where small boats bob on the natural creek; this used to be the most prosperous of the five towns and remains a traditional fishing village. The former wealth is evident from the loggias, arcades, towers and mansions that line the steep narrow streets of the old town. At the far end, too, there's the Doria castle, dating from the fifteenth century, which was part of the village defences against Saracen pirates.
Corniglia, the smallest of the five, is the only one that isn't directly on the sea front, which may explain it being the most rural and the most peaceful. The town nestles among terraced vineyards, perched on a rocky promontory, and its ancient houses straggle along the main Fieschi road. The charming church of San Pietro is worth a visit and there are ruins, too, of a cliff-top stronghold dating back to the mid-sixteenth century. Corniglia is the middle one of the Cinque Terre and there is a terrace from which you can look across to all four of the other towns.
The walking paths, which often follow the old mule trails, are one of the great attractions of the area, and from Corniglia, it's possible to walk on to the next village, Manarola. There's also a train line connecting all five of the villages, which is the best way of visiting the area if you don't want to walk. Set between two rocky outcrops, the picture-postcard village of Manarola boasts colourful houses, traditional narrow streets and the ancient church of San Lorenzo. It's a perfect place to find a cafe where you can watch the sun go down while sampling a glass of the local wine.
Perhaps the most famous of the local hiking trails is the Via dell'Amore – the trail of love – which leads on along the cliffs to Riomaggiore. This, the southernmost of the five towns, dates from the thirteenth century, and its ancient wharf is framed by medieval defensive tower-houses. In the Via Colombo, there are plenty of cafes and ice-cream parlours where you can sit and breathe in the atmosphere of this land, where, over the centuries, the people have managed to wrest a living from the unwelcoming mountainside and where, thanks to the inaccessibility, it is still possible to glimpse an ancient way of life.
Genoa and Pisa are the nearest airports. The inaccessibility and lack of parking make access by train to and around the area the best option. From Genoa, take the train south to Monterosso. Approaching from Pisa – from the south – travel north to La Spezia and on to the Cinque Terre by regional train. Although there are trains that serve all five of the towns, some go direct from La Spezia to Monterosso.
Visitors' cars cannot be taken into the villages, and parking is a major problem, particularly in summer; there is a one-day train pass available which allows unlimited local travel. The Cinque Terre is criss-crossed with trails and paths among the vineyards and the olive groves and throughout the National Park, making it a veritable paradise for hikers, and walking is really the best way to explore the area. The clearlyy marked Sentiero Azzuro - the blue trail – connects all five villages. Although it is not particularly difficult, there are some steep gradients, some of which have steps. The full trail takes around five or six hours (not counting time spent in the villages en route.) The Via dell'Amore path between Riomaggiore and Manarola is one of the easiest, and one of the most spectacular, stretches of the trail.
Where to stay:
Monterosso is best equipped for tourists; high up in the town, the Casa dei Limoni is an old mansion that has been tastefully refurbished to offer half a dozen rooms and a charming terrace with views over the old town and out across the water. If you are travelling as part of a group, you could rent the historical Eremo di Santa Maria Maddalena, also in Monterosso, which is available by the week. In Manarola, the delightful La Torreta, a seventeenth-century tower-house has a handful of rooms and apartments, while in Vernazza, La Mala boasts just four highly exclusive rooms and an unforgettable cliff-top terrace.
Where to eat:
The area's coastal location makes seafood a basic in local cuisine. The Gambero Rosso in Vernazza serves local fish and shellfish on its delightful terrace. The family-run Osteria a Cantina de Mananan in Corniglia (Via Fieschi, 117) has only a few tables, but it is well worth making a reservation. In Manarola the Marina Piccola hotel restaurant boasts fantastic views over the bay, or try the bustling Trattoria Il Porticciolo. In Riomaggiore, eat down by the harbour at the Trattoria La Lanterna.