I have fond childhood memories of excitedly receiving postcards from my grandmother as she’d journey to exotic locations around the globe in a seeming attempt to use up my parent’s inheritance as fast as she could. At night, before bed, I would stare at the cards and in a ‘Star Trek’ moment and try and beam myself to each of the spots. One postcard in particular always stood out in my mind. It was of a myriad of multicoloured medieval buildings perched precariously on cliffs overlooking the bluest water one could possibly imagine. The caption on the postcard read “Cinque Terre, Where dreams are made.” For a six year old kid with a head filled with the hassles of homework and scraped knees, this seemed like the place to be. Well, thirty-something years later, I have made it there and I am delighted to report that it is indeed one of the most enchantingly beautiful places that I have visited to date. It sort of feels like I have met a pen pal after corresponding for years.
The Cinque Terre (literally translated as ‘the five lands’) is a string of five centuries-old fishing villages which are located on the Italian Riviera coastline in the Liguria region of Italy. The towns are to the west of the city of La Spezia and form part of the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each of the five villages, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, have their own unique flavours. The idea is to walk from one village to the next, exploring each as you go. The path is around 15 kms and if done properly, would take a couple of days to complete. The most popular way to enjoy the Cinque Terre via foot is to follow Trail #2 (the Sentiero Azzurro or the “Blue Trail”), which is made up of four individual paths along the coast. You can walk the entire route in about six hours, if you take short breaks—although many hikers prefer to spread the route out over a few days at a strolling pace, stopping to enjoy the towns along the way. You can start from either direction (Monterosso, heading south, or Riomaggiore, heading north). But I’d recommend starting from Riomaggiore, where the paths are easier and paved and then work your way up to the more challenging trails.
There is also a train that magically cuts through the mountain-side and stops in each village throughout the day. If you are a walking enthusiast, I would venture to say that this would be one of the most stunning walking paths on earth. I do love to walk; however, I’m on holiday, so I unashamedly chose to do things somewhat differently.
Portovenere is a charming fishing village nestled in a cove between Riomaggiore and La Spezia and is dominated by a medieval castle and church that are both perched on the cliffs above. Some refer to Portovenere as ‘the sixth town’ and it does indeed possess all the beauty of the other five without the massive throng of tourists who converge on this region every summer. The Grand Hotel Portovenere, a beautifully renovated San Franciscan convent, was my base for the two nights that I spent in the area. The hotel has spectacular views over the water and from my balcony, I was able to enjoy a view of the fishing boats and ferries making their way in and out of the port. Great food, wonderful service, comfy beds and one of the best showers I have had in ages makes this a perfect place from which to explore the region. Just outside of the hotel is the ferry stop. This ferry is the equivalent of the ‘hop on hop off’ experience in many cities around the world but without the annoying elevator music.
The circuit begins in La Spezia, arrives in Portovenere and then stops at each of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. The ferry runs roughly on the hour and allows visitation of all islands at your own pace. This is more my style. I did do some walking and enjoyed the bustle of the towns. My favourite was the quaint town of Vernazza with its charming piazza perched high above the sea. I enjoyed my first Aperol Spritz of the day and armed with my kindle, sunscreen, hat and sunnies made my way by ferry to the last village, Monterrossa. In Monterrossa, I happily found a sunbed on the beach (from where I am writing this shpiel) in order to work on my tan, swim in the bluest of blue waters that I remembered from my postcard and recover from the hectic day that has been getting to know my old friends the Cinque Terre.
by Cultural & Escorted Group Tours Specialist Brett Kaye