We ended our Italian holiday with a 5 day visit to Cinque Terre — 5 historic villages clinging to the hillsides that rise up from the Mediterranean Sea on Italy’s west coast between Genoa and Rome. These ancient villages are colorful and charming, but they are also a testament to the indomitable spirit of mankind. The setting is truly a place where you would expect to find mountain goats, not people.
In the days before Italy was unified into one country, these five towns were independent territories. In French, Cinque Terre means “5 lands.” The French name stuck but the local pronunciation is most un-Gallic. In Italian, they are known collectively as CHINK wa TEAR uh. They are mostly inaccessible by car. In past centuries, communication with the outside world was mostly limited to walking paths cut into the steep sides of the mountains. Today, the towns are served by trains and coastal ships.
From south to north, the five villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. All share a similar architectural history and are especially scenic with their brightly colored buildings, narrow streets, and fleets of fishing boats nestled in quiet harbors. Monterosso is further divided into two sections — the Old Town and the more modern new section. We chose to stay in the newer part of Monterosso because that’s where the train station and the best beaches were located.
Monterosso Part I
The newer section of Monterosso is all about beaches. The seashore is lined with private clubs where visitors can rent an umbrella and a cabana for the day. At the northern end of town is a public beach. Above the beach is Il Gigante, a concrete sculpture set high atop a rocky outcropping. 80 years ago, the giant supported a dance floor that hung out over the water where revelers could dance under the stars. The dance floor is long gone, but Il Gigante still maintains his lonely vigil over the town below.
Monterosso Part II
The old town of Monterosso is accessed by a tunnel. During WW II, the inhabitants took shelter in that tunnel during air raids. Our first visit occurred during a torrential rain storm that forced us to seek shelter in a local cafe where tourists and locals congregated to wait out the storm with a Caffe Americaine and a biscotti or two. The storm soon passed and we set off to explore the old part of town.
We returned to old Monterosso a few days later and climbed all the way to the top where there is an ancient monastery and burial vault. In more dangerous times, the people would hide in the monastery to avoid capture by Turkish pirates who roamed the Mediterranean. It was more than a 1,000 steps to the top and worth every huff and puff on the way up.
One of the most photographed of all the 5 villages, Riomaggiore is a typical town in the area. It rises steeply from the shore to the hills above. It’s tiny harbor offers little protection to fishing boats, so they are hauled out and parked along the streets of town when stormy weather is expected.
Just a mile north of Riomaggiore is the fishing village of Manarola. The casual visitor would have difficulty telling one from the other. Manarola has a picturesque harbor with many colorful small boats waiting to take those who make their living from the sea out onto the waters of the Mediterranean.
We bypassed Corniglia, which sits high above the local railway station, to spend a day in Vernazza. We loved staying in Monterosso, but Vernazza was our favorite day trip while in Cinque Terre.
In 2011, severe storms caused major flooding that sent a wall of mud 12 feet deep cascading through the town. The ferocity of the storm dislodged homes in the valley above the town that had stood for centuries. The flood waters blasted a hole through the granite foundation of the town near the harbor.
Today, Vernazza has largely recovered but the damage is still there to be seen if you know where to look.
We were sad to leave Cinque Terre, but our excursion had come to an end. We took the train back to Milan then a bus to the airport where we stayed overnight so we would be on time for our early morning flight home.
As we were leaving the hotel in the morning, we happened to glance out our window to find that Italy had given us a goodbye gift. It was still dark where we were, but to the north, the tops of the Alps were bathed in sunlight from the coming dawn. It was a magnificent ending to our Italian holiday.
Thank you, Italy. Our journey was very special. We’ll see you again soon.