The territory of the Cinque Terre extends between Punta Mesco and Punta di Montenero, in the Ligurian Riviera of Levante, in the province of La Spezia, the provincial capital connected by the railway line.
On this stretch of coast, narrow by the mountains that drop down to the sea, there are five characteristic villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso
The area also includes the Cinque Terre National Park, which includes the coast and the protected marine area – crossed in its length by the “Blue Path” – within which you can also see peregrine falcons, badgers, weasels and martens.
The village of Riomaggiore is the first town that you meet coming from La Spezia.
Its birth, according to an ancient legend, dates back to the eighth century, when Greek refugees landed here, expelled from their homeland during the fierce iconoclastic persecutions. The descendants of those people, centuries later, founded the historic nucleus of Riomaggiore, which today corresponds to the so-called Marina district.
The city centre retains its original features and atmosphere, with the houses painted in pastel colours narrow one to another along narrow and steep streets and staircases that descend to the sea. In the upper part of the small town stands out the castle, which preserves the outside, the walls and two circular towers, the church of San Giovanni Battista, built in ‘300 and then transformed in ‘800, and the Oratory of San Rocco and San Sebastiano, built as a thank you for the end of a plague epidemic.
Also worth seeing is the Town Hall, decorated with murals by the Argentinian Silvio Benedetto, and the seventeenth-century Oratory of Santa Maria Assunta, which preserves a valuable triptych of the Madonna and Child between Saints Giovanni and Domenico, dating back to the ‘400, and the wooden statue depicting the Madonna delle Catene, to which is linked the memory of the raids of Saracen pirates. Towards the Telegraph Hill, however, stands the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Montenero, which was erected by the inhabitants of Riomaggiore on the site – from which you can enjoy the splendid panorama of the Gulf of Poets – where they had hidden an image of the Madonna during the Longboard invasion.
From Riomaggiore, in addition, starts the so-called Via dell’Amore, a pedestrian road carved into the rock that reaches Manarola, and you can take many hiking trails, which reach the Sanctuary of Montenero Portovenere and Val di Vara. For lovers of gastronomy and good food, the specialty of Riomaggiore is the salted rice cake, which is prepared on the occasion of the feast of Saint John the Baptist.
This village, which belonged to the Fieschi family, boasts ancient origins. Probably, in fact, its name derives from the Latin term “Manium arula”, which indicated a small temple dedicated to the Mani gods that stood in this place, or perhaps from “magna roea”, a term that indicated the wheel of the mill.
Going into the city centre, you can discover the church of San Lorenzo, dating back to the ‘300, built in Ligurian Gothic style embellished with a rose window in Carrara marble, and the fifteenth-century Oratorio dei Disciplinati. There are also the ancient Lazzaretto, transformed into a private house, and the bell tower, which once also served as a watchtower, being this stretch of sea particularly infested by raids by Saracen pirates.
Along the road that goes down to the sea, however, you can see the characteristic tower-houses with their colourful facades, and then the narrow network of the carrugi, joined together by slate staircases. A visit is recommended to the Museum of Sciacchetrà, exquisite DOC wine that is produced exclusively in this area. Finally, you cannot miss the arrival at the balcony overlooking the sea, at the end of Via Belvedere, in the square dedicated to the poet Eugenio Montale. For dinner, instead, it is advisable to taste the cappon magro, the ancient dish of Ligurian cuisine that is prepared with fish and vegetables.
Located in the centre of the Cinque Terre, Corniglia stands on a rocky spur surrounded by terraced land where the vine is grown, and therefore it is also the only town of the five not to have access to the sea.
Corniglia owes its name to the Roman family Cornelia, and has been famous since ancient times for wine. The town descends along the main road, up to the terrace of Santa Maria, from where the long staircase leads to the Marina di Corniglia.
Going into the narrow streets of the village you can discover the beautiful church of fifteenth-century origins of San Pietro, in Gothic-Ligurian style.
Under the church square, you can also discover the medieval remains and some small sculptures on the facade of a house, perhaps once part of the ancient hospital. The main beaches are located in Marina di Corniglia, as well as those that run towards Manarola and Vernazza, while the hiking trails are part of the network of the Blue Path. Try the Fieschi cake, made with savoiardi biscuits, chocolate and cream.
