Why build a village into the steep slope of a hill on the Mediterranean Sea? I have no idea but I’m sure glad the Italians did. In fact they built five of them, all lined up to the south of Genova, now termed ‘Cinque Terra’ or ‘Five Terraces’.
On the advice of Rick Steves and my hospitable Couch Surfing host Daniel, I woke up early on Friday and scooted to the station at coastal Chiavari. The little town isn’t much to see but it does offer a particularly moreish gelateria, a nifty surf club and a statue to commemorate the birth place of legendary local, Christopher Colombus.
Unlike other countries where public transport attendees do their darnest to be unhelpful and often upsetting the ticket clerk was lovely and regretted to inform me (with plenty of explanatory and elegant Italian adjectives) that there was a public service strike today and the trains would be hideously behind schedule, if they bothered to come at all. But with only one day in my hands I had to chance it, purchased a return ticket for 9 Euro and pulled up stumps on the platform which was fervently expressing its 32 degree summer heat.
Several hours later the train did me the favour of arriving and on the recommendation of the helpful bloke at the tourism info station I opted to hop off at Riomaggiore, the furthest of the five villages.
As we arrived at the station an hour later I quietly wished him a cosmic thank you and marvelled at the sight before me. Riomaggiore is built into the cliff face, as are all the Cinque Terra towns, to one side mountains rise high above you, their caps covered in fog, and in the opposite direction the town comes to a halt at the waters edge and the expanse of the azur Meterranean stretches out to the horizon.
I hopped off the train and wandered through the blue covered tunnel into the ‘centralle’, or town centre. The main street stretches from nearly sea side to about halfway up the mountain and mottled colour structures jostle eachother for hill space. All five Cinque Terra spectables are UNESCO heritage listed and personify the architecture of Italy in the later middle ages. The rugged integrity and ingenuity of these structures offered a way to inhabit the spectacular, difficult space along the cliff faces.
Manarolo is a favourite with travelers from the USA and they’re easy to spot, wheeling large suitcases up the steep stone streets exclaiming at the foreign-ness of it all. But you gotta love them, Yankee tourists always mean well, it’s not their fault they harden their consonants so much..
Meander down the main strip of Manarolo towards the Mediterranean and you’ll see why they come in droves and accommodation books out months in advance – just below the town are a series of natural pools carved into the rock formations creating plentiful spots to splash around and iwth the scorching summer sun their water warms to a balmy 26-27 Celcius.
Unfortunately the stunning and vivacious Vernazza, previously heralded as the most spectacular of the 5 Terra’s suffered a substantial amount of flood damage early this year and is currently in a state of repair. The local community is working quickly to restore the UNESCO heritage site to its former glory but I suggest you pop down to Riomaggiore instead, particularly if you have only one day.
The farthest town (from France / Genova) of the five is Riomaggiore, meaning ‘major river’ (yea I know, not all place names can be romantic), the train deposits you at the base of the town in a small section of the hillside cut out to reveal the sea between the tracks. To the right through a long, blue covered tunnel sits the city, colourful, vibrant and stair-ilicious, snuggled into the hillside like a curled up rainbow. Up to the left is the ‘via del amore’, a 45 minute footpath sliced halfway up the mountain and named for the ritual of lovers placing a lock on one of its many gates or fences to signify their unity. Both directions offer truly breathtaking photo-ops and are easily accomplished in a day, along with a stop into one or two of the other towns.
Souvenirs are plentiful and many are far too kitchy for their own good so if you find something you like, pick it up, otherwise the ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ mantra is easily applied, although I like to amend it with ‘leave..with a full belly’ so pop in and try a freshly made foccacia, the local speciality, and a gelati for the train ride home.
– ferry: depending on the time of year you can hop on a ferry at Genova or Chiavari and see the 5 hillside villages from the water. The only downside is that if the weather isn’t great the driver has the right to skip stopping along the coast, it’s completely his call
– train: Italian trains are excellent, when they’re not on strike, that is. A return ticket from Chiavari will cost 9.80 Euro and they normally run about every half hour. Get the “all stops regional” line to La Seinza
Cost: 9.80 return to Chiavari
– car: yes you can drive, but can you park? A spot to put your auto is a rarity and most parking spaces are sold in conjunction with hotel / hostel rooms so take public transport if you can
Cost: not cheap
– comfortable clothing
– walking shoes (seriously no heels, thongs are fine but heels will probably trip you up badly)
– Euro (for souvenirs and entrance fees)
– toilet paper: there are 2 public toilets in most of the villages, one at the train station (which is not fabulous) and one in the town (which is absolutely disgusting). If you’re not a fan of squats or get queasy easily you’ll be stopping and buying drinks a lot since the local restaurants require a purchase before you patrol their loo
DO / SEE / TRY / BUY:
– traipse your way up the Château all the way to the top and look back on the port of Marseille, it really is extensive, and a little menacing…
– stick your head into the little hole signifying Edmond Dantès escape route and sneak a peak at yourself on the closed circuit feed operating from within. Interesting watching yourself in a deep, dark hole
– pack a picnic and hop off the ferry at Island Frioul. Hike your way through the little seaside strip and around to the far side of the island, pull up a spot of cushy green grass carpet and crack open the bubbly and baguette
– don’t expect that the tour offered for 5€ is available in any language but French. If you don’t ‘parlez Français’, read up on your history before you visit, otherwise you might have a few issues truly integrating with the place
– the souvenir range isn’t fabulously interesting so if you fancy a postcard, go for it, I also picked up a basic version of “The Man in the Iron Mask” to assist in my French-learning
if you need water, pop outside the Château and off to the right where the toilet block is located, you’ll find a bubbler – free of charge!