It’s 5 p.m. in Manarola, Italy and a few locals are sitting outside their closed shops gossiping. A lady with glittery braided hair who owns the pottery store has a red flower in her hair and is chatting with her friends – they may have lived in Cinque Terre their whole lives. They are from a different time, when the world moved just a little bit slower.
Across from the only grocery store in town an old man is bent down, carefully slathering cement across the bottom of his house.
Tourists waiting for the grocery store to open after siesta are watching him with a distracted fascination. He gingerly picks up a slab of the grey muck, then applies over and over with his work-worn hands – back-breaking work that he’s probably done for decades to protect his house from wear and tear. The grocery store will re-open eventually, just not right now.
Further down the hill, trattoria waiters are setting their tables; slowly because the dinner rush won’t come until 9pm. But, there is always a Westerner who wants to eat early.
My best friend and I are down at the fishing wharf watching a cat stalking birds. The orange glow of the setting sun reflects in her eyes and on the white parts of her fur as she comes purring to my feet.
Manarola is a quaint Italian fishing town, with laundry hanging from the balconies and children casting for fish at twilight. Life moves at a turtle’s pace in this town, and the other four that make up Cinque Terre (“five lands”) – a string of fishing villages positioned along the west coast of Italy, south of Genova.
The villages – Monterossa, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomagiorre – are built into the steep cliffs with brightly coloured buildings and steep, narrow roads. The area is known as the “Italian Riviera” – and for good reason.
Bound together by a scenic hiking trail and a long stretch of jaw-dropping coastline, the modest villages-turned tourist havens, have something for everyone – from romantic honeymooner to adventurous backpackers to families.
Hiking enthusiasts descend upon Cinque Terre to conquer the trail, which takes about six hours for a person of average fitness. Just beware of the hikers wielding ski poles.
The trails vary in difficulty and are best divided into sections. Bring a huge bottle of water, enough money for a slice of pizza and a gelato and leave your watch at home. Stop at each town; visit the shops; wind in and around the narrow streets and smell the mouth-watering aroma of hearty Italian cooking.
If hiking isn’t your thing, you can also take the train between towns.
The steep countryside that joins Cinque Terre is filled with sloping vineyards and tiny homes decorated with flourishing gardens. Many locals are involved in the production of a dry white wine, known as “Cinque Terre”, and the dessert wine “Sciacchetrà”. Fishing, agriculture and tourism are also part economy.
On one side, the rolling hills are green and fertile, on the other, sharp cliffs dive into the calm Mediterranean Sea.
Thousands of tourists visit Cinque Terre every year, but the national park and UNESCO world heritage site is still teeming with authentic and unassuming Italian culture.
Decadent food, beautiful scenery, rich history and the colourful locals, make Cinque Terre charming.
Whistling while they work, joking and laughing at all hours, Italians thrive on their social lives. They seem to be born with the inherent knowledge that life is too short and food, drink and family should never be taken for granted or lightly.
Visiting the villages is about relaxing, observing, and absorbing by osmosis all that towns have to offer. Each village has its own personality and points of interest; from a 700-year-old church in Corniglia to La Via dell’Amore (“Lovers’ Pathway”) in Manarola.
The towns echo with their ancient history. Vernazza was formed in the 1st Century as a maritime village, while Riomagiorre was created by Greek refugees seven centuries later. The story behind some of the other towns is a little more vague, but that makes them all the more intriguing.
Whether you’re looking for a historical trip, an active holiday or a culinary experience, you’re in for a treat if you visit these five lands.
My friend and I watch the sun set for the very last time in Manarola. We carry a bottle of local wine down to the wharf and toasty the “romantic moment”. When the orange globe disappears below the horizon, we walk back up the road, to the nearest trattoria and order dinner: a simple seafood linguini with creamy and dreamy tiramisu for dessert. After that, we eat a gelato, savouring the creamy, tart taste – gelato addiction is a common symptom of a trip to Italy.
As I lick the last bit of cherry gelato from my cone, I inhale the sweet Cinque Terre aromas – fresh flowers, olives, ocean and salt air. These towns, some of which have been around since the 1st Century, are part of a timeless world where, even after 2,000 years things still move just a little bit slower.