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Finding Amore in Cinque Terre

A trail with a name like Via dell'Amore is an overt invitation to savor the pleasures that amore promises. So without trepidation, I plunged headlong to discover what so many visitors to the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) have been exclaiming about. But before I could set out, a couple asked me to take their photo at the entrance to the trail. I happily obliged and as I clicked away, I caught them kissing each other on film. What a romantic beginning!

The Via dell'Amore starts at the hilltop village of Riomagiorre. All is peaceful in autumn primarily because the summer crowds have come and gone and this town, which sits at the southern tip of the Cinque Terre, is often skipped by day-trippers in favor of Vernazza to the north.

The trail hugs the cliff as it meanders along the coast. The walkway is wide and well paved and there are benches for those who wish to pause and gaze at views of multi-hued waters and pastel painted villages peeking through the hills. Like a stolen kiss, the hike is short and sweet. I arrived in Manarola in fifteen minutes.

It's siesta time and only the tourists were up and about. I picked up a slice of foccacia at a small pizzeria to take with me on the second leg of this excursion. I found the trail again but the view of Manarola clinging precariously on the hillside presented a great photo opportunity too difficult to resist. And as cloudy skies finally gave way to bright sunlight, I decided to eat my lunch there and then with the sea at my feet and the warmth of the sun caressing my face.

This turned out to be an opportune break as the path ahead changed drastically and the benches were nowhere to be seen. Just around the curve I could see the trail winding its way uphill. The footpath became rough and narrow. In some areas, there were no railings with only brush to stop the hiker from sliding down to the Gulf of Genoa. The sun was merciless and I had to stop a few times to cool down. There were fewer hikers along the way and in some stretches of the trail, I was all alone. It was nearly forty five minutes before I stumbled into Corniglia, which is located midway between the northern village of Monterosso al Mare and Riomaggiore.

There are other ways to traverse the village that are much less strenuous and more convenient. A ferry transports passengers along the coast from Monterosso to Portovenere in the south. Approaching Cinque Terre from the sea offers visitors a different perspective of the villages with its rugged coastline and green mountains. But the ferries don't operate when the seas are rough. Another alternative is to go by train which serves the towns once every hour.

Unlike other hamlets in the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare has a sandy beach but it lacks the allure that draws visitors to Vernazza. It also helps that Rick Steves, the famous European travel guide and author, calls Vernazza home when he is in the area.

While Piazza Marconi buzzes with visitors, the back alleys of Vernazza are quiet. It appears unaffected by the flurry of activity around it. Going up the steep, narrow stairs to the ruins of a castle at the top of the hill, I had the impression that the higher I climbed, the more steps there were ahead of me. I met a young man who was running down the stairs, two steps at a time, without skipping a beat. I admired his dexterity and resolved to climb with more confidence.

The effort was well worth it. I was rewarded with incomparable vistas of vineyards thriving on terraced hillsides and the entire village spread out below. I could see the yellow church of Santa Magherita which has windows looking out to sea. I could make out the town of Monterosso in the distance and the calm waters of the gulf shimmering in the tentative light to the west.

On the way down I noticed a restaurant which has possibly the best tables in the village. It is called Il Castello and has the added bonus that one can walk off that big meal. Perched on a cliff, it is the perfect place to relax and unwind at the end of the day.

The charms of Cinque Terre are many and best savored at a leisurely pace. Explore the back alleys where laundry hangs from balconies, neighbors chat from across their windows and steep stairs beg a slower tempo. Find a place to sit facing the sun-kissed sea and do absolutely nothing except to surrender yourself to the gentle pleasures of village life. It is only then that amore will touch you and linger long after the journey has ended.

How to get there:
There are train services to the five villages from Rome, Milan, Florence or Genoa.

Where to stay:
There are small hotels and rooms to rent in all the villages. Alternatively, the seaside resorts of Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo to the north have more accommodations to choose from and are an hour by train from Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre card:
For about 5 euros, this card offers among other things, unlimited one-day travel between the towns, entrance to the Via dell'Amore trail and other protected areas of the National Park of Cinque Terre and use of elevator to the hill town of Riomaggiore.

*This article was published in the Manila Bulletin USA in the November18-24, 2004 issue. It is recreated here from an old blog post.



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