Cinque Terre is a string of five-centuries-old fishing villages clinging to steep terraces on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline. Its quaint seaside towns are characterised by vertical vineyards and pastel-coloured houses with slatted rooves. Modest harbours are filled with dinky fishing boats and the trattorias turn out perfect pesto pasta and seafood specialties you’ll want to come back for in a hurry.
Story by Simcha Van Bel-Du Plooy
Italy touches the senses on every level. It’s at once seductive, sumptuous and sexy. A visit here is transformative for everyone, reminding us that quality is quintessential in life. In my appreciation of this fascinating Euro-Mediterranean country, I recall Elizabeth Gilbert’s book ‘Eat-Pray-Love’. The main character travels through India and learns about spirituality, then to Italy where she discovers food, and lastly to Indonesia where she finds love. Having visited India many years ago, an equally soul-enriching experience, it was time for my next stop. Again, I would share much of her take on the country as a whole – appreciating Italy’s food and wine – but most of all, its purity and beauty.
The five lands of Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is situated in the Liguria region of La Spezia on the Italian Riviera. Its five small fishing villages are built on a series of steep hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and are all conveniently connected by ferry, boat, train and trail. Vibrantly coloured houses dot the jagged coastline between dramatic working vineyards and fishing boats chug in the harbours below. Given the breath-taking beauty and architecture of Cinque Terre, its UNESCO World Heritage Site status comes as little surprise.
In the European summer, Cinque Terre is bustling with tourists clutching their cameras, and at night, street musicians passionately perform as the distant sound of waves crashes against the rocky shoreline. Sipping a glass of Chianti while snacking on a tomato and cheese-laden bruschetta is how locals introduce us to their wholesome, inexpensive and uncomplicated cuisine. Sit back, and enjoy. This is Italy.
Where it all began
Monterosso, Cinque Terre’s longest established village, is where we base ourselves during our stay on the Italian Riviera. The village’s idyllic sandy beaches are perfect for relaxing and sunbathing and has plenty of accommodation options available to suit any budget. Understandably, Monterosso attracts hordes of day tourists – especially in the European summer – but evenings and early mornings are relatively quiet; the streets empty and the restaurants belong to you. Visit outside of the peak European school-holiday season and spend at least two or three nights because once you’ve settled into the Mediterranean lifestyle you’ll have great difficulty leaving it behind.
Awaken your palate on seaside trails
From Monterosso – the most northern of the villages – a two-hour hiking trail takes you to Vernazza, just a bit further along the coast. Its dips and climbs require a reasonable level of fitness but the walk is a must-do activity which offers postcard-perfect views throughout. Cinque Terre’s hiking trails can occasionally be affected by harsh winter weather so it’s always best to ensure they aren’t closed before setting off.
Via Del Amore (“the love way”) between Riomaggiorre and Manarola is an easier hike and features the ‘tunnel of love’ with statues of kissing couples. All along the cliff rails, romantics have left padlocks engraved with their initials as a testament to their love. Before leaving Vernazza – you can choose to take the ferry or train back – don’t miss out on a wood-fired Italian pizza and a mouth-watering gelato (Stracciatella is my personal favourite).
Welcome to the heart of Cinque Terre
Corniglia, which sits atop a 100-metre high rocky outcrop, cannot be accessed by ferry and is somewhat quieter than the other villages. In fact, its resident population is little more than 100 people. Arriving by train, you will climb the 382 steps of Scalinata Lardarina which lead from the quaint station to the centre of town. The walk takes about 15 minutes, but is well worth it, offering increasingly impressive coastal views with every step. If you’re still not sold on getting to town by foot, opt to take the bus up to the top, regardless – a cool Limoncello awaits you.
Come to mama
We top off our exploration of Cinque Terre with a visit to Riomaggiore, the largest of the five colourful villages on its easternmost point. Riomaggiore is also the headquarters of Cinque Terre with the main park office situated here. Small shops sell genuine Italian leather handbags, hand-made soaps and locally-foraged truffles. If you aren’t in the mood for retail therapy, take a revitalising dip in the ocean, or simply relax over an aperitivo (pre-meal drink) before enjoying some bread-coated fried anchovies and the Liguria region’s famous pasta.
The region of Liguria, home to Cinque Terre, Portofino and Genoa, boasts some of the finest food in Italy. Being on the coast, seafood plays a major part of the diet. Some of the region’s most famous foods and recipes were invented, and first eaten by fishermen. But the area’s cuisine is also rich in fresh vegetables, pastas and farmhouse cheese.
Focaccia: This Ligurian bread is delicious either on its own, dipped in sauce, or with a spread. It can be flavoured with anything from olive oil and salt, to cheese and sausage.
Ravioli: Ravioli, or stuffed pasta, is said to have been invented in the Ligurian town of Novi LIugre. Ravioli alla Genovese is Linguria’s very own signature variety of ravioli which is stuffed with veal, egg, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, chard, nutmeg and sweetbreads.
Minestrone: This deliciously thick soup often includes beans, onions, celery, carrots and tomatoes. The story goes that soldiers from Genoa, serving in the First Crusade, made a meal by taking ingredients from the locals and cooking them in their army helmets.
Pacciugo: Hailing from Portofino, this wonderful dessert includes bitter chocolate ice cream mixed with whipped cream, fresh fruit, cherries and a raspberry or strawberry coulis.
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