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Blue hour at Manarola Cinque Terre, Italy
Blue hour at Manarola Cinque Terre, Italy

Oh, Cinque Terre!

A gem among Italy’s embarrassment of riches of Mediterranean splendor can be found a half hour south of the glitzy playground of the rich, Portofino Italy, here you will find the five towns of Cinque Terre, on the cliffs above the Ligurian Sea.

These villages maintain the charm and character of Italian villages of the past; all the while, learning to cater to us visitors who wish to gaze upon that past. The aura of romance about the place is enhanced by the very names of the five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are the pastel colored towns that make up Cinque Terre.

Each village is in a ravine, in days of yore, a hidden hive of human activity. The ravine was the water source for the village. Over centuries, farmers have carefully built terraces into the cliffs that overlook the sea, to cultivate grapes and olives on the rugged terrain. If I could have afforded more time it would have been fun to capture the farming life of those cultivating these cliffs. Sadly because of modern agricultural techniques elsewhere, these terraced farms are falling out of use as they become economically unviable.

Cinque Terre was amazing and I found after experiencing the magnificent place; my previous stop here of only one day was a woefully inadequate amount of time for this photographer's playground. When you step into the region, you feel as if you have stepped into a dream, a dream of centuries gone by.  Each town precariously clinging to the rocky coast, defying gravity, and, most of all, defying time –for now.

Upon my return three years later, Sharon and I stayed at a village barely north of Cinque Terre called Levanto, a beautiful town that is the convenient place from where it is possible to easily visit the villages of Cinque Terre.  If my wife Sharon was going to be on the Mediterranean Sea, she wanted a beach to lounge on while the crazy photographer husband beat himself up on cliff trails, and endless stairways of this vertical world of these secluded fishing villages. She knew ahead of time, a little bit of colorful village, home of endless steps, would be enough for her, as well as knowing I would never have enough of Cinque Terre’s painter’s pallet collision with the sea.  She enjoyed her visit to a village or two; however, she treasured her Mediterranean Levanto beach much more.

Our Levanto hotel appeared to be the Ritz Carlton of Michelangelo’s time, but clearly only tenuously hanging onto its previous glory. Fine with me as it is a rare day I get to stay in a hotel with marble staircases surrounded with ornate flourish.

History is alive in the villages, which are replete with ancient churches, castles, and homes that line narrow streets and squares. Roman villas, Benedictine monasteries, and Romanesque architecture bear witness to the steady march of time and the march of people who displaced one another over the centuries.

Learning from my earlier one-night stay here wasn’t enough, this time I scheduled three nights, one more than I spent in the Dolomites, the wife won the beach over the mountain argument. Her win was good for me as a freelance photographer; Cinque Terre photos have more market value then those of the Dolomite Alps.

Cinque Terre is undeniably one of the most beautiful areas of Italy; unless you are a biased Dolomite mountain man.  These ingeniously constructed fishing villages painted the gamut of pastels can bolster the most jaded of mountain spirits, not to mention inspiring the heart of creative minds, both literary and artistic.

Just a few decades ago Cinque Terre was still a secret, then came the inevitable magazine photo spreads, newspaper features, followed by the first cruise ship passengers from La Spezia, just a few miles to the south. Once while trying to board a train, I almost missed my departure because I was trapped in the stairwell unable to ascend because all the cruise passengers making their way down.

A Unesco World Heritage site since 1997, Cinque Terre isn't the undiscovered backwater it once was but frankly, who cares! A visit to just one of its towns will confirm this, the new hustle bustle of tourism can be tedious; however, the magic of the place overcomes any crowd induced tedium.  Cinque Terre was just made to grace postcards, calendars, and travel magazines. It doesn’t get any more scenic than this.

I having seen many places become recognized as a special place have mixed feelings whether we are protecting the place of inflicting tourism’s kiss of death. And here I am capturing the beauty hoping for, not only adventure, but for publication. So of course, it drew this photographer here, not just once but twice.

The rocky, rugged coastal cliffs historically have kept Cinque Terre in scenic isolation. Most visitors today arrive by train or boat, or even on foot, because it’s extremely difficult to reach the villages by road. That makes the villages a pedestrian paradise. Me though, as usual, arrived by car. My car though mostly stayed parked, as train access was quicker. I wish I had discovered that during my first visit.

Rooted in antiquity, Cinque Terre's five villages date from the early medieval period. The oldest, Monterosso, was founded in AD 643.  An ancient system of footpaths is still the best way to visit the five villages if you are fit: These trails are an awesome way to both get out of the crowded little towns, but to look upon the villages and the rugged coast from afar. Thankfully cars were banned over a decade ago.  Few things are as disappointing when photographing Europe as finding a perfect fourteenth century cobblestone alley curving to the sea with parked Fiat disrupting the fourteenth century mood. If you do drive, some of the villages have places to park above the towns if you can find a parking spot to rent.  Bring your wallet, parking isn’t cheap.

While most visitors focus on the charming villages and breathtaking views found on terra firma, Cinque Terre is also a seaside park and its bays, coves, and offshore waters are part of a protected marine area named oddly enough, the Cinque Terre Marine Protected Area. Shooting the waterfronts is fun because it is pretty and often full of attractive people doing fun stuff.  All the harbors double as swimming holes replete with big rock diving opportunities for those who have and over abundance of testosterone or have had too much wine.  Hire a boat and get out on the water while you are there.

Photographing the villages is tough because of all the people; the trick is to arrive at dawn when everyone is asleep. Psst, car drivers; the parking lot extortionists are also asleep facilitating a couple of hours of free parking.  Later use the people as subject matter, after all, what is a tourist area right. These villages may photograph best after the sun goes down during what photographers call the blue hour.  There is still a modicum of residual light of day, but after the streetlights come on the villages glow not the muted pastels of day but maybe a muted neon instead.  It is best to shoot from one of the trails a short distance from the village, some good blue hour images have been made from the breakwaters of the harbors.  Pack a headlamp and watch your step. Remember the trains after dark only run once per hour instead of every twenty minutes.

During its medieval years, a great number of fortifications were built to protect the village from pirate attacks, and these made the most efficient defense system. The remains of these fortifications can be marveled at even today in the old part of town where three of the thirteen defense towers still stand. You can’t help imagining what it must have been like living in a place like this a thousand years previous protecting your village from pirates. A century ago Cinque Terre was simply, fishing villages on an unforgiving stretch of the Ligurian Coast where only the hardiest could survive.

Cinque Terre is one of those places people tend to read about once and then dream about forever. I am again dreaming of my return.


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