Ride the rails all the way to Cinque Terre

First prize for unpublished writers in last year’s Independent on Sunday/Bradt travel writing competition was a trip to Liguria – and the chance to write about it for The Independent online. Here, winner Debbie Parrott recalls her overland adventure to Italy

Debbie Parrott
Tuesday 07 June 2016 16:20 BST
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The colourful houses of Riomaggiore
The colourful houses of Riomaggiore

I pull my case and my anticipation towards the Eurostar train. The doors are open, offering a welcome smile. As I board my carriage, the ticket collector greets me, “Petit dejeuner will be served after departure.”

The train sets off and soon after croissants arrive. We begin to tunnel the 23 miles under the English Channel before popping out in France. The train speeds over flat, widening landscapes that sprout poplar trees and steeples. Pylons stride over the countryside all the way to Paris.

After a change of stations and trains in the French capital, I am staring through another train window watching the city disappear. The sun falls, seemingly setting fields of rapeseed ablaze. We slow down to pass Dijon, where I see a woman hauling a duvet in from an open window, the shutters flung wide. Men are playing boules; one stands to wave and, fleetingly, I feel like royalty.

I stop overnight in Switzerland and leave Zurich’s fairy-tale churches the following morning. The train is a beast; it needs to be – the land begins to roll and soon mountains with snowy hats appear. There is childish pleasure in going through the tunnels; the view snaps black, the world disappears and we emerge along the back gardens of lakeside houses. Piles of logs are stowed under low eaves and up-ended dinghies sit on lawns and in driveways.

My ears pop and the mountains close in. Dark then light, dark then light. Primroses are replaced by rock-hugging alpine plants and waterfalls freeze into glaciers. Lakes turn grey in the shadow of towering granite. We cross the border into Italy and the landscape unrolls to Milan where we change trains.

My destination is Liguria. The north-western Italian region, protected by Unesco since 1997, is largely mountainous; the railway line wriggles along the fringes of the coast – Liguria’s only strip of flat land. The stations become smaller and smaller until platforms are flanked with palm trees and decorated with lemon trees in terracotta pots. After 970 miles, I arrive at Sestri Levante, an elegant resort that serves as a base to explore the area.

I sleep that night in a castle, converted many years ago to a hotel. It perches on a rocky promontory with Sestri’s two beaches on each side and spectacular views along the Golfo del Tigullio. The following morning I stroll along the beach promenade. Many of the pastel-washed houses in pinks, creams and greens have imaginary pillars, balconies and beautiful trailing flowers painted on. A man on the beach is burying plastic pots of geraniums into the sand while another sifts it.

“Buongiorno,” says the man cleaning a café sign. “Beach must be perfect for May; many people come.”

My mouth is full of Italian words that tangle around my tongue. Conceding defeat, I unravel a smile.

He asks if I have been to Cinque Terre and I tell him I plan to visit tomorrow.

“It is bellissimo. Go early before it gets busy.”

The cliff-side train station at Manarola

The next morning I take his advice and dash for a window seat on the sea side as the train pulls away. I realise immediately how pointless my haste was as we are immediately swallowed into a tunnel. The train burrows like a determined worm through a mountain, emerging at Monterossa – the first of Cinque Terre villages. All five, pastel-hued fishing villages cling to cliffs beneath auditoria of vertiginous terraces. They have been cut off from the world by geography and, because the inhabitants have resisted change, they retain much of their antiquated charm. I decide to stay on the train and go all the way to the furthest village, Riomaggiore.

I shut my eyes through the tunnel. Surprise! There’s… Vernazza. Eyes closed again, I blink open to see Corniglia, then Manarola. The last tunnel spits me out at Riomaggiore where the colourful houses cling like limpets to fill a yawning gorge. Tall, multi-coloured turrets struggle up the slopes, competing for light and space like trees in a jungle.

The narrow houses stretch far above me and seem to touch balcony to balcony across the street; washing dangles between electricity cables and window boxes. I peer into a tiny shop, the granite face of the gorge forming its back wall.

“Scuse, scuse!”

I turn sideways in the alley and a woman, carrying large baskets of lemons, squeezes past.

Another voice bounces down the cobbles.

“Signora, venire, come. You need a drink? Perhaps a Crodino?”

I have no idea if I do but the steep climb has been exhausting, if fascinating. I allow myself to be seated at a little table draped in red gingham. The owner of the voice hurries forward and places a bright orange drink before me.

“Crodino?” I enquire.

“Si. Delizioso.”

I gulp it down; it’s bitter but almost overwhelmingly sweet.

“Signora you must try my olives. My basilico is magnifico too – for the best pesto. And no one in other villages makes focaccia con fromaggio as good as my Maria’s.” His words sing. “My anchovies too. Costa ti piace? What would you like?”

I shut my eyes. “Surprise me!”

Travel essentials

Getting there

Debbie Parrott travelled with Railbookers (020 3327 0869; railbookers.com), which offers a tailor-made, five-night holiday to Cinque Terre, via the Alps, from £939 per person, including rail travel from London and four-star accommodation.

More information

italiantouristboard.co.uk

Bradt Travel Guides is offering Independent readers a 25 per cent discount on its guide to Liguria. To redeem, purchase through bradtguides.com and enter the code LIGURIA at checkout.

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