5 Hidden Gems on the Italian Riviera : Few Americans have heard of these tiny villages, set like jewels into the Ligurian Coast and known as the Cinque Terre

Andrews, editor of "Traveling in Style" magazine, is working on a book on the cooking of Nice and Liguria

The Cinque Terre is one of those places people tend to read about once and then dream about forever.

An isolated part of the northwestern Italian region of Liguria, the Cinque Terre is a ruggedly beautiful stretch of coastline inset with five tiny villages perched between the Mediterranean and a range of steep coastal hills. Articles about the Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kway TER-ray) invariably describe it as a kind of austere, unspoiled paradise. Populated mostly by fishermen and farmers and all but inaccessible to cars--the story goes--both the towns themselves and the surrounding countryside have remained unchanged for centuries.

The aura of romance about the place is enhanced by the very names of the five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, from north to south. Even the name of the region--it means "Five Lands"--makes the place sound somehow grand and mysterious. If that isn't the stuff of escapist fantasies, what is?

I first read (and started dreaming) about the Cinque Terre myself a good 25 years ago, when I ran across a particularly evocative piece about it, accompanied by plenty of seductive photographs, in some glossy travel magazine of the time.

When I first visited the Cinque Terre, very briefly, about four years ago, I was charmed . . . but a little bit disappointed. Since then, I've been back twice, most recently last month. I can't claim to have covered every inch of the local landscape, or even to have learned each of its tiny towns by heart, but I have spent enough time in the region by now to discover that it is indeed beautiful and full of charm but that dreamers should be forewarned: It is no longer quite the isolated Eden it must once have been.

To begin with, Monterosso and Riomaggiore--the towns on either end--show modest but unmistakable signs of modern development. A bank of ugly green apartments is pushed against the hill just outside Monterosso. At the edge of Riomaggiore, an incongruously contemporary pastel apartment/office/parking complex has recently been constructed.

Both have a number of small hotels too, which seem to be largely populated by tourists from Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States (if you don't speak Italian, German is the next most useful language to know in these parts). Ligurian fishermen and farmers still live and work in the towns, certainly, but now so do plenty of well-off Genoese families who have weekend homes here (Genoa is only about 50 miles from Monterosso), as well as expatriates from Northern Europe looking for a place to paint or write or vegetate.

The distance between Monterosso and Riomaggiore is only about 11 miles, and the towns are linked by frequent train and boat service, as well as a famous network of hiking paths, or sentieri . The trip from one end of the region to the other by train, including stops at the villages in between, takes about 15 minutes.

If you're hardy enough, you could walk the entire distance in under six hours. Thus, it's easily possible to visit all five of the towns in a day, even if you're not staying in any of them. (A popular base of operations for touring the area is the delightful town of Levanto, a few miles north of Monterosso, which has a number of hotels and is on the Cinque Terre rail line.)

The question of transportation between the towns brings up the most significant difference between legend and reality in the Cinque Terre: Despite what most guidebooks and magazine articles will tell you, it is also now possible to reach each and every one of the five towns by car.

The road to Riomaggiore is quite good, in fact. The one to Monterosso is slightly less so, but I recommend the drive, as it provides a close-up look at the territory--the steep terraces, the narrow ravines, the little stands of olive trees (beneath which orange nets hang to catch the falling fruit), the miniature one-seat monorails used in working the vines on these precipitous hillsides.

Getting to Corniglia, Vernazza and Manarola by car is, admittedly, a bit more difficult: The roads are winding and narrow, sometimes paved only with gravel. Anyway, work is now underway to smooth out and widen at least part of the route, which will make the towns even easier to get to, and undoubtedly change their character even more.

That's the bad news, at least for dreamers. The good news is that, while there isn't much to do in the Cinque Terre, there's plenty to see and much atmosphere to soak up. The region might not be truly isolated anymore, but it remains an unusual and enchanting corner of the Mediterranean, much further in style and spirit than it is in distance from the glossy resorts of the western Riviera.

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Riomaggiore is a curious little town built in a narrow ravine cut by a stream rushing down to the sea. The main street, lined with unassuming shops and restaurants, descends steeply to a small beach and fishing port; it makes a pleasant promenade.

Manarola is a cluster of stone and stucco houses crowded together atop a rounded hunk of rock thrust out into the sea. The cove carved out of rock beneath it is so small, and the rock so steep and sharp, that the fishermen's little boats rest on a cut stone path and two minuscule piazzas about 80 feet or so above the water and are winched up and down as necessary.

