Imagine walking around a corner and your eyes becoming filled with the blue sky meeting the blue sea, the horizon indistinct. You are drawn in to the landscape, searching for the line that divides air and water, enveloped by the sound of lapping waves and the warm awareness of the breeze grazing your face and arms.
Fulfilled with the scene, and knowing more awaits, you continue along the ancient footpath. Your footing is mostly sure as you meander up and down the cliff-sides. In unshaded sections, the Mediterranean sun radiates its celestial grandeur, forcing mere humans to shelter in the turquoise water. Basking on the rocks to dry is a good excuse for another pause to osmose the scene. And so the day goes; a little walking, a little stopping, a little walking, a little eating. La Dolce Vita.
This winding road comes in two parts. The first is SP370 or La Strada Provinciale delle Cinque Terre (preferably read with hands in the air), a road that hugs the cliffs of the Ligurian Alps of La Spezia as they loftily rise out of the sea. Modern Italian engineering created some sections of SP370 in the early 1960s and subsequent sections a few years later (well, 1998). The road’s merits are still debated on hot summer afternoons over shaded checkerboards.
The smaller, yet no less traveled, winding road is the medieval Mediterranean footpath clinging to the cliffs, the result of early Italian engineering, and one that has carried foot traffic for centuries.
I could tell you all the popular tourist facts about the towns that lie on the path, nearly inaccessible by other means, the picturesque scenes, the top ten restaurants or best places to get a cappuccino. Or, how the whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an Italian national park, or how the path was dubbed La Via Dell’Amore (by an enterprising sort from Riomaggiore, no doubt). That move surely sealed the area’s destiny as a must-see. But, you can read all about that stuff in your guidebook.
What I want to remember to you about Cinque Terre is the feel of the place, an unnameable something that I think has rubbed off a little at a time from all the feet that have walked the same sinuous path. The area has been inhabited at least since the Bronze Age (c. 3200–600 BC), but for this 21st century dweller, such time travel is hard to grasp. I can imagine, though, the villagers of the 7th, the 11th, the 16th centuries, living on the cliffs, fishing in the sea, building, farming, and sneaking a bit of the homemade wine. Just look at the stone walls they built, the terraces they carved from the cliffs, the tower houses built on hillsides, the impressive stone churches and hidden shrines (not that the wine had anything to do with these things, but it could have).
Building a way of life on the Italian Riviera has always been a challenge and the towns have had many reasons to defend themselves, from the Longobard (Lombard) (long beard) attacks from the north to the feuding medieval families of Rome. Finally, in 1276, Genoa, being the Mediterranean superpower of the day, took Cinque Terre and its people under it’s wing. Things quieted down and the people began to create the villages of Cinque Terre as we know them today.
One of the best ways to feel the vibe of those that have come before is to just have a seat. I suggest a seat near the Duomo in Riomaggiore at sunset to watch the show. Why is it that birds get so active at sunset? Maybe the view excites them too. They seem to know the setting sun will darken the sea for the night, and they flit in and out of their cubby-homes built in holes in the massive sea-facing stone wall of the church, wavering between flight and rest.
Once they commit to rest, except for a few of the teenagers, I head down the hill to find a new favorite restaurant, careful not to tread too hard on the cobblestones that hold the memories of those Ligurians who walked before me.
Il Cielo in Una Stanza, sung by Diego Sandrin
Cover Photo:Massimilianogalardi via Wikimedia Commons