Too often, the word I need in Italian escapes me. But today I have exactly the right word to describe my visit to the Cinque Terre - mozzafiato. That first view, of colorful houses tumbling down hillsides toward the rocky coast and the blue, blue sea beyond is nothing short of mozzafiato, breathtaking.
I had just a single day to visit this unique part of Italy. The Cinque Terre lies along the eastern edge of the Ligurian coast where the sea begins to curve along the top of the Italian penisula toward the French Riviera. A century or so ago these were five remote fishing villages but today they are connected by boat, train, and scenic walking paths, making them a popular tourist destination. I was lucky to be there on a sunny spring day just before the season when the biggest crowds arrive. One day is not enough to thoroughly explore each of the towns that make up the Cinque Terre but it was definitely enough to give me a flavor for the area and convince me that I need to return!
I arrived in Manarola on a Saturday morning in early April with a full day free to explore. I chose to spend some time in Manarola, go by boat to Vernazza, and then return to Manarola for further exploration and to meet up with my group (from Lucca Italian School) for the return trip to our home base of Lucca. The other three towns, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, and Monterosso al Mare, would have to wait for another visit.
Manarola is one of the smallest Cinque Terre towns. It rolls down a steep hillside from the upper town square with the gothic Church of San Lorenzo and its bell tower across the central piazza. From there, it's a downhill stroll through a street full of charming and colorful houses, flowered terraces, streets lined with small fishing boats, terraced hills covered with grapevines, and small cafes and shops.
The small shop Burasca is a good place to sample the arancello (similar to limoncello but made from oranges) and to shop for local wines and products.
There are many restaurants serving fresh local fish, even take-away places selling paper cones filled with fritto misto (mixed fried fish). Further down the hillside is the landing dock for the battello (boat) to the other Cinque Terre towns. An all-day "hop on, hop off" boat pass costs 25 euro, less for single tickets between just two towns.
The boat is a great way to see both the towns and the dramatic coastline. The approach from the sea provides those mozzafiato views - sheer cliffs, colorful houses dancing down the slopes, ancient towers, tiny harbors, a glance at Corniglia high up on the bluff, and views of the sea beyond. As the boat pulls into Vernazza there is a spectacular view of the castle ruins and an ancient tower, perched on high. It's not hard to imagine the pirate raids that occurred along this coast - the reason these defensive structures were built.
Just around the corner from the boat dock lies Vernazza's small harbor with its fishing boats, a small spiaggia (beach), and a square full of cafes with brightly colored umbrellas and inviting patios.
Wandering through the town there are green shuttered houses on the hill, the intriguing church of Santa Margherita with its domed bell tower, a passage through an arch of rock to a small beachfront (marked with a "danger" sign, which didn't stop many people from entering), a tiny street side chapel, cafes, gelato spots, and many other shops. Near the train station is a billboard showing the damage done by the landslides and floods of October 2011. As mud and water came roaring down the steep hillside, the lower town and harbor filled with mud and debris. The damage was extensive and it's no small miracle that the town was rebuilt in a matter of a couple of years; today there is little obvious evidence of the destruction, though some of the trails between towns remain closed.
Returning to Manarola I had just enough time to walk back up the slope, buy some arancello, sample a local white wine, visit the church of San Lorenzo, and climb up to the parking lot to start the trip back to Lucca. Days like this I just have to pinch myself and feel so fortunate to have the opportunity for one perfect day in the Cinque Terra. Mozzafiato indeed. -post by JB