World famous and post card perfect, the 5 medieval villages that make up the area known as Cinque Terre (five towns) are a must-see for anyone who appreciates the balance of nature and man-made.
The tiny fishing villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Manarola, Corniglia and Riomaggiore cling to the cliff edges of the Ligurian Riviera.
Seemingly built into the very stone that forms the cliffs, with seawalls built across the ports, protecting the villages from the worst of the mercurial temper of the Ligurian Riviera.
The part dirt, part path paths that connects each village is completely open to elements of nature. But the awe-inspiring views that greet you at each turn of the winding path are absolutely worth the effort.
I only wish I had known (or at least had the sense) to pack my own lunch when I decided to walk through the villages of Cinque Terre back in January of 2016.
An unseasonably warm winter in the south of Europe had meant snow boots were not needed, but heavy rain had washed away part of the path between two of the villages. So instead, I started my trek through Cinque Terre by taking the local train from Riomagiore and Manarola, then walking from Manarole to Corniglia to Vernazza and finally finishing at Monterosso al Mare.
I was fortunate to meet a German history teacher walking with his Polish student along the way… who would have thought I would be debating the merits of Napoleon’s philosophy while hiking the Cinque Terre?
Thankfully it was not raining that day, but the heavy grey clouds and the din of crashing waves turned what would normally be a bucolic countryside ramble into something from An old man and the sea.
But when the sun did manage to break through the clouds, shining softly over the pastel coloured villages, it was easy to appreciate why people keep coming back to see the Cinque Terre.
So why do I recommend visiting Cinque Terre in January, far away from the tourist preferred height of summer? Simple. Because you can’t appreciate a place properly when hordes of people are squished together on a narrow footpath, or when the heat of the summer sun is bearing down on you, and why on earth would you pay the extortionate prices that come with travelling during peak season?
Instead, why not explore in winter when you can truly appreciate the area as the locals do. Rarely is there snow, and as long as you have sturdy shoes on, all you need is a bottle of water and some snacks to get see you through (and maybe a spare battery for all the photos you will end up taking!).
Most of the shops and businesses will be closed, but the ones still open cater to the locals so you know you will be enjoying genuine local dishes, as well as supporting these towns during the much quieter off-peak season.
For something truly unique to the area, stay overnight in Manarola between early December to late January to witness the world’s largest presepe (nativity scene).
Stretched out across the hills overlooking Manarola is a nativity scene made of nearly 300 characters, all made from recycled materials and lit up by 15,000 solar powered lights.
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, this is truly incredible to behold. Just make sure to pack a torch!