Introducing Cinque Terre
If you ever get tired of life, bypass the therapist and decamp immediately to Cinque Terre. Here five crazily constructed fishing villages, set amid some of the most dramatic coastal scenery on the planet, ought to provide enough to bolster the most jaded of spirits. A Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997, Cinque Terre isn't the undiscovered Eden it once was but, frankly, who cares? Sinuous paths tempt the antisocial to traverse seemingly impregnable cliffsides, while a 19th-century railway line cut through a series of coastal tunnels ferries the less brave from village to village. Thankfully cars – those most ubiquitous of modern interferences – were banned over a decade ago.
Rooted in antiquity, Cinque Terre's five villages date from the early medieval period. Monterosso, the oldest, was founded in AD 643, when beleaguered hill dwellers moved down to the coast to escape from invading barbarians. Riomaggiore came next, purportedly established in the 8th century by Greek settlers fleeing persecution in Byzantium. The others are Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola. Much of what remains in the villages today dates from the late High Middle Ages, including several castles and a quintet of illustrious parish churches.
Buildings aside, Cinque Terre's unique historical feature are the steeply terraced cliffs bisected by a complicated system of fields and gardens that have been hacked, chiselled, shaped and layered over the course of nearly two millennia. So marked are these artificial contours that some scholars have compared the extensive muretti (low stone walls) to the Great Wall of China in their grandeur and scope.
In October 2011 flash floods along the Ligurian coast wreaked havoc in Vernazza and Monterosso, burying historic streets and houses under metres of mud and killing half-a-dozen people. As of 2013, most businesses are open again, but check the status of the Sentiero Azzurro (blue walking trail) before you set out.
Need to know
Cinque Terre's easternmost village, Riomaggiore is the largest of the five and acts as its unofficial HQ (the main park office is based here). Its peeling pastel buildings tumble like faded chocolate boxes down a steep ravine to a tiny harbour – the region's favourite postcard view – and glow romantically at sunset. The famous Sentiero Azzurro coastal path starts here.
Guarding the only secure landing point on the Cinque Terre coast, Vernazza's small, quintessential Mediterranean harbour guards what is perhaps the quaintest of the five villages. Lined with little cafes, Vernazza's main cobbled street, Via Roma, links seaside Piazza Marconi with the train station.