A barely 12 miles of rocky and almost inaccessible coast on the eastern side, Levante, the sun-rising land of half-moon shaped Liguria region have been transformed, centuries of hard work, into a landscape of extraordinary and unique beauty.
Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso a Mare are the five villages – Five Lands, hence Cinque Terre, which were founded around the year 1000 by population coming from the valleys beyond the eastern mountain ridge of Apuane Alps, and not from the sea, as you might wrongly guess. They were mostly farmers and the sea was hostile for them: they started cultivating the vine, planting olive and lemon trees, farming small gardens for vegetables. The peculiar conformation of the landscape, mountains that plunge dramatically into the sea, forced them to build terraces for cultivation, through the creation of dry stone-walls that can still be admired today as a prodigy of refined simplicity. The Tyrrhenian sea, infested with pirates, was not the natural communication way for these farmers, rather the natural connection between villages came through walking paths and stone stairs cut into the mountain, the same ones used today by occasional visitors as well by serious hikers from all over the world. Only later, some peasants became fishermen, once the Genoese Republic cleared the sea of the Saracens, but the fishing never became a serious industry here, with the miniature harbours having a natural, insurmountable space limit.
All five villages are connected through different sentieri (foot-trails) which take from less than 1 up to 3 hours, for each leg, and different levels of physical demand. The paths, literally centuries old, are all well marked, traced somewhat halfway between sky and sea, though gently following the natural mountainous design, sometimes reaching the ridges, the view embracing the entire rocky coastline from south to north and, on a clear day, you can even spot the Tuscan archipelago and Corsica in the infinite blue of the horizon.
After the climb, you dip down into the narrow valleys, walking through woods of oaks, holm oaks and chestnuts, the only sounds those of the occasional mountain streams, birdsongs, bells of a small church in the distance. Sometimes a break through the trees offers a mesmerising view of the villages in the distance: fishermen’s houses painted in ochre, burgundy, mustard yellow, pastel pink, with dark green shutters, the blue and white wooden boats anchored in the tiny harbours. Soon the woods leave space for olive groves, walled orchards with apple, lemon and fig trees and precariously perched vineyards, which follow the line of the cliff and seem to fall directly into the sea.
Heroic viniculture they call it: soil torn and cleared of rocks, which are broken in smaller pieces and re-used to build up, by hands, dry-stone walls, vines planted and farmed by traditional means, grapes harvest kneeled down, the only modern concession monorails used to carry baskets full of grapes to the cellars. Most of the vines are white: above all Bosco and then Vermentino and Albarola, the result is a blend, Cinqueterre DOC, a dry, intense yellow wine with a strong saltiness, thanks both to the soil and the marine salts, sprayed by the southern winds constantly blowing above the sea. It is a great wine served fresh with fish, white meats, fresh cheeses and salads. The most well known wine is the Sciacchetrà DOC, a passito (raisin wine).
A winery to look for is Campogrande, a barely 2 hectares of steep land in Riomaggiore. The man on the field is a young dreamer Simone Bonanni mentored by legendary Barolo wine maker Elio Altare. Cinqueterre Campogrande DOC and the smaller production of Telemaco, a clear homage to the patience and resilience of local farmers, make no exception to the Altare’s philosophy of producing uncompromising wines, full of character.
In Riomaggiore you can also find the cooperative of local producers, where you can have a tour and tasting, but also buy other local delicacies, from extra-virgin olive oil to pesto, tiny juicy Taggiasche olives and honey from local farmers.
As you descend and approach the villages, dirty paths turn into paved roads (car-free roads!) then into long stone stairways and passages between buildings, some so close to each other that only one person per direction can walk. All paths come to the inevitable classic Italian piazza: cafes and restaurants with shaded dehors, little specialties shops, the occasional morning lively market, with vendors selling from fruit and vegetables to fish, from sandals to clothing. Each of the Cinque Terre has its own character: lively Monterosso, with a long stretch of beach is the most mundane, with cafes, small boutiques, a promise of ease of living that captivates visitors. Manarola is the dream of every photographer: a village that looks like a nativity scene, the colourful houses, pastel palette the most popular choice, perched on the bend of the cliff, and then the sea, of such an intense, sparkling blue. Discreet Corniglia with its simple, unadorned yet so evocative church and modest houses, has not lost its soul to mass tourism and seem to take you back to a dream of a slow life of the past. Squeezed between two steep terraced cliffs, the ancient village of Riomaggiore strikes the visitor with its vertically built, delightfully coloured houses. Perched on a majestic and fascinating cliff dominated by the Belforte, the old belfry, and the ruins of the Doria castle, Vernazza might lack the sophistication of nearby Portofino as the cafes and restaurants in the piazza and lined in front of the tiny port are way more rustic, and no big brand boutique here rather fishermen selling the catch of the day… beware you visitor Cinque Terre might steal your heart.