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Between earth and sea: Italy’s ‘Cinque Terre’ villages

A crisp early morning in the middle of the European summer, and I am sitting on an east-bound train weaving along the jagged coast of the Italian Riviera. I sit transfixed as I watch the yellow sun peak over the horizon, lighting up the infinite stretch of water in front of me. As the speeding train darts through dusky tunnels hollowed out from the rugged mountainside, I press my cheek to the cool window and attempt to see around the curvature of the carriages − because judging by the few sun-kissed locals who are already gathered at the exit doors, ready to disembark − my destination must be just around the bend. And then I see it. Set against the dark coastline, a brilliant flash of yellow, pink and white architecture draws my attention.

Gloriously threaded along 18km of jagged cliffs in the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (directly translated to ‘Five Lands’) is one of Italy’s purest treasures. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – the five scattered fishing villages set like dazzling jewels into the coastline that make up Cinque Terre − are cut off from civilisation by magnificent mountains teaming with olive grove vineyards and rich plantation, where farmers have sweated out a humble living under the harsh Italian sun for many centuries.

Cinque Terre became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and this title has thus spared the uniquely-landscaped area from the tainted propaganda of trivial souvenir stands, needy beggars, and environmental destruction. Cars and motorbikes are forbidden in the steep-street villages, and unless you are brave enough to make the two hour trek along the steep walking paths that connect the five adjacent villages, the only way the towns are connected is by the local train that runs three times daily.

As I shoulder by backpack and disembark from the train at Manarola, I am immediately greeted by a brigade of toothless smiles and a quiet murmur of buongiorno (good morning) from the ageing locals who pass the hot summer days by sitting on a long wooden bench at the shaded and breezy train station, welcoming wide-eyed tourists like me to their magnificent humble abode. With a smile of my own, I return the villagers greeting and begin the treacherous trek up the steep road of Manarola to my accommodation. Breathless and exhausted, I reach the summit of the town and under the shade of a towering local church I meet middle-aged Carlo, who fetches me a glass of water almost immediately as I drop my bags in the reception area. After such a steep climb, something tells me that Carlo is all too familiar with dehydrated tourists reaching the doorstep of his lodging in need of a cool beverage. Carlo checks me in and spreads out of colourful map of the five adjacent towns that make up Cinque Terre, detailing everything I must see before I leave in two days’ time.

At the crack of dawn, the church bells chime in a new day, and I rise with purpose. In a small backpack I pack three bottles of water, bandages, sunscreen, my camera, Carlo’s map, some dried biscuits and nuts and more water. The Cinque Terre villages are interconnected by over twenty different hiking trails. Some trails run flat and can take as little as thirty minutes to walk at a casual pace – these are usually the trails that connect the townships – but other trails rise with the steep mountainside and can take more than two gruelling hours to reach the summit. Because I am a sucker for punishment, and because Carlo said there is no point coming to Cinque Terre unless you see the views from above, I decide to hike the hard trails.

Setting off at a brisk pace, I soon realise this hike will not be an easy feat. The narrow path leading to the top of the cliff is made up of steep stairs carved out of the hard soil, lined with alternating smooth and jagged stepping stones. I stop on many occasions for water-breaks in the shade of wispy olive trees, giving the universal smile and nod to other ambitious hikers attempting the same treacherous path as me, but I promise myself I won’t look back at the scenery behind me. I am saving the final view for when I reach the top. After two hours and thirty-two minutes, I reach the summit. And what I see is breathtakingly beautiful in every sense of the word. The colourful village of Corniglia is directly below me, the tiny town cut into the coastline, suspended between sea and earth. Further along the coast I spot the sandy beaches of Monterosso and catch glimpses of swimmers drifting out into the deep blue. After today’s exhausting hike, I think I will soon join them.

After some adventurously-stupid cliff diving down in the crystal blue waters of Manarola Bay to lazily waste away the afternoon, for dinner I dine out at one of the locally-owned restaurants further up the main road from the water, sitting outdoors to watch the world go by as the Cinque Terre locals care to do. I dare to order the areas freshly caught fish, marinated in locally produced basil and garlic pesto with plump hand-picked lemons to sweeten my dish. There is laughter and merriment all around my table. The vibe is relaxed, as though you are out to dinner with a large group of friends, even though every face around you is a stranger.

With the fierce sun setting over the sea, transforming the sky into mixed blends of blue, orange and pink, I venture down the road to the deserted waters of Manarola Bay. As local fishing boats bob up and down with the calm tides, the intense flavours of strawberry gelato on my tongue cap off a perfect meal. With aching legs from hiking and swimming all day, I casually stroll along the level path beside the sharp cliffs. I glance behind me at the tiny town of Manarola and see just as much colour in the local housing perched on the cliff as I do when I stare back at the fading sunset. Cinque Terre is truly a colourful spectacle of the world.

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