Saturday, 15 June 2013

Unique man-made landscape

The weather has turned cooler and we are back indoors so I have finally completed sorting out the first few sets of photos taken during the good fortnight we spent in Italy in late April. Rome is our absolute favourite but this time we skipped it – won’ t happen again – and flew to Genova in the region of Liguria, the narrow coastal area known as the Italian Riviera. We figured its proximity to both France and Tuscany would be an asset should we ever decide to spend a longer period in Italy – will hopefully happen soon – and wanted to concentrate on exploring the region.

We couldn’t resist a bit of Tuscany to start with so on our way south we stayed a couple of nights in the Cinque Terre, ‘The Five Lands’, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a national park with lots of marked hiking trails and, although not that easy to reach, presumably the best-known Ligurian tourist destination. In addition to Portofino perhaps but I will return to that later.

The Cinque Terre is composed of 18 km (11 miles) of rocky coastline, the five coastal villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manrola and Riomaggiore, and the steep terraced hillsides around and between them where vine and olives have been grown for centuries. The territory was once inaccessible overland but has been transformed by generations of patient and skillful men into a unique landscape of stone-walled terraces. They say there are about 11,000 km (7,000 miles) of them. I don’t know about that but they are impressive and the scenery is magnificent. No wonder the present 5,000 inhabitants of the area make their living no longer that much in agriculture but increasingly in tourism. 

The first thing you should know when planning a visit to the Cinque Terre is that if you are travelling at a time even remotely resembling any kind of a holiday season you should leave your car behind and take a train or a boat. That will save you a lot of headache.

We’ve been to the Amalfi Coast in Campania where the narrow roads following the coastline will take you from village to village fairly easily, although my husband who was behind the steering wheel might disagree. Anyway, driving in the Cinque Terre is nothing like that. Here you will need to drive up and around the hilltops to move from one coastal village to the next even if you can see it only a couple of kilometres away. There are no roads on the coastline, only a railroad and paths, many of which were now closed because of repair work. There were repairs underway also on the roads. I can only imagine how crowded they must be during high season.

The hilltop village of San Bernadino in the distance.
As we were travelling off season we came by car and were advised to arrive – because of roadworks – through La Spezia, the capital of the province. We might as well have parked the car there. We had a room at a tiny b&b in Corniglia, the middle one and least touristic of the villages. Only cars of the residents are allowed in the village but the helpful landlords provided a parking space by the road promising to deal with the police should there be a problem.

Corniglia is the only one of the Cinque Terre villages that is not situated by the sea but on a cliff rising about 100 metres (320 ft) above the Mediterranean. This must be the reason for its less touristic status. There is no marina, only a small beach, so the boats can’t stop there. The stairs from the train station will take you almost 400 steps up to the village but there is a regular minibus service driving you up and down in a few minutes if you prefer.

A group of hikers having a break at the square in front of the church of San Pietro.

The picturesque old village of Corniglia with its narrow alleys, stairways and corridors winding on the ridge seemed to be full of everyday life. Most of the hustle and bustle was probably caused by the approaching high season. Nevertheless, we didn’t want to disturb the locals by taking photos on every corner.

This is the main street you can see leading to the village here.

The Largo Taracio square and the Oratory of Santa Caterina.

The main and practically only street inside the old village is nothing but a narrow alley. Only the smallest of vans can venture on it. There is nowhere else where to turn the van but on the small square about half way the alley. I have sometimes wondered how hard it must be to take everything you need including construction materials to locations like this. I should have guessed the Japanese have solved this problem: a caterpillar-track transporter helping you carry things slowly but surely like on the back of a snail to places where no car can reach. I have visited dozens of perched villages in Southern and Central Europe over the years but I never saw one before.

If you lived in such a village, you had better not be in a hurry ever. The only way out may be brought to a halt any time for a delivery or pick-up of some sort. Then again, an unexpected idle moment in the coolness of the narrow alley may be just what you need on a warm summer day.

The church of San Pietro.

The square at the entrance to the old village seems to be the meeting point where most of the local action takes place, at least businesswise. Deliveries are unloaded there. The bus stop is there. The fishmonger opens up the trunk of his van and voilà, there’s a pop-up shop. And if a few vans happen to be parked at the square when the green minibus is scheduled to arrive or leave this will create a major traffic jam. Mind you, this is how it was during low season.

These are the views we had from our room towards Monterosso al Mare and the mountains:

The village of San Bernadino.

And finally, this is how Corniglia looks like from the sea (photo of a postcard by Alberto Basso). Spectacular, don’t you think?

All the photos are from or of Corniglia. A few more posts on Cinque Terre will follow so stay tuned.


  1. Beautiful photos Teresa and a very interesting post. It looked very busy even in the low season and I can only imagine the chaos during the high season.

    1. I would never travel there in the summertime for the crowds and the heat but an early spring or late autumn visit would be just perfect.