So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.
~ Mark Twain
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live by the sea. I don’t mean just living in a house with beach-front property, although that could be very nice. Instead, I like to dream of living in a house with a terrace and lots of windows on top of a mountain or cliff that overlooks the deep blue sea. In my dreams I can almost hear the seagulls over head, the waves slapping against the rocks below and smell the salty ocean air—a peaceful and invigorating way to begin and end any day.
Such dreams feed my love of travel to coastal areas. A highlight along Liguria’s coast are the Cinque Terre—five little medieval fishing villages perched high on cliffs that plunge into a breathtaking stretch of the marine blue Ligurian coast. Replete with ancient churches, castles and town squares, history is alive in these villages. For centuries the “five lands”—Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—were accessible only by foot of boat, and over the years the communities developed their own identity, traditions, dialect and cuisine—despite each being separated by only a few miles. Rugged coastal cliffs continue to keep Cinque Terre in somewhat scenic isolation.
Most visitors arrive by train, boat or foot due to challenges by road. Traversing seaside promontories, terraced vineyards and olive groves, Cinque Terre is a pedestrian paradise and hiking the Cinque Terre is possibly the most popular way to experience it.
Traditionally, this remote area was quite poor until the late 1970’s when a backpacker discovered the hidden towns and wrote about them. Today, Cinque Terre’s natural charm, beauty and coastal hiking trails draw 2-3 million tourists from all over the world each year.
Growth and wealth from tourism have revolutionized what was the region’s most sublimely isolated stretch, but the price locals have paid for prosperity is heavy—the area is always affolato (crowded) with tourists and land degradation is now a great threat to Cinque Terre. Besides the concern of environmental effects brought about by so many tourists hiking along the trails, traditional farming has been abandoned for the more profitable tourism industry. Untilled land and neglected forests have left nutrient rich topsoil much more unstable than it was 50 years ago. This leaves the Cinque Terre more vulnerable to flash floods and other environmental hazards. As sustainable ecotourism is of great value to this area, the Cinque Terre, now a national park, is finding ways to preserve the balance between tourism and agriculture.
Amazingly, despite the environmental challenges, much of Cinque Terre’s physical beauty is still intact. While exploring these little romantic villages, I noticed the elbow-to-elbow crowds, but they still manage to escape the frenzy that afflicts so many beautiful coastal towns. I was happy not to see many cars or large-scale development, allowing me to soak in the atmosphere of these relatively unspoiled fishing villages and making it one of my most memorable seaside visits.
The romantic in me would have liked to hike the famous and roughly seven-mile (12 kilometer) footpath that links the five areas but I went by train instead. Although the path generally affords a leisurely stroll, it is strenuous in some places so I thought it might be a little too challenging to do at this time whilst carrying a 20 lb baby. Also, many stretches along the trail were closed for repair during the time of our visit.
As my love and dreams of the sea will continue to exist, when my baby is old enough, perhaps we’ll come back to explore the Cinque Terre and discover new treasures along this little stretch of Liguria’s coast. The next time we just might hike the classic trail that provides the most stunning and spectacular views of olive groves, vineyards and lemon trees that cling and hug the steep hills. Until then, I’ll continue with my dreams of paradise next to the cobalt-colored sea.
Monterosso al Mare