Step up to great­ness

Vil­lage views are spec­tac­u­lar on an Ital­ian Riviera walk­ing trail

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ANNE FUS­SELL

THERE is some­thing al­most too per­fect about the hap­haz­ard patch­work of homes cling­ing to the pre­cip­i­tous hill­side, win­dows glis­ten­ing and pas­tel walls glow­ing as the sun tra­verses the build­ings.Ver­nazza is con­sid­ered the su­per­star of the five pic­turesque vil­lages that make up the Cinque Terre on the Ital­ian Riviera, but there is lit­tle to choose be­tween it and the oth­ers of an il­lus­tri­ous group — Mon­terosso al Mare, Corniglia, Ma­narola and Riomag­giore.

They are sim­i­lar but not the same, all spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful but with their own sub­tle dif­fer­ences in di­alects, tra­di­tions and ri­val­ries. First of­fi­cially recorded in the 12th cen­tury, the peo­ple of the “five lands” led a fraught ex­is­tence, un­der siege from ma­raud­ing pi­rates de­spite the ring of protective fortresses erected by their feu­dal pro­tec­tors, un­til the threat even­tu­ally evap­o­rated in the 1500s. They eked out an ex­is­tence grow­ing grapes and fish­ing.

It was only about a cen­tury ago that out­siders re­ally dis­cov­ered the quiet, nat­u­ral beauty and less than 40 years since tourism trans­formed what was one of Italy’s best-kept se­crets into an in­ter­na­tional draw­card. Now, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple from all over the world flock to the scenic Cinque Terre, most to com­plete the Sen­tiero Az­zuro, the string of four paths link­ing the five vil­lages.

The trail, some­times so nar­row two peo­ple can­not walk side by side, twists and turns, hug­ging the craggy cliffs, ris­ing pre­cip­i­tously then dramatically de­scend­ing, weav­ing through charm­ing ter­races cul­ti­vated with vines and olives, or groves of trees heavy with lemons, or­anges and, oc­ca­sion­ally, figs. Far be­low lies the Lig­urian Sea, which in good weather is an im­pos­si­ble blue, dot­ted with brightly painted fish­ing boats and busy tourist fer­ries. On bad days, a grey mael­strom sends waves crash­ing onto the ra­zor-sharp rocks.

By Septem­ber the hordes are thin­ning on the path. The weather is still beau­ti­ful but with­out the swel­ter­ing mid­day heat. Some walk­ers ar­rive like scouts for an in­vad­ing force, armed with Alpen­stock poles, well-worn boots, well-prac­tised tech­nique and a look of pro­fes­sional de­ter­mi­na­tion. They eas­ily com­plete the Sen­tiero Az­zuro (the Blue Trail) in less than a day, then head off to con­quer other routes in the Cinque Terre Na­tional Park or con­tinue along the coast­line north or south. But most, like us, are in it for the slightly longer haul, tak­ing things slowly, re­spect­ing age, groan­ing limbs and lungs, stay­ing for two or three days to ap­pre­ci­ate the scenery and the unique na­ture of each of the vil­lages plus, of course, Lig­urian wine and cui­sine.

We are stay­ing at a charm­ing B&B in the hills above Le­vanto, the next vil­lage north up the coast from Mon­terosso al Mare, our start­ing point. The build­ing, a ren­o­vated water­mill, backs on to thick for­est and groves of olive trees al­ready net­ted for the sea­son’s crop. From Le­vanto it is just one stop on the train that links all the vil­lages and pro­vides the main form of trans­port for vis­i­tors.

We have split the Cinque Terre walk into two. Day one, Mon­terosso then south to Ver­nazza and (bod­ies will­ing) on to Corniglia, re­turn­ing to Le­vanto by train. The train jour­ney takes only min­utes, most of it hid­den in a tun­nel that has been blasted through the hill­side. There’s a party feel about the car­riage, full of fel­low hik­ers, the air res­o­nant with a potpourri of lan­guages. Many seem to be go­ing on to Riomag­giore to do the jour­ney south to north, start­ing with what is seen as the less ar­du­ous climbs. We have opted to do the hard­est first. Our fin­gers are crossed.

