When you know something is going to end, every moment becomes beautiful.
There is one such place, perched on the edge of the rocks of time, that one day will be swallowed by the sea. Strung along the northwestern shore of Italy, the five villages of Cinque Terre thrive on the mediterranean sun. Fish are pulled from the sparkling water and grapes from its terraced slopes.
Each of the five coastal towns, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare have a distinct flavor but they are all connected by a single footpath designed for travelers, lovers and citizens to pass between. For the lazy or uninspired there is also a train.
The pathway begins at Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, nestled within a valley between two rugged mountains. In an area known for heavy walking, the abundance of seafood, olives, and the pesto and foccacia bread that make the area famous are welcome to the weary.
Riomaggiore's narrow streets and tall buildings appear to slump against each other like two lovers after a long evening of drinking wine. Fitting, as just at the edge of town the Via Dell'Amore, or lovers walk, stretches along the seaside cliffs. Locks are affixed to a fence symbolically linking the loving couples together forever.
Just north comes Manarola with its arm of rocks jutting out into the sea for tanning and fisherfolk alike. The village climbs upward into the inland hills covered with row upon row of grapevines. There are no flat paths in Cinque Terre; you are always going up or going down. It is only when you stop to take in its magnificence that you can relax.
Beyond, 368 steps loom upwards to Corniglia, the most elevated and secluded of all the five villages. The winding, stepped streets curve back on themselves tirelessly making already travel-worn legs burn and keeping tourists away. One moment you'll be turning claustrophobic corners, then the next staring out to a starry night sky above the Ligurian sea from above a hundred foot tall terrace, and finally finding a secret stairwell down to a hidden lagoon. There were only a few shops in Corniglia, a bakery, and a single restaurant owned by a man named Mananan that seemed to be open only when he wanted it to be, never when people were hungry.
Due to recent floods, the pathway to Vernazza was closed when my girlfriend and I visited, but a brief train trip through the mountainside was all it took to reach the next village. Vernazza was perhaps the most beautiful of all with its sheltered lagoon and towering church where wedding bells tolled for the happy newlyweds.
The final leg lands you in Monterosso al Mare, the largest and most populous of all the cities in Cinque Terre. Most travelers stayed here as it had access to a long stretch of beach and unrestricted views up and down the Italian coast. There was also ample gelato.
To many, used to the chaos of cars in big cities, Cinque Terre often feels vacant, simple, or out of touch, but nothing could be further from the truth. That is how Cinque Terre has always been and that is how it always will be. After a few days wandering the enchanted villages, that description becomes what you embrace most about Cinque Terre. A shot of espresso versus our "double-venti-soy-chai-tea-latte-with-extra-whip-to-go." A solo voice shining pure above the choir.