Well, I’ve found it. The most beautiful place on earth… that I’ve been to, yet.
I have to add the caveat because who knows where else I’ll go and what amazing vistas I’ll take in? Still, I think Cinque Terre will be hard to beat for a good long while.
Shortly before I left for this trip, the Sentiero Azzuro (the coastal hike between the five cities of Cinque Terre) was ranked one of the world’s 13 best hikes by the Conde Nast Traveler. So, I had mildly high expectations going into it, and I was the opposite of disappointed. I might have to make it one of my life goals to do all 13 of the hikes on that list.
Cinque Terre is a group of five coastal towns nestled into steep, terraced hillsides along the western coast of Italy, just north of Tuscany. There’s a coastal hike that connects the five towns, which from south to north are: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.
The first two legs of the coastal trail were closed due to recent landslides (I think). So our room booking staff recommended taking the train from Riomaggiore to Manarola, then doing the alternate vineyard route, passing through Volastra between Manarola and Corniglia. She told us it would be harder and take longer, but that the views would be worth it.
Which is precisely what we did.
The vineyard route was my favorite leg of the trip by far, but it was also the hardest. We basically walked straight up these steep staircases for an hour or more, in the middle of the day (it was just about noon when we started the hike), in the hot sun, with no shade or respite. This was HARD.
But the views were worth it, entirely.
What’s amazing about this hike is that the elevation keeps changing, the vistas keep changing. Everywhere you look, it’s just gorgeous. The water is so blue, the vineyards and terraces are undulating and lovely, and wildflowers grow in abundance all along the path.
Even butterflies flutter about with not a care in the world. It’s like a mystical dreamland up in the hills, with all possible worries left somewhere far below.
What was especially striking to me about Cinque Terre–and what made it more beautiful to me than, say, Switzerland–was the light touch applied to nature. Whereas in Switzerland the theme seems to be bending nature to one’s will–every valley cultivated and tamed, train tunnels blasted through the face of a mountain–here, nature predominates. The narrow hiking trail is laid by just a few stones here and there, and there’s nary a fence to protect you from falling straight down the ravine to your left. I thought there was something both beautiful and terrible in that implicit acquiescence to nature; a reminder, in a region where landslides are relatively frequent occurrences, that ultimately nature has its way.
Corniglia. We stopped in Corniglia for some fruit (the largest, fleshiest pears I’ve ever eaten), foccacia (a local specialty) and gelato. All so fresh and delicious.
So many poppies along the trail!
The hike between each city takes you up into the hills, and then you descend back down towards the city. Here, Vernazza juts out into the water.
We stopped here a while: more gelato! Gelateria Stalin.
Then we had a swim in the harbor and sat in the sun til we’d dried off a bit.
Gorgeous — the view as we ascended once more for the last leg of our hike.
I didn’t take as many photos on this last leg between Vernazza and Monterosso. I was tired on the incline (walking slow) and hungry on the downhill (walking quickly to make up for lost time and make it to dinner faster). But I loved this leg of the hike too; the scenery changes and becomes much more lush. Large fig tree leaves provide shade; the light is dappled, the sound of running water, the arched stone bridges cross streams that run down the ravine.
Truly, just mystical and gorgeous. I will never forget this hike.
We FLEW along that last leg! The promise of dinner was so tantalizing. Whereas tour guides recommend that the hike from Vernazza to Monterosso takes two hours, we did it in one. So we stopped for another dip at the public beach, then changed for a nice sit-down dinner.
This was the #1 best dinner I had in Italy. THE BEST. And I’m not even just talking about the ambience — we went to Ristorante Belvedere, a stone’s throw from the beach and the water, the sound of the waves lapping against the pebbles. In fairness, it might also have been that we were pretty hungry after a full-day hike. Even so, the food was AMAZING.
The freshest seafood salad. Everything was just so fresh and tender. Succulent, no brininess. All it needs is a squeeze of lemon.
We had pesto (also native to this region) and bruschette as an appetizer.
Marinated anchovies – very tart, but also very fresh.
Black and white pasta – the black part of the pasta is infused with squid ink, so the pasta itself is quite savory. With a mussel tomato sauce.
This is called fish soup, but clearly there is the largest crawfish I’ve ever seen jumping out of the bowl too.
Someday, I will go back to this place. This happy, happy place.