Mon­terosso is the big­gest and old­est of the five vil­lages and the only one built on al­most flat land. It is near­est to what could be con­sid­ered a typ­i­cal beach re­sort. Walk­ing along the wa­ter­front prom­e­nade you can see other vil­lages tan­ta­lis­ingly beck­on­ing from far away on the curv­ing coast­line, shim­mer­ing like mi­rages. Al­ready we are meet­ing walk­ers com­ing the other way, early ris­ers. Smiles and nods are shared. Then it’s up, up, up and on­wards. Did I men­tion up? The hun­dreds of nar­row stone steps are worn and shiny from mil­lions of feet and seem to rise end­lessly un­til even­tu­ally lev­el­ling out. Any tem­po­rary bouts of dis­com­fort (and oth­ers to come) evap­o­rate in the face of that awe­some view.

Sur­pris­ingly soon, Ver­nazza is loom­ing, tum­bling like mul­ti­coloured Lego lava down the steep curves of the hill­sides, fish­ing boats bob­bing in its pic­turesque nat­u­ral har­bour, unique among the five. Af­ter ex­plor­ing, we fol­low the dis­creet signs to Corniglia, the only vil­lage not on the wa­ter but sit­u­ated high on the clifftop from where you can see all the Cinque Terre. Although the small­est of the five, its par­tic­u­lar claim to fame is its wine, which leg­end has it was found at Pom­peii.

Day two dawns over­cast and cloudy. By the time we ar­rive at Le­vanto sta­tion, the day has turned into driz­zle, the only rain dur­ing our stay in Italy. Be­cause the coastal path from Ma­narola to Corniglia has still not been re­opened af­ter a land­slide in 2013, our plan is to take the train to Riomag­giore and walk the fa­mous Via dell’Amore to Ma­narola. There we want to ex­plore, par­tic­u­larly the vine­yards, be­fore tak­ing the train back to Le­vanto. The weather changes part of the plans but, as of­ten hap­pens, it turns out even bet­ter. Park of­fi­cials have closed the Via dell’Amore as the rain has made it too haz­ardous, slip­pery and, alarm­ingly, at risk of land­slides. But the sun is com­ing out and the fer­ries are run­ning. Plan B is look­ing good.

Board­ing one of the fer­ries that zip all day be­tween the vil­lages is a lit­tle bit like get­ting on a fair­ground ride while it’s still mov­ing; you lit­er­ally walk the plank that rises and falls steeply in the fierce af­ter-storm swell. But the views, first of the de­part­ing Riomag­giore and then of Ma­narola as we ap­proach just min­utes later, are un­for­get­table. It is eas­ier to see what an en­gi­neer­ing feat the vil­lages re­ally are: build­ings all hig­gledy-pig­gledy, some with no vis­i­ble means of stay­ing at­tached, jut­ting at im­pos­si­ble an­gles.

Ma­narola, with its cus­tom-built break­wa­ter, is a stead­ier land­ing point. The Pi­azza Capellini, built in 2004 right over the rail lines in the tun­nel be­low, is brightly dec­o­rated with an im­pres­sive mo­saic of lo­cal fish. It is a de­light­ful start­ing point with great views up the vil­lage. There may be no cars to avoid as you clam­ber up the main street but there are fish­ing boats parked on ei­ther side, like brightly coloured ribs. A par­tic­u­lar at­trac­tion is the Ma­narola Vine­yard Walk, on which we are ac­com­pa­nied by a scent of rose­mary and, oc­ca­sion­ally, wild oregano.

So, it is over. Al­most. That evening, pleas­antly tired, faces still glow­ing from the sun and wind, we visit Pochi In­timi, a restau­rant tucked away in a quiet pedes­trian laneway in Le­vanto. There we toast our adventure with the ex­cel­lent lo­cal house white wine and tuck into re­ally the most del­i­cate and de­li­cious an­tipasti frutti di mare imag­in­able. • Italia.it • in­c­in­queterre.com • par­conazionale5terre.it

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