The Fabulous "Five Lands" of Italy
My first visit to Cinque Terre was over 18 years ago. I was backpacking with a group of friends through Europe for the summer. As the story often goes, we crossed paths with another group of travelers who swore up and down that Cinque Terre was not to be missed. Whatever your plan is, change it and go there, you’ll fall in love and never want to leave, they said. With the Internet still operating on dial-up and websites like Trip Advisor a year away from existence, word-of-mouth was worth gold to backpackers thumbing through out-of-date, dog-eared travel books for guidance. As you could imagine, that fortuitous redirect turned out to be the best decision we made that summer—crowning Cinque Terre as one of the most beautiful places I’d ever visited. Fast forward to my return in 2016. Though certainly not the best kept secret along the Italian Riviera anymore, I was delighted to see that aside from the crowds, nothing had really changed. It was still the most charismatically rustic collection of architectural porn I’d ever seen. This time around, we took a guided tour through the port towns and learned the history behind what makes this gem so special.
Tucked in-between Genoa and Florence, the “Five Lands” (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) overlook the Riviera di Levante. Five castles with lookout towers are positioned high amongst the cliffs built in medieval times to protect against Turkish pirates. Now they serve as the first line of defense against the waging wars of the sea and great points to take in the view of the entire region.
A train that runs back and forth between them connects these remote coastal villages. Visitors and residents also get around on foot or by boat. Once the home of a booming fishing industry, now the region predominantly relies on tourism. This comes as no surprise given the distinctive pastel buildings that intricately fit into the hills laden with olive trees and grapevines. They come together to create a stunning topography for all eyes to feast on. These color-blocked buildings are as famously indicative to the region as pesto or pebbled beaches. Isolated from the glitz and glam of its neighboring towns, Cinque Terra’s 6-mile stretch offers a provincial alternative for those who like their peace and quiet with a side of old-world charm.
Rarely do you see cars on the narrow zigzagging streets or carrugi as they are called. A traveling market that sets up shop in a different town each day sells everything from flowers and food to clothing and home goods. With an absence of hotel options, tourists often rent private homes or rooms called Cameres—Cinque Terre’s own version of Airbnb. Each village has its own dialect. You can hike, go wine tasting, rent a boat, or swim and sunbathe on the large rocks and beaches at the base of the seaside cliffs. Iconic-striped umbrellas protecting loungers from the sun decorate the pebbled beaches, along with topless women and brave divers jumping off large rocks. When the sun sets, the pastels of the buildings fade from view and the lights come on and look like lanterns embedded in the hillside.
Like the group of travelers told me 18 years ago, Cinque Terre is not to be missed. You will fall in love (despite the crowds) eat delicious seafood, drink tasty wine, and experience five of the best Italy has to offer.
Be sure to check back in next Wednesday as I travel to Tuscany for an epic cooking class and an authentic taste of Florentine cuisine. Also, don’t miss my post on the Amalfi Coast, where la dolce vita is the only way of life.