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5 Hidden Gems on the Italian Riviera : Few Americans have heard of these tiny villages, set like jewels into the Ligurian Coast and known as the Cinque Terre

June 26, 1994|Colman Andrews | Andrews, editor of "Traveling in Style" magazine, is working on a book on the cooking of Nice and Liguria

ONTEROSSO AL MARE, Italy — The Cinque Terre is one of those places people tend to read about once and then dream about forever.

An isolated part of the northwestern Italian region of Liguria, the Cinque Terre is a ruggedly beautiful stretch of coastline inset with five tiny villages perched between the Mediterranean and a range of steep coastal hills. Articles about the Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kway TER-ray) invariably describe it as a kind of austere, unspoiled paradise. Populated mostly by fishermen and farmers and all but inaccessible to cars--the story goes--both the towns themselves and the surrounding countryside have remained unchanged for centuries.

The aura of romance about the place is enhanced by the very names of the five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, from north to south. Even the name of the region--it means "Five Lands"--makes the place sound somehow grand and mysterious. If that isn't the stuff of escapist fantasies, what is?

I first read (and started dreaming) about the Cinque Terre myself a good 25 years ago, when I ran across a particularly evocative piece about it, accompanied by plenty of seductive photographs, in some glossy travel magazine of the time.

When I first visited the Cinque Terre, very briefly, about four years ago, I was charmed . . . but a little bit disappointed. Since then, I've been back twice, most recently last month. I can't claim to have covered every inch of the local landscape, or even to have learned each of its tiny towns by heart, but I have spent enough time in the region by now to discover that it is indeed beautiful and full of charm but that dreamers should be forewarned: It is no longer quite the isolated Eden it must once have been.

To begin with, Monterosso and Riomaggiore--the towns on either end--show modest but unmistakable signs of modern development. A bank of ugly green apartments is pushed against the hill just outside Monterosso. At the edge of Riomaggiore, an incongruously contemporary pastel apartment/office/parking complex has recently been constructed.

Both have a number of small hotels too, which seem to be largely populated by tourists from Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States (if you don't speak Italian, German is the next most useful language to know in these parts). Ligurian fishermen and farmers still live and work in the towns, certainly, but now so do plenty of well-off Genoese families who have weekend homes here (Genoa is only about 50 miles from Monterosso), as well as expatriates from Northern Europe looking for a place to paint or write or vegetate.

The distance between Monterosso and Riomaggiore is only about 11 miles, and the towns are linked by frequent train and boat service, as well as a famous network of hiking paths, or sentieri . The trip from one end of the region to the other by train, including stops at the villages in between, takes about 15 minutes.

If you're hardy enough, you could walk the entire distance in under six hours. Thus, it's easily possible to visit all five of the towns in a day, even if you're not staying in any of them. (A popular base of operations for touring the area is the delightful town of Levanto, a few miles north of Monterosso, which has a number of hotels and is on the Cinque Terre rail line.)

The question of transportation between the towns brings up the most significant difference between legend and reality in the Cinque Terre: Despite what most guidebooks and magazine articles will tell you, it is also now possible to reach each and every one of the five towns by car.

The road to Riomaggiore is quite good, in fact. The one to Monterosso is slightly less so, but I recommend the drive, as it provides a close-up look at the territory--the steep terraces, the narrow ravines, the little stands of olive trees (beneath which orange nets hang to catch the falling fruit), the miniature one-seat monorails used in working the vines on these precipitous hillsides.

Getting to Corniglia, Vernazza and Manarola by car is, admittedly, a bit more difficult: The roads are winding and narrow, sometimes paved only with gravel. Anyway, work is now underway to smooth out and widen at least part of the route, which will make the towns even easier to get to, and undoubtedly change their character even more.

That's the bad news, at least for dreamers. The good news is that, while there isn't much to do in the Cinque Terre, there's plenty to see and much atmosphere to soak up. The region might not be truly isolated anymore, but it remains an unusual and enchanting corner of the Mediterranean, much further in style and spirit than it is in distance from the glossy resorts of the western Riviera.

*

Riomaggiore is a curious little town built in a narrow ravine cut by a stream rushing down to the sea. The main street, lined with unassuming shops and restaurants, descends steeply to a small beach and fishing port; it makes a pleasant promenade.

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