Monday 16 September 2019

Cinque Terre: Five villages, 'each more mind-blowing than the last'

Hugo McCaffrey stops by Cinque Terre, one of Italy's most popular cruise ship excursions.

Paradise by sea: The picturesque village overlooks the Riviera
Paradise by sea: The picturesque village overlooks the Riviera
Fresh seafood is a highlight of eating out in Manarola

Hugo McCaffrey

There is simply nowhere like Italy's Cinque Terre.

Since Roman times, and probably long before, this series of five fishing villages have clung to the sheer, rocky coves on the north west coast of Italy. It's even possible that the habitation was first initiated by the Greeks, who colonised much of Italy's south and islands.

It was the Romans, however, that terraced the surrounding hillsides and planted vines - giving us the verdant vineyards that surround the villages today, sweeping down to the colourful mosaic of houses and dwellings among the jutting rocks of the coast right on the clear, blue Mediterranean.

The Cinque Terre, or 'Five Lands', is made up of five villages set along this stretch of coast, each more mind-blowing than the last - Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Little wonder they're such a popular port of call with passing cruise ship visitors.

Unsurprisingly, the villages get busy, especially in peak season. Other visitors travel across from Nice on their way to Tuscany, spending a night in each - though such a trip involves joining a caravan of tourists streaming through each town without truly experiencing much of what each town has to offer.

For me, Manarola is the pick of the crop. It is surrounded by the most vines and is reputably the oldest of the five. Here, if you take a few days to slow down, you can really soak up the atmosphere, walk its winding streets, sample the local cuisine and explore the coast and surrounding waters. You need a few days at least to understand the rhythm of life in Manarola and to begin to see what life would have been like for the fishing community that dwelt there over the centuries. The shoulder seasons, from May to June or September to October, are more relaxed times to visit.

Just being in Manarola has a profound effect. It's one of those other-worldly destinations that provides a complete escape from reality, transporting you to another time. There is no limit to the hours you can spend just looking at the surrounding town, the boats bobbing in the harbour, and the local kids making daring dives from the cliff faces, plunging into the blue water below.

The cuisine of Liguria is thought to be one of Italy's finest, taking the best of both Italian and French as they say, and the traditional food of Manarola includes all the old favourites of ravioli, tortelli, sliced meats and an emphasis of course on fish and seafood. If you want to eat fish, try Marina Piccola on the seafront, Il Porticciolo or Aristide - the most famous, but providing an unforgettable dining experience. In general, eating out is expensive compared to the rest of Italy, though not by Irish standards - so consider booking an apartment with cooking facilities. That said, the best things in life are free, and something what shouldn't be missed is the chance to watch the town at sunset with a bottle of beer or prosecco from the vine-covered hillside. Watching the lights come on is stunning.

Access to Manarola is difficult - everything must be carried by truck or arrive by sea, so it's not the place for shopping. If you're staying more than a few days it's a good idea to hire a car (or scooter); that way you can nip up to the cruise ship port of La Spezia for necessary groceries or indeed, to eat in one of the many trattorias.

Unfortunately, the stunning, world-famous Via degli Amore (Lovers' Walk), a coastal footpath that connects Manarola and Riomaggiore, was closed in 2012 after a landslide injured three tourists, and isn't due to reopen until 2021. However, there are other trails and if you enjoy hiking or running you can find easy or challenging trails through the vineyards, along ancient pathways to the neighbouring town of Vernasca and onwards to Corniglia and the Vernazza. Irish adventurers should remember to bring plenty of water, however...

The sea here is as breathtaking as the land. Renting a kayak is easy and there are plenty of options for guided tours - just head down to the marina and follow the signs. You can even do a guided snorkelling tour. For older people or families, a guided boat tour leaves from the marina throughout the day and allows you to see the whole coastline from Vernazza down to Riomaggiore.

For wine lovers, Manarola is known for its sweet Sciacchetrà. The vendemmia, or wine harvest, happens at the end of September or during the first weeks of October. It's a great time to visit and see the grapes being harvested by hand and carried down to the village in baskets. There's a festival-like atmosphere as the locals celebrate the culmination of months of hard work. Again, it's a glimpse of life in these famous five 'lands' that hasn't changed in centuries.

However you get there, by cruise ship or land, Cinque Terre is a stunning location that must be seen at least once in your lifetime. It's a little bit out of the way, but when you're there, you feel a world away from modernity.

They say that the traveller in Italy can suffer from an 'excess of contentment', and it's true. That is precisely what you experience in Manarola and, with the stresses of modern living, couldn't we all use some of that?

Where to eat

Capunn Magru (the best all-rounder), Trattoria Dal Billy (a no-frills trattoria) and Nessun Dorma (spectacular views) are three to try. Aperitivo in Italy is time for a drink from 7pm to 8.30/9pm... they'll often provide a buffet too.

Get there

A host of cruise lines have La Spezia on their itineraries for 2019, including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and MSC. The port is roughly an hour's transfer from Cinque Terre. By air, Ryanair flies from Dublin to Pisa, from which a train is probably the easiest transfer. If you're on a budget, any flight to Milan and then a train trip could save.

What to pack

You'll need sturdy walking shoes for the hilly streets and trails, and don't forget to bring your swimming togs. It's also advisable to pack a pair of swim shoes, as the coast is sharp and rocky.

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