Also Vernazza stands on a rocky spur that goes into the sea, and is surrounded in the hinterland by terraces closed by dry stone walls that, built over the centuries, have allowed the tenacious inhabitants of the area to obtain the land necessary for farming.
Inhabited since the Middle Age, Vernazza was fortified with walls, watchtowers and ramparts, still partly visible today.
In the heart of the village, in the maze of carrugi, overlook the typical colourful houses and elegant palaces, and stands the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, overlooking the sea, with three naves perfectly preserved, the Gothic tabernacle and the bell tower, whose original construction was the work of the masters Antelami. This sacred building would have been built in the place where a wooden chest was found that contained the bones of a finger of the saint, who is also the patron saint of the town.
Overlooking the sea, there is also the Doria Castle, dating from the eleventh century, of which remain the circular tower and parts of the walls, once connected to the defense system of the village. Under the castle, then, there is the quadrangular Bastion Belforte. In the upper part, however, stands the town hall, which was once the convent of the Fathers of San Francesco Rifomati, which includes the tower and a cloister. On top of the hills, however, stands the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Reggio built in the eleventh century, where there is a depiction of the Black Madonna, which legend has come to Vernazza at the time of the Crusades.
As in the other towns of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza is a reference point for traditional Ligurian cuisine, and offers a delicious series of specialties: from focaccia to farinat,a from fish dishes to salted anchovies, from trofie to the “pan of Vernazza”, delicacy based on potatoes, anchovies, tomato, oil and white wine baked in the oven.
The Cinque Terre end with Monterosso, divided into two parts, connected by a pedestrian gallery: Fegina, with the famous beach, and the old village with the port. The old town, located above the hill of the Capuchins, where once there was the castle, was built around the ninth century, then expanded towards the natural inlet and the sea, and was fortified by the Obertenghi family.
In the oldest part the tower-houses prevail, always painted in bright colours, overlooking narrow alleys, and stand out the most ancient and precious monuments, such as the church of Saint John the Baptist, dating from the late ‘200, with Gothic- Genoese -style façade, with green and white marble bands, and the bell tower-watchtower. Then there is the Baroque Oratorio dei Neri Mortis et Orationis, with frescoes depicting skeletons and skulls, and the wooden statue of Saint Anthony abbot, and the Oratorio di Santa Croce, with votive offerings dedicated by sailors. From the area of Fegina, however, you arrive at the Convent of the Capuchins, which houses a Crucifixion by Antoon van Dyck and a penitent Saint Jerome by Luca Cambiaso.
On the beach, however, stands the Torre Aurora, overlooking the sea which was built in the sixteenth century and, at the bottom, stands out the silhouette of the “Giant”, reinforced concrete structure fourteen meters high made by the sculptor Arrigo Minerbi. For lovers of tranquillity, we also recommend an excursion on the hills behind the village, where there is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Soviore, which retains some cycles of frescoes, and from which you can enjoy a truly breath-taking view.
For lovers of hiking, there are also three paths that lead to Vernazza, the Sanctuary of Soviore and the Hermitage of Sant’Antonio del Mesco.
On the table, then, can not miss a course of anchovies in oil salted and fried, the typical “torta di Soviore”, a puff pastry flan filled with rice, eggs, cheese and nutmeg, and the “torta monterossina”, prepared with shortcrust pastry, sponge cake, custard, apricot jam and dark chocolate.
The Cinque Terre and cinema: Luca
The animated film Luca, directed by Enrico Casarosa and produced by Pixar, is directly inspired by the legend of Colapesce, and tells the adventures of Luca Paguro, a young marine-being, able to assume human forms. The story is set in the imaginary Portorosso, a place of fantasy but that puts together in a delicious way some of the most beautiful places of the Cinque Terre. The square of Portorosso is similar to that of Vernazza, as well as the steep streets and stairs that open in the heart of the village. The hills around are those you see in Manarola, and some shots instead refer to Corniglia, especially in a small square with the church and three benches full of elderly people sitting. The house of Giulia, Luca’s human friend, is inspired by a building located in Riomaggiore.