RIVIERA REVELS

Once five rustic fishing villages in Italy, the Cinque Terre are today a dazzling display of culture and food

A century ago, the Cinque Terre were simply five fishing villages on an unforgiving stretch of the Ligurian coast in northwestern Italy. With trains came tourism and now throngs arrive daily to see it all: the startlingly vibrant colour of the Mediterranean, the wildly rugged coastline sliced by scenic hiking trails and the tiny towns tucked like puzzle pieces into the cliffs.

Widen the scope of your itinerary to include neighbouring towns (Levanto to the north and Portovenere to the south), seek out lesser-known trails and travel off-season when crowds are thinner. The viability of this magnificent but fragile area may depend on such decisions.

The Path Less Travelled

More than just five towns, Cinque Terre is also a national park of nearly 10,000 acres whose natural grandeur is best experienced on a hike. More than 75 miles of trails crisscross this stunning territory, so there’s no reason to add to the congestion along the Sentiero Azzurro, the popular coastal path that formerly linked all five villages. Instead, start from Corniglia and follow the red-and-white trail markers into the hills on path 587, where dazzling panoramas await along a less-trodden route. After a sweaty ascent involving a series of steep stone staircases, the path levels
off along a ridge where up-in-the-clouds views span the sparkling sea and shrinking town below. When the trail splits, continue toward the hilltop town of Volastra before eventually descending into the streets of Manarola.

Cliffside Cocktails

A strenuous hike ought to culminate with rest and a reward, both of which can be procured at Nessun Dorma. This casual outdoor bar, which opened in 2014, occupies a landscaped terrace on a promontory overlooking Manarola’s timeless vista: pastel houses perched on a cliff, fishing boats in a small harbor and tanned teenagers diving off the breakwater into the indigo sea.

Fresh Catch

While most visitors are vying for seats at the same dozen restaurants touted by seemingly every guidebook, shake the crowds by dining at some worthy newcomers in Riomaggiore. Watch fishermen haul in the day’s catch while savouring buttered toasts topped with plump anchovies from Monterosso and paccheri with fresh mussels from Riomaggiore.

Good Morning, Vernazza

Vernazza is arguably the most photogenic — and popular — village, so arrive early before it’s overrun with day-trippers. Pop into a hole-in-the-wall focacceria for a take-away breakfast of cheesy focaccia or pesto-slathered pizza. Then head to the quay to picnic while admiring the lemon-hued church, bobbing boats in the harbour and the pretty main piazza slowly coming to life.

Fantastic Voyage

The Cinque Terre has fewer historical sites worth exploring than its southerly neighbour, Portovenere, a coastal town so closely related that it falls under the same UNESCO World Heritage site designation. From Vernazza, hop on the first Consorzio Marittimo Turistico ferry heading south and after an hour of marvelling at the cinematic coastline from the sea, alight in Portovenere’s picturesque marina. Then, stroll past colourful houses crammed shoulder-to-shoulder along the waterfront en route to the Chiesa di San Pietro. This striped 12th-century church appears to have grown organically from the rocky peninsula where the crashing waves of the Mediterranean meet the Gulf of La Spezia. Afterward, investigate Byron’s Grotto, a natural cove nearby named for the 19th-century English poet who, according to local lore, swam from here to San Terenzo across the gulf, over four miles away.

Island Lunch

There might be no more glamorous way to travel in Italy than by Venetian water taxi, which is precisely the polished vessel that will be waiting in Portovenere’s harbour when you reserve a table for lunch at Locanda Lorena. This seaside inn and restaurant, just a few minutes away on the sparsely populated island of Palmaria, has a large covered terrace where well-heeled locals gather at tables draped in white linens to dine on fritto misto, lobster-stuffed ravioli and overflowing platters of grilled fish and crustaceans.

Portovenere Products

Before the last ferry departs for Cinque Terre, spend an hour in the shops lining the narrow alleys and steep staircases of Portovenere’s historic center.

Start on Via Capellini, a stone-paved pedestrian lane where you’ll find Olioteca Bansigo, a specialty store celebrating the olive in various forms, from oils and tapenades to beautiful olive-wood serving spoons and  cutting boards.

Across the street, fragrant basil plants flank the entrance to Bajeicò, a pesto shop selling the local basil-based sauce and related products like fresh pasta. And up a nearby staircase, the tiny ceramics workshop La Bottega di Rena produces pretty handcrafted pieces such as glazed bowls shaped like fishing boats.

Seaside Sips

Return to Riomaggiore and follow signs for the Via dell’Amore. This romantic cliff-top path, part of the Sentiero Azzurro, is closed indefinitely, but similar views can be found at A Piè de Mà, a cafe and bar in a magnificent location near the trailhead. At a table on the terrace, high above the churning sea, try a glass of Cinque Terre wine from Walter de Battè, a small artisanal producer of the region’s floral white blend.

Ligurian Kitchen

Prefer eating among Italians rather than in a polyglot dining room? Then reserve a table at L’Articiocca, a cozy restaurant that opened in 2013 on a quiet side street in Levanto, one train stop north of Monterosso. Once seated on the patio, start with the Levanto specialty gattafin, pasta-like fritters stuffed with spinach and wild herbs.

Beach Bliss

This may be the Italian Riviera, but the only Cinque Terre town with a wide swath of beach is Monterosso. In high season, rows of umbrellas in a rainbow of colours line the town’s Spiaggia di Fegina, each hue demarcating a different beach club. Arrive early to claim a spot on the free public beach, or pay for a sun-lounger to relax in the shade of an umbrella between dips in the turquoise sea.

Taste Test

Maybe it’s the short uphill walk, or the lack of ostentatious signage, but few seem to find their way to the tranquil Buranco winery in Monterosso.

Hidden amid terraced vineyards and lemon groves, this idyllic estate operates as an agriturismo — a working farm that rents rooms, or in this case, cottages — but impromptu wine tastings are also arranged on the picturesque patio.

Glasses of the vineyard’s syrah and Cinque Terre white are served alongside platters of the property’s olives, cheese and pesto crostini.

On a wooden lounge chair surrounded by nothing but beatific calm and views of the vines, finish with a pour of sciacchetrà, the Cinque Terre’s sweet passito, and take the coastal paradise back home in a collage of memories.

Ingrid K Williams

About the author / Ingrid K Williams

She is a freelance writer who writes about travel, food, art and more in international publications including The New York Times and Travel+Leisure.

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