One of the most dramatic sceneries in the world composed of these five ingeniously constructed fishing villages can bolster even the most jaded spirits. Sinuous paths traverse seemingly impregnable cliffsides of this UNESCO World Heritage List member, while a railway from 19th century lead through a series of tunnels and will ferry you from village to village. Fortunately, cars were banned years ago and only natives have access to them.
Rooted in antiquity, Cinque Terre’s five villages date from the early medieval period. Monterosso, the oldest one, was founded in 643, when hill dwellers moved down to the coast to escape from invading barbarians. Riomaggiore came next, established in the 8th century by Greek settlers fleeing persecution in Byzantium. The others are Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola (this last one is my favourite tbh). Much of what remains in the villages today dates from the late Middle Ages, including several castles and parish churches.
Leaving vernacular architecture aside, Cinque Terre’s unique historical feature are steep terraced cliffs bisected by a complicated system of fields and gardens that have been hacked, chiselled, shaped and layered over the course of nearly two millenniums. So marked are these artificial contours that some scholars have compared them even to the Great Wall of China!
The first time I came into contact with this little village was few years ago, when I read about it in one Slovak magazine. There was an article dedicated to the Italian spots of tourism and between these ,,most beautiful attractions’’ was mentioned even this village. Back at that time I was like, oh gosh, I have no chances to visit it, soon or later I will also forget its name…but you know what I did? I did one really childish and embarrasing thing – but who cares, when it deals with this kind of beauty? Well, I set a gorgeous wallpaper of Manarola up on my computer. Great idea, right? Haha. So how the time flew, I grew up, and four years later, looking at this wallpaper I realized, that Cinque Terre (and also Italy) would be a great destination for the spring break (and our Eurotrip)! And you know, what I did? Yeah, you guessed it right, we planned it, we managed it and then…when we were finally there, after the long miserable bus journey…we admired it.
Manarola is even older than Riomaggiore, with the cornerstone of the church, San Lorenzo, dating from 1338. But the first mention was way earlier – in 1261. The local dialect is Manarolese, which is marginally – and amazingly, though, different from the dialects in the nearby area. The name ,,Manarola’’ is probably a dialectical evolution of the Latin, ,,magna rota’’. In the Manarolese dialect this was changed to ,,magna roea’ which means ,,large wheel’’, in reference to the mill wheel in the town. Or the second option is its roman origin: it may come from a name of an altar dedicated to the Mani Gods, ,,manium arula’’. But because in both sources it means basically the same, there is no reason to talk about this ,,problem’’ further.
If you arrive on the path from Riomaggiore, you will first see the back of the village. Once you get to the end of Via dell’Amore, you can descend to the railway station of Manarola. At the station you find a pedestrian tunnel, which will take you to the main street of Manarola. So when you exit the tunnel, turn right and walk all the way up to the square of the church (Piazza Papa Innocenzo IV) for a nice view. Along the way you’ll see an old mill wheel as well.
Once you pass the square, continue on the upper, quiet street of Manarola, Via Rollandi. You will also pass the best restaurant of Manarola, Trattoria dal Billy. At the end of the street you can return on Via Belvedere to the main street. Heading towards the sea from here, you will first come to Piazza Capellini. This piazza is not very old, it covers the railway lines, as trains used to rush through the middle of the village. On the other side of the square pay attention to the old photos.
At the lower part of the main street are fishing boats parked in the harbout just like cars in an average town. You can continue walking by a path leading to another village, Corniglia (its quarter Punta Bonfiglio to be exact), from which you will get breathtaking view from a little exotic park to the colourful houses in this tiny town. Near this path is also a great bar called ,,Nessun Dorma’’. You can swim in the sea there, just jump off the rocks if you are brave enough or walk down the ladder. The water is deep, so for good swimmers only! The bay is full of fish, so take your snorkeling gear with you. If you are lucky you can also watch how local fishermen pull up the boats from the sea with the crane.
But what to actually see there, aside the astonishing little houses?
Church of San Lorenzo
The church, built in 1338, has a Gothic facade with a nice rose window and Baroque-style interior. On the facade, there is a bas-relief representing the martyrdom of San Lorenzo. On the 15th-century triptych, you can see San Lorenzo with other saints. The church can be found in the upper part of the village. On the same square you will find a 14th-century oratory and a bell tower from the 13th century, originally built as a watch tower.
Manarola’s castle was probably built in the 13th century. Unfortunately, today, you can only see the remains of the bastion, surrounded by colourful houses.
In this museum, computer presentations, videos, photos and traditional objects will help you understand how the great dessert wine is made, and you can also learn about local life and the hard agricultural work on the terraces.
Manarola is worth a visit during winter as well, as for the holiday season Mario Andreoli turns the hillside of Manarola into a huge nativity scene. The 300 characters are made of recycled materials, and are placed in a different way every year. Of course the nativity scene is the most beautiful at night, illuminated. You can see it from the start of December until the end of January. Different scenes are illuminated on August 10, the day of San Lorenzo, and at Easter time. It’s possible to rent rooms with great views.