Question: What romantic destination visited by two million people a year can you not entirely reach by car … or on foot … or even by boat?
Answer: The Cinque Terre, Italy
Italy’s gorgeous Cinque Terre (pronounced chink-wah tare-ruh) has graced countless postcards, the pages of National Geographic, and more than a few movies. No wonder it attracts two million visitors a year … once they figure out how to get there.
As the name (which translates to the Five Lands) suggests, the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Ligurian Coast is not a single gem, but a string of jewels: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Manarola, Corniglia, and Riomaggiore. That’s the catch. Though they are lined up like pearls on a necklace and each borders at least one other, that doesn’t mean you can reach them all however you like.
There was a time when a beautiful hiking path linked all five, but massive flooding in 2011 washed part of the route away, isolating Riomaggiore from Corniglia. Four of the five descend to the sea, so you may reach them by ferry, but Corniglia is 300 feet uphill, with no harbor (requiring climbing 33 flights of bricks stairs to visit from below). And cars can’t drive into any of the villages, so you have to find parking outside the towns and walk in from there.
In fact, the only way to get directly to all five villages today is by train, a route which follows the mountainside with a stop in each. That’s a romantic mode for exploration to be sure, but most intrepid travelers mix it up: arriving at one of the villages by train and then hiking between one or two more, and taking a ferry between ports where they can. The result is an immersion in the full sweep of the Cinque Terre.
That’s perfect because each village boasts unique discoveries, from the honey-flavored gelato in Corniglia to Mantorosso’s legendary anchovies, but they share more than geography. The lack of corporate over-development means they all still feel timeless, well worth a visit no matter how you arrive.
Cinque Fatti: Five facts about the Cinque Terre
- The charming pastel hues which make the Cinque Terre glow are often said to have been designed to make fisherman’s houses visible from the sea, but that’s a myth. The bright colors now associated with the villages didn’t appear until the late 70s, when a few families adopted the cheery paint jobs on their homes, followed by their neighbors, until it swept the region.
- Manarola is the epicenter of Sciachetrà, a premium after-dinner wine renowned since the ancient Romans wrote of it. Made from grapes aged off the vine, the combination of a longer process and lower yield than traditional winemaking yields not only a sweeter and richer flavor, but a much more expensive product. The best vintages can run $100 a bottle (assuming you can get vineyards to part with them).
- At one point, the Cinque briefly became the Quattro. With a whopping 1,500 residents in 1948, Monterosso was deemed to have outgrown village status by Italian officials and removed from inclusion on the trail, only to be restored the next year after considerable outcry.
- The striking Doria Castle at Vernazza is completely irregular in shape, as the builders formed it to follow the contours of the ridge upon which it sits. It was intended this way to avoid any blind spots, thus giving unobstructed views of the sea to protect against the once endless stream of pirates.
- For the first half of the 20th century, the most famous icon of the Cinque Terre was Il Gigante, a massive stone statue of Neptune overlooking the sea at the edge of a luxurious villa. World War II bombing wiped out the villa entirely, and took away the giant’s arms, tridents, and seashell, and a battering storm in the 1960s sheared off some of the remaining details. He’s still visible even so, but now appears to be brooding and humbled by time.
Uncover the beauty and culture of the Cinque Terre and the rest of The Rivieras: France, Italy & the Isles on our Small Ship Adventure.