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Cinque Terre: on the trail of Italy’s famous five

After storms devastated Italy’s Cinque Terre three years ago the paths joining the area’s picturesque towns are open again. Our writer swoons over these amazing coastal hikes

In the late afternoon, the small, medieval town of Vernazza, on the Italian Riviera, is as perfect as Italy gets. With the daytrippers gone, the scene is impeccable, a Hollywood filmset, rolling every gorgeous, romantic Italian cliche into one. Up in the hills, winegrowers tend to their vines. In the piazza, flat-capped farmers, swept into corners by the last rays of sun, gather to talk and smoke. Pizza cooks over a wood fire in a restaurant. The town florist bursts into spontaneous operatic song. A couple kiss on a street corner. It’s so romantic, so iconically Italian, that it’s surreal.

In late 2011, the view from my seat on the seafront would have been very different: more Apocalypse Now than La Dolce Vita. On 25 October a flash rainstorm emptied itself over this little Ligurian coastal community, causing the main river to break its banks and rediscover its natural course, straight through the middle of town. Raging from the hills that rise almost vertically above the town, it brought with it a landslide of mud, vines and boulders that powered through every house and business along the main street. Medieval cobbles were ripped up, parts of the centuries-old vineyards and olive groves were devoured, the town’s utilities were cut off; roads, bridges and railways were blocked. “In one hour, we were destroyed,” Vincenzo Resasco, Vernazza’s mayor, tells me over dinner on my first evening.

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