This place doesn’t look real.
From the top of a steep hillside covered in lemon trees and grapevines, the village of Manarola tumbles out below, like a handful of pink, orange and yellow blocks that have been shaken, then poured from a toy bag.
Manarola is one of five hamlets strewn a few miles apart along the Mediterranean coast in Northern Italy. Each comes with its own personality, and the best way to see the lot is to pick one as a home base (we’ve chosen Manarola because it’s smaller and quieter than the others), then spend a few days hiking between them, pausing to sip wine, eat grilled octopus and cool off with a swim in the sea.
We left our cliffside apartment this morning, hiked up through steep terraces covered with vineyards, paused to admire a chapel and sip lemonade in the pint-size village of Volastra, then descended into Corniglia, where we revived ourselves with gelato before striking out for the next town up the coast, Vernazza.
It’s easy to imagine the days when pirates sailed up and down this coast. The people who once lived here used stone watchtowers to defend their homes, which are perched on cliffs and tucked into nooks and crannies molded by Mother Nature. It’s long been a wine-producing region, and farmers planted crops on terraces they cut into the hills.
But things have changed in recent years. In 1951, about 3,500 acres of land here were cultivated. After the Cinque Terre was discovered by tourists in the 1970s, the economy began a gradual shift from agriculture to tourism. Today only about 275 acres are cultivated. The crop abandonment has caused soil erosion and land degradation, and the trails here periodically wash out.
We’ve had to adjust our hiking plans because of landslides. The flat, easy pathway between Manarola, the second village if you’re counting from the south, and the next village up the coast to the north, Corniglia, is covered with gravel. So is the easy, flat walkway known as Via dell’Amore, which connects Manarola with Riomaggiore, to the south.
No matter. We took the high road to Corniglia instead, hiking the spine of the hillside to get up and over, pausing for lemonade and to admire a chapel in an even tinier hamlet called Volastra. We’re in no hurry. Here in the Cinque Terre, it’s all about walking, relaxing and soaking up the views. (It’s also about scaling thousands of steps and eating gelato, but we’ll get to that later.)
You’ll need a trekking card from Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre before you head out. You can buy it at booths along the trail or at park headquarters in Manarola. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Make sure you have proper footwear before you strike out. Some of the trails (especially the one from Vernazza to Monterosso) are extremely narrow and crowded. In sections, passage is only single file, so if you meet someone coming the other direction you’ll have to wait your turn.
And the steps! The Vernazza to Monterosso section of the trail has as many as a skyscraper — hike it northbound or your quads will stage a protest. And only attempt the walk if you’re reasonably fit.
Happily, Vernazzo and Monterosso offer fine swimming, too, so once you’ve worked up a sweat hiking you can cool off in the sea. We braved the tiny gravel beach in Vernazza in our hiking duds — and it was totally worth it. While you’re there, look for bits of tumbled, painted tile on the beach. They’re a reminder of the devastating floods and mudslides that occurred here in 2011.
Monterosso’s beaches are more formal — you can rent a beach umbrella for 20 euros and swim in water protected by a rocky sandbar. Or hike a little farther — up and over the spit of land that essentially divides the town in two — for a more casual beach.
Either way, spend some time exploring the market, the shops and the churches in this, the most bustling of the Cinque Terre’s five villages.
The good news? If you walk from one town to the next and don’t feel like hiking back, you can catch the train for a few euros. Even better, hop on a ferry boat for a different perspective of the Cinque Terre.
It’s an image you won’t soon forget.
GIVE IT A TRY
Some of our favorite things to do in the Cinque Terre (besides walking):
▪ Sit on the square in Manarola, watching the local kids race their foot-powered scooters around the plaza as parents cheer them on. Stop by the toy stand there, where you can buy an Italian comic book about Texans working in the oil field.
▪ Grab a bottle of wine and take the stroll out Via dell’Amore, the walkway between Manarola and Riomaggiore. Even though it was closed when we were there, we could walk partway out, sit on a bench and watch the sunset.
▪ For spectacular photos of Manarola, walk north of town on the main trail, stopping just below the little pocket park, where the sidewalk curves with the coast. At dusk, the buildings practically glow in the most beautiful light.
▪ If the coastal path between Manarola and Corniglia is closed (and even if it’s not), take the high road instead, climbing up to the village of Volastra. Grab a lemonade at the tiny grocery and peek into the beautiful chapel.
▪ In Vernazza, dine at Ristorante Belforte and order the steamed mussels or grilled octopus. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to sit on one of the terraces clinging to the cliff.
▪ Walk beneath a stone arch at the foot of Vernazza to a gravel beach created during the devastating floods of 2011. Then dive into the ocean.
▪ Rent a beach umbrella in Monterosso.
▪ Eat gelato in Corniglia — it was some of the best we found during our 10-day trip to Italy.
▪ Eat dinner — and order the seafood antipasti — at Billy’s in Manarola. trattoriabilly.com
▪ Stay at least two nights. High season runs from mid-June to mid-September. Day trippers flood the towns, but by dusk most of the crowds are gone.
IF YOU GO
We paid about 90 euros (about $100) to stay in a one-bedroom apartment called da Paulin (which also offers hotel rooms in a separate building). For more information, go to dapaulin.it or send an email to email@example.com. For more information about Cinque Terre National Park, go to parconazionale5terre.it.