Cinque Terre is one of those rare places that leap from the pages of picture books simply because it seems too picturesque to be real. Do places like this really exist? A string of colorful centuries-old seaside villages perched on the rugged cliffs of the Italian Riviera, clinging to the rocks as if defying gravity. Small fishing boats ply the waters between the towns and happy locals enjoy lively conversations in the narrow winding streets that thread and climb steeply through these enchanting outposts overlooking the blue Mediterranean. When I first came to the Cinque Terre, or the "five lands," I was expecting none of this. It was nearly a decade ago and I was going to school in the heart of Tuscany, loving life in a medieval walled city but looking for a way to get out into nature, to get to the sea. I had somehow caught wind from a passing traveler of this lesser-known spot in the coastal province of Liguria and was told of the opportunity it offered to hike old winding trails along the cliffs connecting the five villages. So off we went, my traveling companion and I, on a rattling old Italian train, bound for the coast and determined to escape the city and breathe deeply some fresh coastal air.
The sun was warm, the air was crisp and life just seemed to be especially perfect in that time and place.
From the moment I stepped off the train in an empty station high on the cliffs above a calm blue sea, I knew we had stumbled upon someplace special. The pastel-colored houses all jumbled atop the cliffs and hillsides were unlike anything I had ever seen. The charming little piazzas and fishing boats bobbing in the harbors seemed to me too perfectly placed to not be an intentionally crafted scene from a stage play. But as magnificent as it was, we hadn't yet found what we were looking for. So we picked up our packs and set off down the narrow one-lane road until the pavement ended at the edge of town and a narrow dirt trail led off into a vineyard clinging to the steep hillside. We pressed on.
We soon found ourselves passing through more vineyards that were a testament to the dedication of generations of families who had painstakingly cultivated these steep hillsides by hand. We passed through dense olive groves and up and over ridgelines to incredible panoramic vistas high above the water looking up and down the coast in both directions, the towns of the Cinque Terre visible in the distance in their beautiful simplicity. The sun was warm, the air was crisp and life just seemed to be especially perfect in that time and place. This was exactly what we had come looking for--an escape from the noise and clamor of the city, a place in the sunshine to rebalance ourselves and appreciate the beauty of the natural world again.
I've been back to the Cinque Terre many times in the decade since that day and I still believe it's a truly special place. Each time I go back leading a new Backroads trip I discover something new--a delicious local anchovy, a taste of hazelnut gelato, a hidden swimming hole by the harbor or simply a smiling local fisherman who shouts "You drive me coconuts!" when I stop to take a photo of his beautiful town. There is still magic here, in the olive groves, in the grapes on those impossibly terraced vineyards, in the waves, in the peeling paint on the sides of the old church watching over the town piazza, in the shoes of the Italian children racing through the narrow alleys on their way to the beach on a sunny day. And no matter how old you are, magic is something worth chasing.
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