Corniglia has no boats or fishermen. Believed to have been founded as a settlement by the Romans, it is built on a ridge about 300-400 yards above the Mediterranean and resembles a backcountry hill town more than a coastal village. It is the least colorful and, to me, least interesting of the five towns (though some aficionados of the Cinque Terre prefer it for precisely that reason).

Corniglia does boast a significant Gothic-Ligurian-style church, San Pietro. This is a compact, clean-lined, gruffly handsome structure built out of white (if now time-darkened) Carrara marble (the famous marble quarry town lies about 20 miles to the south). Its symmetry and quiet visual weight are impressive; it seems to anchor the town.

Vernazza is the jewel of the Cinque Terre, a picture-book village built around the Cinque Terre's only real natural port, small but memorably picturesque. Precisely because of this port, Vernazza was colonized by the Genoese in the 10th Century, and as a result became the most important town on this piece of coastline, with the most beautiful houses. These crowd around the port, simple, graceful structures glowing warmly in assorted shades of yellow, pink and terra cotta.

A Genoese castle (now containing a restaurant with a great view) rises high atop the plump promontory that forms one side of the port. On the other side of the port stands another attractive Ligurian church, dedicated to Santa Margherita di Antiochia. The square that gives onto the port is full of restaurant tables and fishing boats and is always filled with the buzz of conversation. One afternoon, I watched as a party broke out of a restaurant interior--Italians in their 50s and 60s, obviously celebrating a wedding anniversary--and literally danced around the square to the music of a concertina one of the guests had brought. For a few minutes, anyway, the dream revived.

Monterosso is divided into two parts. The newer part, Monterosso Fegina, is a strip of restaurants, bars, small hotels and pensiones along a seafront promenade--agreeable enough but nothing special. It is here, though, that non-residents must park, and here that the train stops.

Just to the south, on the other side of a rounded clump of rock (a tunnel cuts through it and a footpath curves around it), is the town's old quarter, called Monterosso al Mare. This is an absolute delight of pretty little streets and squares. Modest shops, bars, trattorias and enotecas (wine stores) practically line the streets, and there are several outlets for such Ligurian gastronomic specialties as olives, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and ready-made pesto. The town is less assertively picturesque than Vernazza, but it has an unassuming beauty that I find very pleasant indeed.

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Despite the efficient train and boat connections between the towns, and the possibility of driving between them, dreamers will want to negotiate at least a portion of the area's oldest transportation system--the sentieri , or footpaths, that run along the cliffs from one village to the next.

The Cinque Terre, in fact, is a walker's paradise. These are basically hill towns, and even if you arrive here by train, you'll have to do some walking to get anywhere (except in Vernazza, where the station is just a few blocks up a mild slope from the port).

The paths that link the towns have been used for many centuries, though they've obviously been worked on and adapted for heavier foot traffic in modern times.

The shortest and easiest leg of the sentieri is the so-called Via dell'Amore(Road of Love, presumably because of its romantic setting), which runs between Riomaggiore and Manarola, hugging the coastline.On my recent visit, I had planned to negotiate this portion of the path, but unfortunately, it's closed for structural repairs until at least mid-September.

Since I couldn't walk the easiest sentiero , I decided to walk the longest and most difficult one, between Monterosso and Vernazza. The more serious walker might not find this footpath particularly challenging, but I found it tough going at times. Suffice to say that it is not a stroll along a beachfront promenade.

It is tortuous, rocky, slippery (at least after a rain, when I walked it), vertiginous. There are hundreds of steep steps, both irregular poured concrete and fragmented rock. There are scrambles both up and down hills and sections of path no more than two feet wide, with no guardrails or even low rock barriers, running alongside long drops into thorny bushes, or worse.

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That said, I must also report that it didn't take me much longer than the advertised two hours to get from one town to the next, and that the experience was truly memorable.

On both the Monterosso and Vernazza ends of the path, I felt as if I had discovered a secret rural civilization of tiny rough gardens, olive trees, vineyards planted with patches of stubby vines, all packed onto narrow terraces and into clefts in the rock. (Some of the terraces were so poor in soil, it is said, that sacks of dirt had to be lugged up here from boats on the coast just to give the vines a purchase.)

Here and there was a farmer's shack, sometimes with a few chickens pecking the hard ground outside. In places, the path was lined with old stone walls into which are set old wooden doors that look as if they haven't been opened in 50 years.

