MONTEROSSO, ITALY – As the hull of the powerboat slammed against the choppy surf and our stomachs churned, we wondered if this day trip to see Italy’s famed quintuplets of towns known as the Cinque Terre was worth the sea sickness we were experiencing.
Translated, Cinque Terre means “five lands” and we all yearned to put our feet back on Terra Firma.
So when the boat snuggled up against the pier of this sleepy little village, the biggest of the Cinque Terre towns, we rushed the exit and quickly found a chair at a local café to steady ourselves.
The sights, sounds and smells of rural Italy were all around us.
Women screamed at their lazy husbands. Laundry hung from shuttered windows across narrow streets. Sweet smells of bread seeped from ancient bakeries. The sound of small scooters buzzing about echoed off terracotta buildings.
Above: The colourful towns and rugged coastline lure many travellers.
This is the Italy most people visualize. The only thing missing was Sophia Loren. But there was a look-alike working at Pasticceria Laura.
“You like our town?” asked the woman with the saucer-sized black eyes. “It is peaceful here. You will feel like home.”
We only wished our home towns looked like this movie setting!
Monterosso is actually two towns, split in two by rugged coastal mountains and joined together by an elaborate network of tunnels.
Like the other towns that make up the Cinque Terre - Corniglia, Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore - Monterosso is secluded from the outside world, accessible only by boat, train or on one of the narrow footpaths that link the five villages grouped together along the Mediterranean coast. Monterosso is so secluded they haven’t heard that a bottle of 1995 Brunello sells in New York City for over $100. And we weren’t about to tell the woman in the local wine store who just charged us $30 for said vintage.
The town’s small beach is a crowd pleaser and during the summer months it’s crowded with lots of vacationing Italians. But during the late autumn months, when we arrived, the character-filled streets are serene. There’s never a wait to get a table at one of the lovely cafes that line the main square behind the town’s white and green marble cathedral built in 1306 and dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
We order a drink called lemonchello, liquor that is sweet to the taste and made with local lemons the size of grapefruits, and watch the local fishmonger filet the day’s catch at her outdoor market.
The lemonchello helps settle our stomachs so we order the seafood risotto – the special of the day at the handsome outdoor restaurant with the bright yellow umbrellas – and discover it to be the best we have ever tasted.
A stroll through town introduces us to Monterosso’s artistic community and we can’t help but contribute to the local economy with the purchase of a stone carving.
Most of the five villages, which date back to the 12th century, cling precipitously to the rocky coastline - the towns built wherever a narrow opening in the rock permitted. Some of the towns' homes, which are on UNESCO's protected list, appear to defy gravity and actually hang over the red rocky cliffs. The red clay from here is what was used by artists to make the great frescoes in Italy's historic churches.
All too soon we are ushered back to the boat for the trip to our next stop, Vernazza. The sea had calmed and the Mediterranean skies had cleared so the journey to Vernazza was far more enjoyable. Along the way we got to see the steep terraced vineyards that backdrop the towns here. To reach the top of those vineyards one must climb over 5,000 steps. Remarkably, lush vegetation pokes through the rocky cliffs. It’s a remarkable ecosystem and one that is protected by the state government – the Cinque Terre is now Italy’s largest national park.
Above: People like to walk from town-to-town.
Vernazza’s harbor was far more enchanting than Monterosso’s. The main square was surrounded by cafes and ancient stone buildings. Groups of hikers, who elected to visit each Cinque Terre town by foot via the narrow path that runs along the coast, were huddled together sipping wine and toasting their achievement.
The hikers use this town as a respite when they walk the 35 mile trail. It's a well worn path that offers great views of the Mediterranean and allows visitors to get a genuine taste of what this part of Italy has to offer.
Straying away from the touristy main square is advised, because the narrow streets running of it are where you’ll find the real Vernazz – where pastel-colored homes with their distinctive green shutters seem to gleam in the mid-day sun. The charming inner city streets are crowded with small shops, most selling ice cream, wine, olive oil and panini sandwiches.
The town’s cathedral is a masterpiece of design. It juts out into the tiny harbor and its foundation is the rocky seabed. It’s the only church in the world built on a natural rock formation.
We hear a train whistle in the distance and a local lady tells us that it’s the train from Rome. The train journey from the capital is a thrill ride that takes passengers along the rugged coast and through long tunnels that open up to awesome sea views. Train service to the Cinque Terre actually started back in 1874.
The three remaining Cinque Terre towns offered much the same brilliance as our first two stops. But each is unique in its own way. Corniglia, for instance, is famous for its vineyards and olive groves. It has one of the few beaches in the Cinque Terre and to get to it you have to walk through an old railway tunnel.
Manarola is known for its friendly charm and the people there lived up to their reputations – flashing strangers’ smiles and offering assistance at every turn.
Riomaggiore is probably the most written about town in the Cinque Terre. It's where the "real" Italians of the Cinque Terre live, we are told. Its harbor, with a backdrop of high cliffs and multi-colored houses, is one of the most photographed spots in the world.
After seeing the five villages of the Cinque Terre, you wish there were six, or seven or...