Cobbled streets, painted houses, wonderful views and delicious ice cream... the Cinque Terre in Liguria might just be the Italy you’ve been looking for
For as long as my wife and I have lived together there has been a painting on our bedroom wall (regardless of which of our many rented houses the bedroom was in). The painting is entitled ‘Ligurian Waters’ and it shows a town, full of houses painted blues, pinks and yellows, that runs down to the sea. It’s possible to make out a harbour, a church and some trees. Eventually, I bothered to find out where Liguria, and more crucially the Cinque Terre, was, and then decided that it was about time we should go there for ourselves.
There are many things that make the Cinque Terre National Park a popular tourist destination in the unsung Italian region of Liguria – too often overshadowed by its far more famous neighbour, Tuscany. For one, there are no real roads in the area and the five towns (the cinque terre) are joined by train, footpath and ferry. For another, the towns of brightly-coloured buildings are perched on high cliffs, with streets that scramble down the hillsides to meet the sea, making them perfect for photo opportunities, and even more perfect for getting pleasurably lost in.
Monterosso al Mare – as the biggest of the five – seemed to be the logical one to choose as the base for exploration: it has the only real, sizeable beach for anyone who can happily lose a few days topping up the tan; and has the easiest car access from the region’s main roads. Plus, we had arrived from Nice, making the most of the breathtaking coastal roads (Monterosso is at the western end of the Cinque Terre).
The town itself is divided into two halves. One boasts wider streets, more shops and small squares, shaded by olive and lemon trees, in which to enjoy cappuccino and pandolce. The other provides the main beachfront and a long promenade with a row of restaurants whose terraces provide the ideal vantage point to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean with a glass of Prosecco and a plate of local seafood. Such was the view on offer and the charm of the whole scene that we stayed here far longer than our goose-pimpled skin would have liked.
Sure, there’s a train that runs between the villages and a footpath (in places this gets very, very steep – the final leg from Vernazza to Monterosso has been known to reduce hardened ramblers to tears, and the final ascent into Corniglia comprises a thigh-burning 368 stairs), but when the sun is shining, and the sea is calm, the ferry must be the preferred way to see the villages. A day ticket will allow you to hop and off the boats as often as you want as they plough their furrows up and down this little bit of Mediterranean shoreline (actually they don’t stop at Corniglia because it has no waterfront and is perched high up above the sea – visitors here will have to lace up their walking boots).
Coming into each harbour from the sea provides the perfect opportunity to marvel at all the things that make the Cinque Terre a special place – the wonderful array of colours on the buildings; the architectural impossibility of keeping houses, churches, and shops perched on the sides of startling steep cliffs; and the number of ice cream parlours that can be supported by passing tourist trade. Each village provides a labyrinth of side streets and alleyways to get lost in, often reducing you to following arrows and directions painted on stone walls in whitewash to avoid walking straight into the front room of a local family at lunch.
The appeal of the Cinque Terre comes not from glitz and glamour, unlike near neighbours such as Portofino, but from the charm of an area that until one hundred years ago was largely isolated from the rest of the world. The painted plaster of the houses may be fading, but the romance of the Cinque Terre remains undimmed.