Our train pulls out of La Spezia and bores straight into the mountainside and into the rugged heart of the Cinque Terre. Hurtling through the mountain’s interior, it’s not long before we burst out on the other side, a sudden blue wash of light spilling into the carriages as the Mediterranean comes into view.
The first stop is Riomaggiore, and we disembark here. This is the southernmost of the five small towns that comprise Italy’s Cinque Terre — the others being Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
The region’s year-round mild climate and striking beauty have long made it a popular tourist destination. But even in the height of summer, it’s not too difficult to escape the crowds, as we discovered.
Much of the charm of the five towns lies in their seemingly precarious position: all except one of them appear perilously balanced on the plunging black cliffs that line the coast. There are no roads into the towns — access is by boat, train, or pedestrian path.
There are regular trains to the towns from Genoa in the north and Pisa in the south, as well as local trains between the five towns. Train tickets are just a few euros, but if you plan to use several trains between the towns and walk parts of the trail, the Cinque Terre Card gives you unlimited access to the trains and free entrance to a number of local museums and places of interest (ten euros for a day card).
We head for our accommodation and are soon beaming stupidly as we make ourselves at home in our bright, top-floor apartment with a view of the sea and small harbour. In the evening, we dine at the restaurant opposite and gorge ourselves on delicious, freshly caught sea bass.
The Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) is a 60-kilometre walking trail that threads along the coast, through each of the towns. It’s a popular hiking trail and becomes more challenging the further north you go.
The easiest section of the trail (at just one kilometre long) connects Riomaggiore and Manarola, and is known as the Via dell’Amore – the Path of Love.
Constructed a century ago to facilitate the construction of the railway tunnel between Riomaggiore and Manarola, the path soon became a favourite meeting point for lovers between the two towns, hence its nickname.
As well as the amorous graffiti that adorns sections of the path, the metal railings that line the trail have been embellished with symbols of couples’ undying love: padlocks — and complex combination padlocks for especially devoted couples.
To walk along the Via dell’Amore you’ll need to buy a Cinque Terre card, unless you walk the path after 7:30pm, when most of the tourists have left for the day and access to the path is free of charge.
Manarola is the smallest of the five towns and its attractive buildings clamber up the hillside in citrus-yellows and oranges. Brave souls dive from the harbour’s rocks into the waves, offering an impressive spectacle and photo opportunity for passing tourists.
We indulge in more local seafood and get lost in the town’s weave of narrow alleyways — always, somehow, ending up at another exceptionally good ice-cream shop.
In the evening we join the locals for a lively folk music concert on the cliff top. The band finishes just before midnight and we retrace our steps to Riomaggiore. But not before we’ve had a quick limoncino – the Ligurian take on limoncello, the sweet, lemon liqueur produced in southern Italy.
At midnight, the Via dell’Amore is all but deserted. The pale moon lights the path between the sheer black cliff face and vast expanse of sea and sky. You would be forgiven for believing the world was indeed flat here, and this was the dizzying edge.
Our plan to walk to the third town, Corniglia, is thwarted, due to ongoing repairs to the trail. Fortunately, the train ride takes only a few minutes. Less fortunately, we miss the train and have to wait forty minutes for the next one. (Note: Timetables are available from the ticket offices.)
Corniglia is the only town that resides on top of the cliffs, being reached by a zigzagging staircase of around 380 steps. We’d read of a shuttle bus too, but saw no sign of it.
Before heading to the town though, we decide to look for the beach. We had heard mention of a quiet and secluded cove that was frequented only by locals, the main route to which was allegedly through an abandoned railway tunnel. After a few false trails, we find ourselves at the tunnel entrance: a tall brick archway with only darkness beyond. Mobile-phone-torches in hand, we step inside.
Within five minutes, we can see neither the tunnel’s beginning nor end. Plodding on and beginning to wonder whether the 380 steps might have been a better idea, the silence is abruptly broken by the roar of an approaching train. Seconds later it’s upon us — thundering past in the adjacent tunnel.
Our horror soon turns to relief as we spy the exit. And soon we find the slowly eroding stone steps leading down to the cove, which is indeed peaceful and secluded — a world away from the chattering tourist throngs on the other side of the mountain.
The 380 steps are a surprisingly light challenge in the evening’s cooler air, and we arrive at the town just in time to witness the sun setting over the distant mountains, and the towns of the Cinque Terre flushing bright red and orange.