Riomaggiore, the most southerly of the Cinque Terre towns. Photo: Getty Images
Through a happy and undeserved turn of events, I arrive in the village of Monterosso on a terrific hair day at the wheel of a lipstick-red XKR Jaguar convertible, tanned, relaxed, basking in the afterglow of a great lunch and accompanied by Andrea Bocelli on the stereo system, who is working up to the fortissimo section of Con Te Partiro. A trifle loud perhaps, scusi, but then this moment – the Ligurian Sea at my elbow, pink villas scaling the hills, late afternoon sunshine on the facades, Italy semi-clad all around - well, restraint is just not on the menu. If you're going to fake it as a paid-up member of the jet set, then Monterosso, on the upper shin of the Italian boot, at the northern end of the Cinque Terre, is the perfect place.
Pinned to the cliffs above the Gulf of Genoa on the shin of the Italian boot, the Cinque Terre – the five lands – is the sort of landscape that causes hearts to beat a little faster. This is one of the scenic miracles of the Mediterranean – five small villages hewn from solid rock in a cubist arrangement of huddled facades and pantiled roofs, overlooked by churches and fortifications that date back to the Middle Ages.
Pressed hard against the sea by vertiginous mountain walls, the sites for these villages were dictated by freshwater streams that tumble down from the mountain heights. Tiny, dense enclaves arose, crowded around a scoop of harbour, and so the villagers existed, pious and poor, scratching a living from the olives, grapes, tomatoes and basil which they cultivated on tiny terraces hacked from the cliffs.
Edible delights. Photo: Getty Images
Even after Mussolini carved a train line to link the five villages in the 1930s, they remained as remote as islands. Their poverty kept the wider world at bay – and effectively insulated the Cinque Terre from buzzing Vespas, air pollution and other mixed blessings of modernism. Today, in a world awake to the charm of peasant chic, the Cinque Terre has become the Cinderella of the Italian Riviera.
There are several ways to explore the Cinque Terre. The train is a practical proposition if you're pressed for time, but this is no place to rush. A better option would be to walk from one village to the next along the sentieri, the narrow footpaths used by the villagers since time immemorial – but this option is now recommended only for hardcore hikers with the agility of mountain goats. Since a landslide closed sections of the Sentiero Azzurro, the main coastal footpath, only the section between Monterosso and Vernazza remains open. To reach other villages on foot, the only other option is to take to the steep hillside paths used by local farmers. This is not for the fainthearted. Stout legs and lungs are required, as well as solid walking shoes. Start early to avoid the heat, carry water and be prepared for a tough climb.
Monterosso is easily accessible via the early morning train from Genoa or Milan. By far the largest of the Cinque Terre villages, Monterosso attracts a crowd of urban refugees in summer, when $20 will buy you an umbrella, a very superior deckchair and a couple of square metres of well-groomed sand for the day on the only beach worthy of the name between here and Riomaggiore. The beach is not a good reason for any self-respecting Australian would come to the Cinque Terre, yet Monterosso is a compressed gem with rewards to make you drag your feet, a knot of alleys so narrow that passers-by must scrape against facades of pink, terracotta, rust, and jade green.
Multicoloured Manarola. Photo: Getty Images
From Monterosso, the Sentiero Azzurro, the Blue Trail kicks into high gear as it ascends sharply at the beginning of the two-hour hike to Vernazza – the first hour straight up, the second flat. In many places the hillsides have been terraced for grapes, although the industry has declined now that workers can no longer be found for the back-breaking labour. As they have been for the last 10 centuries, the grapes are still harvested using corbe, large wicker baskets, hauled along the Sentieri dell'Uva, the grape trails, which are only as wide as required by a man walking with a load of grapes on his back.
Vernazza is where the Cinque Terre reaches its Kodak moment, a taut cluster of tall, narrow, pastel-tinted buildings that steps down the steep hillside to Piazza Marconi and the harbour. This is the sole Cinque Terre village with a natural harbour, and the local fishermen still haul their boats onto the quay to sort their catch and dry their nets in the sun, bringing a note of industry to the tables and chairs of the cafes that spill across the cobblestoned piazza.
Nothing is accomplished without food in the Cinque Terre. The anchovies that are served in tegame alla Vernazzana – literally a pan in the style of Vernazza – along with tomatoes and potatoes are a revelation, with the essential accompaniment of local white wine.
The trail to Corniglia, the only village without a seafront. Photo: Getty Images
Vernazza is a tempting place to spend the night and the town has many small pensione and private rooms for rent in the back streets. Come evening and the social instincts of the Italian nation are on display in the piazza as the locals emerge to toss babies into the air, flirt and kick footballs around.
Beyond Vernazza, unless you're up for a stiff walk the best way to explore the remaining Cinque Terre coastline is aboard the coastal ferries that hop from one village to the next. The ferry cuts travel time from one village to the next to about 15 minutes, and makes it almost absurdly easy to explore the more southerly villages compared with the tortuous journey on foot. A day pass on the ferries gives you the freedom to hop off and on at Manarola and Riomaggiore, and even to venture as far as Portovenere, the extreme southern end of the Cinque Terre. The one you won't get to access from the waterline is Corniglia, smallest of the villages, the only one without a seafront and the most labyrinthine.
This is where I leave you, bobbing about on the ferry on the way back to your room for the night in Vernazza possibly, with a swim and a bowl of pasta with pesto on the evening's agenda. It's the classic dish of the Ligurian coast – basil with olive oil and parmesan ground together in a mortar to make a paste – and forever after, one that will remind you of the glories of the Cinque Terre.