In between the towns, the landscape grows wilder. Dense scrub in a hundred shades of green covers the rocks, accented liberally with the yellows, whites, reds and pinks of wildflowers. Scotch broom, arbutus, valerian, wild thyme and juniper, spurge, sea fennel, myrtle trees, Aleppo pines--the variety of flora is immense.

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And the views are remarkable: All around are dramatic upthrust rocks that seem to be still moving, rising out of dense gray-green hillsides. The sea is beautiful, as green and clear as glass immediately below, becoming increasingly darker blue until it suddenly fades into mist on the horizon.

Monterosso, which I glimpsed a dozen times or more from different heights and angles as I stopped to look around, grew ever prettier with distance--and when I first spotted Vernazza, my goal, glistening through the trees, it looked as alluring as a fairy-tale castle--a place to dream about.

GUIDEBOOK: The Lay of the Lands

Getting there: The nearest major airports to the Cinque Terre are Genoa, about 55 miles from Monterosso, and Milan, about 140 miles. Alitalia has daily nonstop service from Los Angeles to Milan, with connections to Genoa. There are also nonstop flights to Genoa from London. The region is also driving distance from Nice, Turin and Florence. From Genoa, there are trains to the Cinque Terre (see below); by car, take the A-12 highway to Carrodano, then follow signs to Monterosso or the other villages.

Getting around: Trains pass through the Cinque Terre every hour-and-a-half or so throughout the day, less frequently at night. A one-way ticket costs about $1, whether for a short run between any two of the towns or the full distance from Riomaggiore to Monterosso (about a 20-minute trip). There is also an all-day ticket, good for unlimited travel in both directions, for about $2.65. There is also boat service five times a day between Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore (no stop at Corniglia) for about $4.65 one way.

Walking the sentieri: The paths, both the main ones between the five towns and various offshoots (including continuations to the north and south of the Cinque Terre) are well marked. Wear hiking or sturdy walking shoes, and bring at least a small bottle of water. Morning and late afternoon are best for walking the sentieri in summertime; at midday, the heat can be intense. Do not under any circumstances get caught in the middle of a path at nightfall, though.

Where to stay: The closest thing to a luxury hotel in the area is Porto Roca (Via Corone 1, Monterosso al Mare, 19016 La Spezia, Italy; telephone 011-39-187-817-502; fax 011-39-187-817-692). Amenities include a friendly staff, decent restaurant, comfortable (if not opulent) rooms and a spectacular view of the coastline. Doubles $120-$165 per night; the hotel will send its minibus if you call from the train station. Hotel Jolie (Via Gioberti 1, Monterosso, 19016 La Spezia; tel. 011-39-187-817-539, fax 011-39-187-817-273) is a modest, warm-feeling place with a small orange-tree-filled garden and a quiet location a few blocks from the beach. Rates: $60-$76 per person, double, including breakfast and dinner. Marina Piccola (Via Antonio Discovolo, Manarola, 10910 La Spezia; tel. 011-39-187-920-103; fax 011-39-187-920-966), has basic accommodations in the middle of town, overlooking the sea, with one of the region's better restaurants attached; $46-$60 per double.

Where to eat: Belvedere (Piazza Garibaldi 38, Monterosso; local tel. 817-033) is an unassuming trattoria serving good minestrone, pastas and seafood dishes (about $55 for two). Ristorante Ciak (La Lampara) (Piazza Don Minzoni 6, Monterosso; tel. 817-014) is a bustling restaurant specializing in pasta and fresh local fish and shellfish; about $65 for two. Al Castello (Via Guidoni 56, Vernazza; tel. 812-296) is situated high above the town with a spectacular terrace and a standard local menu of mostly seafood and pasta; about $55 for two. Gambero Rosso (Piazza Marconi, Vernazza; tel. 812-265) is widely considered the best in the village, with a seaside terrace and a few surprises on the menu (rice with baby shrimp and lemon, a warm salad of fresh anchovies, tomatoes and potatoes); about $80 for two. Gianni Franzi (Piazza Marconi, Vernazza; tel. 812-228) is on the piazza in front of the port, with tables under an arcade; stuffed mussels and various fish dishes are best; about $60 for two. The best "serious" restaurant in the region is a few miles northwest of Monterosso in Levanto: L'Araldo (Via Jacopo 24, Levanto, tel. 807-253) is small and beautifully decorated, with amiable service, an excellent wine list and superb Ligurian-style cooking with contemporary touches; the pennette pasta with red mullet and asparagus is not to be missed.

For further information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles 90025; (310) 820-0098.

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