Moving north to Cinque Terre, we stayed at Agriturisimo Villanova in Levanto. Though a 30-minute downhill (and more challenging, back up again) walk to the train station, the train is the best way to get from village to village. The out of the way spot provided a tranquil retreat following our stay in the small, busy city of Lucca. Cinque Terre means Five Lands, and refers to the 5 villages south of Levanto, which are now designated as both a National Park and a UNESCO site. Founded separately, and each with it's own personality, almost a thousand years ago, the economy of the villages relied on fishing and agriculture, especially wine production, until the areas discovery by tourists a few decades ago. Frequently referred to as the Italian Riviera, this area has become a popular destination. Luckily, we were visiting during the "shoulder" season. The villages, restaurants and trains were busy, but we reminded ourselves how good it was to be here now rather than a few weeks from now during the July and August onslaught of visitors.
Even though the 5 mountainside villages are connected by hiking trails perched along the cliffs, we did not come prepared to hike; and Alan's fear of heights would have been an issue on some areas were hikers have to shimmy past each other on skinny ledges, with no hand rails, over cliffs dropping hundreds of feet down to the water below. Half mountain goat is the skill level desired along certain portions. If all the trails are open the walk is 11km long and takes about 5 hours. The elevation change over the length of the trail is roughly 500 meters, so it can be a rather strenuous hike. Many trails were closed due to recent rains, as Park official exercised an abundance of caution to prevent damage to the cliffs and visitors. Flooding and mudslides in 2011 caused extensive damage to the area, but there is no evidence of that now.
Deciding to start with the furthest village from Levanto, we boarded the train to Riomaggiore. We had purchased 2-day Cinque Terre cards, which provided unlimited travel between the villages by train, a map, a guide book, and use of the buses within the villages, for 24 euros each, we thought it was a good deal. Nestled between two mountains, Riomaggiore is compacted and seems to slide right into the water. The portion of the path between Riomaggiore and Manarola is wide and paved, no dare devil skills are required here. Numerous shops and restaurants line the street leading steeply up from the water, catering to the ever increasing tourist business.
Moving into Manarola, a long tunnel from the train station leads you into town. This small village has historically been known for fishing and wine production. Vineyards created on terraced land, along the mountainsides, surround the village.
Corniglia, build on the mountainside is the third village, and there is no access to the sea. This is the smallest and least touristy of the towns. Upon arriving in this area by train there are 3 options to get to the village at the top of the hill. Going up the side of the steep hill, you can climb the long flight of almost 400 brick steps, walk up the narrow, winding road or take the bus operated by the Park Service. Wimps that we are, we opted for the bus, going up and coming down.
Starting the following day with a trip to Vernazza, we headed to the central square at the marina. Surrounded by several restaurants and an old bell tower, this is perhaps the most picturesque waterfront area. Climbing rustic stone steps to ruins of a church overlooking the village, we had an incredible view. Hopping on the train, we ventured back to Riomaggiore to take a boat to our final village, Monterossa, so we could experience a view from the water. For a reasonable 4 euros (for our trip), the boats move frequently along the coast, providing an alternate means of transportation.
The largest and most heavily visited of the five villages, Monterossa offers a long sandy beach. As many restaurant signs were in English, as in Italian. It seemed, in some ways, as though we had left Italy. Plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants are available for the traveler wanting to begin hikes through the Cinque Terre, but it felt too commercialized for our taste. We boarded the train back to Levanto, to relax along the hillside in the chairs outside our room, overlooking the vineyards and olive trees, enjoying a glass of wine, nibbling on fresh mozzarella, vine-ripe tomatoes, and marinated local sardines and olives. Perfect!
Boarding our final train, for this trip, we headed the next day to Brindisi, an eleven hour ride to the southeastern side of Italy. From here, we will be taking an overnight ferry to the Greek island of Corfu.