While there, my boyfriend Rich and I made the trip to Cinque Terre, near La Spezia, where we saw the area to its best advantage – almost empty of tourists! The weather can be changeable in February, but I highly recommend an off season trip if, like me, you dislike feeling like one of a faceless crowd.
As you can see in my photo above, we lucked out with the weather, and found the lemons on the trees, bringing a splash of colour to the spring landscape. I wrote it up for an article for the Telegraph’s travel section, which you can find here, or after the fold.
Everyone wants to go to the Cinque Terre it seems. And there, among the lemon trees and under a tentative February sun which painted with gold the pastel houses that dot the Ligurian hillside, it was not hard to see why. Around every bend, one of Italy’s five iconic candy-coloured villages rests upon a clifftop or in a small cove. Above, the step-step terraces of the vineyards striate the hillside – green on green – while below the luminous sea laps at the harbour’s edge, a vibrant shade somewhere between electric blue and cyan.
So perhaps it should not have been a surprise to hear that in the summer this place is packed to the gills: too many people want to come here, and it is causing a serious problem. Local residents complain of overcrowding, and some have even started a petition calling for action. Last week the national parks authority, which controls tourism in the area, answered their plea, announcing plans to cap the number of annual visitors at 1.5 million, a 40 per cent cut from last year’s total. And yet – when I found myself wandering the narrow alleys of the famous five on the very day the park made its announcement, the marauding bands of sightseers they spoke of – clogging up the village squares, jostling for space on train platforms – seemed a very distant prospect.
“It is quiet season,” the woman at the tourist office explained with a shrug. “Perhaps it is the best time to visit.” I could only agree.
Crowds from the cruise ships that dock in nearby La Spezia tend to avoid the Cinque Terre National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, between October and March when the weather can be changeable and cool. And although, sure enough, the sea breeze was on the nippy side as I dipped my feet in the Ligurian Sea, I couldn’t help reflecting on how lucky we were to avoid the crush that would inevitably spoil any summer visit to a region that is world-renowned for its rural charm and isolation.
From Corniglia, on its rocky perch overlooking the water, we headed west, following the flashes of red and white paint that signpost the way out of the village past the Church of San Pietro and along a narrow coastal path that wound its way through tangled vines and olive groves, rising around 300ft over the course of a mile or so.
At the highest point, we rounded the bend to catch sight of the next village and perhaps the prettiest of them all: Vernazza. Houses of rosy pink, sage and primrose crowd out on to a small peninsula that hooks round to shield a natural harbour. Beyond them, at the crown of the headland, protrudes the smooth round tower of Belforte, the medieval castle.
It was a picture perfect view: indeed it is one that adorns hundreds, perhaps thousands of postcards, fridge magnets and calendars. But that day we had it to ourselves as we hunkered down on a rock to eat focaccia and pesto in the sun. Over the following hours we met perhaps only a dozen others on the trail, each as staggered as us by their good fortune.
Cinque Terre is best known as a walking destination, and the steep, terraced slopes are veined with a network of well-kept paths that course between the villages. From Vernazza the path continued, climbing again and passing through a lemon tree orchard before dropping down a long staircase of uneven stone steps into Monterosso al Mare after around 90 minutes. The largest of the five villages, it is set along a scalloped sandy beach under the gaze of its 17th-century monastery.
The paths are well constructed and easy to follow, but landslips are not unknown after heavy rain; the coastal paths that link Corniglia with the two easterly villages, Manarola and Riomaggiore, remain closed after a landslide in 2011. Nevertheless, both are still reachable on foot by way of a short detour inland, or via the “milk train” that chugs hourly between the villages. (Visitors can pick up a €12/£9.35 pass that allows access to the trains and shuttle buses run by the national park.)
We opted for the latter, trundling back through a succession of tunnels to Manarola, where we found the poster-child village of Cinque Terre just stirring from her winter slumber.
The Erica gelateria was one of the few establishments catering to tourists still open. Clutching our gelatos we picked our way down to the rocks to watch the fishermen unload their catch. As one passed with a bucket under one arm, I caught a flash of silver scales and staring eyes. It was clear that all the charm that initially drew tourists is still present in spades. You just have to come when they least expect you.
How to get there
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Genoa, with fares from £34 return. The best hotels in Liguria are in Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure, an hour’s drive from the Cinque Terre.
Where to stay
In Portofino, the Hotel Argentina is a quiet retreat set back from Paraggi Bay, with rooms from £50 per night. In Santa Margherita Ligure, Hotel Continental is a grand Art Noveau hotel with excellent dining, a private beach and rooms from £54 per night.
Walkers and budget travellers might prefer the 5 Terre Backpackers – a bright, clean hostel in Corvara that provides a 30-minute shuttle service to the five villages, with rooms from £19 per night.
The national parks authority (0039 0187 762 600;parconazionale5terre.it) has an interactive map of the trail network, regularly updated with information on path closures.