Strung along 18km of serrated cliffs between Levanto and La Spezia, the Cinque Terre is one of Italy’s treasures. These five higgledy-piggledy villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – are cut off by mountains choked with olive groves and dry-stone-walled vineyards, where farmers have eked out a living over the centuries.
The Cinque Terre became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997, which includes a protected marine area, and became a national park (Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre) in 1999. Wine growers still use monorail mechanisms to ferry themselves up and the grapes down these unique lands, and in some cases have to harvest by boat. If the terraced hillsides are not worked, they will quite literally slide into the sea.
National park status has spared the area from a propagation of T-shirt shops and tacky souvenir stands, and saved it from environmental destruction.
Cars and motorbikes are not allowed in the villages, which are connected by train (each about five minutes apart, mostly through tunnels). In the villages, electric buses scale the sheer streets. Park authorities close walking paths when numbers become too great, so it’s best to arrive in the cool and relative calm of the early morning.
The creation of the national park has also protected the Cinque Terre’s villagers’ well-being, providing them with free health screenings, natural medicine, subsidised child care and a free shopping service for the elderly. A co-op has been set up for farmers to profitably grow basil, garlic and pine nuts to produce local pesto. You can taste it in village restaurants, along with the area’s white wines, freshly caught fish and sweet local lemons.
Numerous villagers have rooms to rent: look for signs reading camere (rooms) or affittacamere (rooms for rent). Accommodation booking offices in Riomaggiore can help you organise a room ahead of time. The Cinque Terre’s restaurants and its few hotels tend to close from around November to March or April, although restaurateurs in the villages arrange it so that at least one restaurant in each village is open on any given day year-round.