Vernazza, Italy

Photo: N. Preseault
Photo: N. Preseault

The summer crowds have finally dispersed from Cinque Terre. That’s right, it’s mid-autumn—inching toward December—and they’re just now gone. You can finally find a seat on the train, walk through the little towns without getting elbowed, and enjoy unobstructed views along the trail. Add ideal hiking weather—temperatures in the low 60s ensure you won’t be a sweaty mess at the end of the path—and it sounds like the perfect time to check out the Italian coastline that everyone dreams of visiting.

Cinque Terre is a picture-perfect section of the Italian Riviera in Northwest Italy. Brightly colored houses cling to the steep hillside on the dramatic coast. “The Five Lands” include Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, from east to west. Fortified walls protected the little fishing villages and their castles from pirates and, later, the Turks in the Middle Ages. Flooding and mudslides are now the biggest threats.

After buying the Cinque Terre Card in La Spezia, board the Genova-bound train. Since the Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) is still closed between the first three towns—due to torrential rains in 2011—Corniglia is your first stop. The train station is, at least. To reach the village, you have to climb the Lardarina: 33 flights that include nearly 400 brick steps. Corniglia is the only one of the Cinque Terre villages without access to the sea. It sits high above the water, surrounded by terraced vineyards. When you arrive, make a miele di Corniglia (gelato with honey) your reward for the climb.

Photo: N. Preseault
Photo: N. Preseault

From Corniglia, follow the Sentiero Azzurro west toward Vernazza. This section of the trail, which many consider the most beautiful, passes by olive groves, grape vines, cacti, and rosemary. The rocky hillside is on your right, while the endless azure sea is to your left. You round corners to see the other villages and little beaches in the distance. Waves crash below you. While a sea breeze keeps you cool.

The view from the entire trail is gorgeous, but nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Vernazza. Peach- and canary-colored houses jut into the water. Doria Castle stands at the entrance of the harbor. The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia’s octagonal bell tower overlooks Piazza Marconi and the little fishing boats bobbing in the water. After snapping way too many photos, you practically skip down the rest of the steps and onto Via Roma, the main street.

In Vernazza, you visit the stone Chapel of Santa Marta, relax on the little beach, and walk along the pier that protects the village from the strong sea. When you’re ready for a break—and a glass of chilled Sciacchetrà wine—climb the steps to Belforte for warm focaccia, garlicly mussels, trofie al pesto pasta, and a view of the Ligurian coast. You finally understand—truly understand—the Italian phrase “la dolce vita” on the Cinque Terre.

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