A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009 finalist

Author: Gemma Holt

Maybe it was a clear-cut hankering for the simple life, but of all the wonders I saw in Italy, it was the Cinque Terre that really made my feet itch for more. Momentarily, this undeniably beautiful 18km stretch of weathered cliffs – edged between Levanto and La Spezia on the Italian Riviera – made me forget every place I had previously visited: Thailand’s beaches, London’s energy, even Spain’s tapas, wine and salsa. The Mediterranean holds many treats but for me, Cinque Terre was an unrivalled highlight.

A world heritage site, the Cinque Terre has long been the lure of travellers. I had yearned for years to visit this place – to dip my feet in its aquamarine waters and wander its steep cobbled streets.

Arriving after 18 days of trekking the Mediterranean coastline – through Barcelona, Montpellier, Nice (the dignified queen of the Cote d’Azur), and the glitz of Monte Carlo, Cinque Terre did not disappoint. My excitement at seeing the first glimpse of it from the cliff tops that uncurled near the border of Monterosso el Mare, was palpable.

Literally translated as ‘The Five Lands’, Cinque Terre is a marriage of manmade and natural beauty encompassing five villages that cling to coastal crags: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

Far beyond the ancient wonders of Rome and the spectacles of Florence, the villages of the Cinque Terre lie about halfway between Genoa and Pisa. These villages are a rustic and seemingly untouched remnant of authentic Italian Riviera: olive groves, dry-stone-walled vineyards, patchwork terrace gardens, and spectacular coastline.

The lack of cars is a unique and notable characteristic of the Cinque Terre. Although there are some well-hidden roads, the main form of transport is the local train that connects the villages with high frequency. Ferry services between the villages give great vision of the coastline and they stop at all villages with the exception of Corniglia.

But cars would be an unwelcome intruder here, for the beauty of the Cinque Terre is in its world renowned cliff-side walking trail that connects the five villages. In the early morning heat, my traveling companion and I don trainers and suntan lotion, eager for the experience that is the Cinque Terre. Despite the many walkers, a respectful quiet prevails. The well laid out track allows each small group the solitude they need. The only interruptions are the lapping of the water below and the crunching of gravel beneath our feet.

Like me, these ready visitors stop frequently to admire the sun-lit water, a glorious translucent blue. While the cliff face draws the eye upwards, the incredibly clear waters of the vast Mediterranean, through which it seems each and every stone may be seen, is strikingly beautiful.

Perhaps the most famous stretch of the trail, Sentiero del’Amore runs between Manarola and Riomaggiore. You can stroll through an underpass graffitied with proclamations of love in a variety of languages. The sketched images that illustrate these words are countless and impressive.  Although (to my great shame) I am unable to read most of the poetic declarations of love etched on the concrete walls, it is obvious that this place is dreamily romantic for holidaying lovers. The tradition of binding their amore – by fastening locks to the solid steel guardrails – is an enduring one. The railing is jammed heavily with padlocks of all sizes, a traditional symbol for the promise of secured love.

Despite the overflowing sentiment of the ‘Street of Love’, the Cinque Terre is far from a lovers-only destination. Life here is simple, the tourism well disguised and the pesto magnificent. As we’d come to expect, the food in Cinque Terre lives up to Italy’s reputation for excellence. Seafood is plentiful, with anchovies being a local specialty and ample pesto and focaccia are on every menu. To whet your taste buds, you can also sip local grappa and limoncello, and sample the strong, sweet tang of the Cinque Terre’s most well known wine, Sciacchetrà.

Nursing the contentment and exhaustion that comes naturally with a day’s walking and being well-fed, a fine array of accommodation choices is on offer. Despite rumour, every budget – from small hotels or inns and bed and breakfast accommodation – is available. For our three ‘peak-of-summer’ nights staying in Vernazza – arguably the most beautiful of the villages – we arrived unplanned and easily found an excellent studio apartment for two. Only minutes from the water, we paid little more than what it cost for a rundown hostel in the back streets of Rome a week later.

Relishing the Cinque Terre is something that can be stretched over a week or more. In doing little more than appreciating the extraordinarily simple and stunning lifestyle that is the Cinque Terre, even if you have only two days – as I did on my first visit – don’t miss it. It is undoubtedly my favourite place in Italy. So follow the lure of simplicity; dine on superb pesto and wine, surround yourself with first class views of the Mediterranean, and enjoy.

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