Part One: Arriving in Vernazza
“Either we’re stuck in a tunnel or the village is underground,” I said to my wife-and-traveling companion while craning my head out of the train compartment window.
“It’s underground,” she retorted, diving for her backpack and dragging me behind just as the train lurched out of the station.
We were in Vernazza, one of the celebrated Cinque Terre, those Ligurian eagle’s nest villages perched along a ten-mile stretch of the Italian Riviera just a few miles north of Tuscany.
Rocky coves, fall-away cliffs and high mountain ridges provide the stunning backdrop to the area.
Each of the five fishing and winemaking villages that make up the Cinque Terre (“cinque” means five in Italian) sits at an improbable angle, right on the seashore. Around them, terraced vineyards and olive groves scramble up or down slopes still largely inaccessible by road. This is hiker’s paradise. And we had come to hike.
As things turned out, Vernazza does have an underground station, in a tunnel. We skittered out of it into a benign sun slanting down between operetta-set buildings.
Rose, ochre, saffron houses leaned on each other over armspan-wide alleys, tipping their roofs toward the Mediterranean. The sea roared and the locals roared back at it — with shouts about fish, grape vines, seasonal warmth and espresso coffee. We could smell, see and feel all of the above with delicious immediacy.
The first thing to do once you’ve arrived at the Cinque Terre is orient yourself. That’s what we did.
The Cinque Terre stretch south from the northernmost village of Monterosso to Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, in that order.
These villages may not be undiscovered but their relative remoteness and traditional economies have preserved a special brand of timelessness.
Cars can’t get into the alleys that zigzag from each tiny harbor to surrounding hilltops.
The tall stone houses rise in tiers among church towers, castles and pocket-sized piazzas swirled with trattoria or caffè tables. The piazzas also double as outdoor living rooms pretty much year-round: the weather here is usually mild, with warm to hot days and cool, breezy nights.
For the last century or so the most practical way to approach the Cinque Terre has been by train. They are an hour’s ride south from the city of Genoa or exactly eight minutes north from La Spezia. This small, unsung naval port city doubles as southwestern Liguria’s regional rail-hub. Connections from La Spezia are easy to Florence, Pisa, Rome, Milan and Turin.
Whichever way you approach, the coast of Liguria appears as a flicker of colorful images glimpsed between train or highway tunnels.
That’s because the Cinque Terre’s coastal ravines are narrow and sheer. The villages’ train stations are mostly underground. That brings me back to our arrival point in Vernazza, those many years ago: the year was 1976.
Since that trip, my wife and I have returned about ten times a year to explore every inch of each of the Cinque Terre villages and the network of hiking paths linking them. Either we’re masochists or we like the place.
A word of warning: being at least moderately fit before you tackle some of these trails is a good idea. Many switch back and forth crazily from sea level to hogback ridges bristling with pine trees (and breathless hikers). Only then do the Cinque Terre’s trails curl along the upper contours to nearby coastal or inland villages such as Portovenere, Pignone or Riccò.
Photo copyright Alison Harris