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Thirty years ago my husband and I drove along old one-lane winding roads on the edge of rugged cliffs and through stone tunnels in the Cinque Terre. The ride was unforgettable as the one-way road had little security overlooking an unbelievable view of the blue ocean. I could hardly keep my eyes open as this was beyond me, even though I’m pretty adventurous. The stone villages battered by the sea with color-faded houses tucked into the rock were breathtaking. The seascape with cliff cascading to the ocean was captivating and the vineyards, terraced along the cliffs seem to grow right out of the rock.
We decided to revisit the experience since we knew the old road had been closed and a new one built gave me the courage to relive the memories we had of this unique region. Today you can go from Monterosso al Mare to Riomaggiore by train, which is the fastest and easiest way to visit the villages as little parking is available and it is always crowded. The 5 villages are Monterosso al Mara, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Little remains of the old original natural beauty of the villages. They have been named a UNISCO site and although funds are given to maintain these areas, most seem to be used to create tourist convinces. Restaurants and mostly gift shops, a few offering some local products line the narrow streets. New hotels have been built intermingled with the old buildings making it difficult to imagine what the villages were like originally. There are a few places where the beauty of the villages can be seen and the 5 hour walk along the cliffs connecting the 5 villages still has beautiful panoramic views of the ocean and villages tucked into the cliffs. The walk from Monterossa al Mare to Corniglia is difficult and unless your capable of walking up and down stairs, it is not recommended. However the section from Riomaggiore to Manarola is an easy walk. The Corniglia section was closed due to a landslide so here you bypass it and take the train to reconnect with the walk.
The first evening we stayed in the hills above the villages in a small hotel of Locanda “da Marco”, which also had a Trattoria and outdoor terrace dinning with a wood burning pizza oven. After driving all day from Switzerland it was getting late and since we didn’t have reservations decided not to risk looking for a hotel in the villages. Little did we know that we would discover the beautiful stone village of Pignone. The region had been hit with an earthquake and tornado in October and many of the villages in the area had lost some ancient bridges and were in different stages of restoration. As usual the personal service and the food were authentic Italian. When we saw the fresh vegetable garden in front of the house, we knew we would have a good dinner. The hotel has 6 simple but comfortable rooms and the guests were from Austraila, France, Irland and Italy. As we have often found, these evening always end up with everyone talking to each other, sharing their life stories and travel experiences. This rarely happens in larger hotels that tend to be less personal. The owners spent time in the morning with their guests giving everyone information on how to visit the Cinque Terre and their advice saved us a lot of time. www.locandadamarco.it
As we drove down to Monterossa al Mare where we spent our second evening. The hills were covered with olive trees and the farmers were spreading nets under the trees to harvest the olives. After finding a hotel, we started out and went to Riomaggiore, walked along the cliffs to Manarola and took the train to Corniglia. There are also ferries that stop along all the villages, so it is possible to walk part of the distance and also take a boat to others.
After a long day we were ready for a nice dinner by the sea. I stopped an older woman and asked her were we could have a good meal. I have found that asking the locals is always the best way to get a good recommendation. She suggested Ristorante Belvedere in the old town of Monterossa al Mare. The seafood was excellent and view of the cliffs was perfect. We sat outdoors with a warm evening breeze off the ocean to a fresh seafood dinner. Their specialty was soupe de pesce served for two in a clay pot and poured into a large pottery bowl. Consisting of lobster, octopus, squid, shellfish and fresh fish in a tomato and fish broth was outstanding.
Walking back to the main part of the village though a tunnel that was part of the original road that we drove more then 30 years ago brought back those scary memories. However I was pretty safe as now it is a walkway connecting the old town and the beach of Monterossa al Mare. I was glad we were walking rather then driving it, but I wish they had preserved more the original tunnels.
It is always difficult to go back after many years and expect to relive memories, and this was no different. For those who have never seen the Cinque Terre, it is still a unique part of Italy and worth visiting.