Italy’s working man’s riviera

Shredded and discarded footwear appears like Hansel and Gretel’s bread trail along the rugged walking trails of the Cinque Terre. And where there is a tattered sandal, so follows a gasping tourist. But their hardships are insignificant compared with those of the native Ligurians.

This starkly gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage-listed landscape on the north-west Italian coast carries a dark history of floods, sieges and destruction that has shaped the stoic character of its inhabitants who walk only lightly on this land.

It is as if fortitude has been hardwired into the people who toiled for 1000 years to transform the cliffs into fertile terraces for olives and vines, while battling invaders and the elements.

This past year has been no exception. The people of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) endured floods on October 25, 2011, that took lives and almost destroyed Monterosso and Vernazza – two of the five villages that date back to the Middle Ages. Since then, the area has undergone a miraculous recovery.

Even so, we don’t quite know what to expect, and the post-flood words of the Monterosso mayor, Angelo Betta, ring in our ears: “Monterosso does not exist any more.”

We’ve come anyway to this Riviera de Levante, or “working man’s riviera”, which is wonderfully untroubled by tacky apartments and tourist developments. It’s also a hiker’s paradise – a linked series of jagged trails, built by generations of Ligurians who walked from village to sea to religious sanctuary, tenaciously eking out their living from the landscape.

The best way into the Cinque Terre is by train, not car. Roads are narrow, steep, access is heavily restricted – you can’t drive directly between the villages – and parking is virtually non-existent. The train, on the other hand, runs through the coastal tunnels to link the five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. It’s cheap at €1.50 ($2.30) a person and regular. So train is how we arrive in the westernmost village, Monterosso, from Genoa.

We love it immediately. The light is fading and the bay ripples pink and grey. Monterosso is divided in two – Fegina, the newer, beachy part where you’ll find the station, and Monterosso Vecchio, the old town. Built directly on rock, with winding secret alleys, the old town exhibits the true character of the Cinque Terre. It crawls up the San Cristoforo hill, showing little sign of the devastation that left it metres-deep in mud and debris a year ago.

This evening, it shows off its colours of creams and yellows, ochres, dark pinks and reds, the buildings green-shuttered. We’re congratulating ourselves, too, on our old-town choice of the Hotel Pasquale. It’s small, family-run and beautifully decorated, with sea views from every room.

We can also see the old town and the railway line that runs atop an aqueduct before disappearing into a tunnel. We experience that railway line first-hand during dinner at a nearby seafront restaurant when it seems the hounds of the apocalypse have landed on our heads – it’s merely a train thundering over the restaurant roof, which is set directly into the aqueduct.

Italy’s working man’s riviera

Riomaggiore hugs the shore.

Riomaggiore hugs the shore.


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