TRAVEL: Where are the fabulous five?
IT MUST surely be on every traveller's bucket list. The Cinque Terre means five lands and refers to the villages Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.
The villages are built into the weathered cliffs on Italy's Ligurian coast overlooking the sea. They cling onto the cliffs as though one hearty gust of wind could set the lot tumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.
Trains, boats and paths connect the villages. Cars cannot get in.
Fifteen years ago, we walked the rough and craggy paths on the terraced hills between each village, surrounded by vineyards and orchards with glittering views all the way.
We had no idea of the difficulty of each walk between each village. Our intention had been to do perhaps one and train it back. But our arrival at each beguiling village inspired us to go on.
We sat in alfresco cafes overlooking the clear blue sea, looking up to the multi-coloured buildings while we drank coffee, and as the day progressed, wine and then later cocktails.
At each village we asked waiters: "Is it far to the next village?" and the reply was always, "no, not at all."
But it was far. Not so much far, rather staggeringly steep and outrageously tricky in parts.
The paths along the cliffs sometimes ascended to dizzy heights, and then descended dramatically, often with just dirt steps dug into the hills. It was a gruelling walk. But we were 15 years younger and the scenery was so spectacular we kept going.
We revisited this UNESCO World Heritage site this month in a manner more suited to our years. By sea, by ferry.
Day tickets from nearby La Spezia would take us to Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso if we wanted to stop in each village. Corniglia was no longer an option, closed due to floods and mudslides in 2011.
The approach to the villages by sea is a highlight before you even step off the ferry: the soaring cliffs, the multi-hued buildings, the rocks, the gin-clear water.
The colourful buildings of Riomaggiore are huddled around a tiny port, a snug spot where hundreds of tourists were trying to get photos without another person in them (impossible). People were sunbathing on the rocks, diving and jumping into the inviting water, and who were we not to join them?
Then it was back on the ferry with hundreds of others, squeezed into seats on the top deck, the wind and sunshine and views enchanting all of us.
Off at the next stop to Vernazza, in time for lunch.
Despite the cafes around the harbour having an obvious tourist look, we decided any one of them would be the same as another, and fortunately we found one right on the waterfront.
It could not have been better for the close-up view of the activity in the water, on the rocks and in the surrounds.
"This will definitely do," I said as a small boat puttered into the walled harbour with four attractive young men on board, all shirtless. I assumed they were locals, and said "hot Italian guys coming in without shirts," to my old (not so hot but still good) Aussie guy and we watched as they slowly made their way into shore and tied up the boat, put on their shirts, and stepped ashore for lunch. A highlight.
Visiting the Cinque Terre in summer or even in shoulder season (it shuts down in winter) is always going to mean crowds. It is one of the world's most popular destinations. Ferry, I think, is the best way to see it. You have the sea trip as a bonus, but train is efficient. Unless you are fit, don't think about walking the path.
Read more of Ann's musings at annrickard.com.