Picture-perfect memories in Cinque Terre
Forget Rome and Venice, see the underrated coastal villages of Cinque Terre
When one thinks of Italy, choice destinations are likely to include Rome, Venice and the Amalfi Coast.
But there is a hidden gem beyond the hills, beaches and mountains, where you can see five villages in one destination.
My first glimpse of Cinque Terre was a computer wallpaper.
I was so captivated by the image that I made it my mission to find out where the photograph was taken.
It turned out to be one of the five fishing villages on the Ligurian coast, west of the city of La Spezia. The villages are known as Cinque Terre, which means five lands in Italian.
The five villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
The photo I saw was of the cliff houses in Manarola.
Cinque Terre is north of the Tuscan border. It takes about three hours to get there by train from either Florence or Milan. The closest airport is in Pisa, which is about a 1½ hour train ride away.
The close proximity of the villages makes it possible to visit all five in one trip.
Guest houses and hotels are plentiful in the villages, and getting accommodation with sea views is easy.
As most are perched on a cliff, the spectacular view from your verandah makes conquering the stairs leading to them worth it.
Manarola is probably the most photographed village.
An ancient Roman town perched on dark rock, it has a church dating back to 1300. Its bell tower was originally used as a lookout post.
For a postcard-perfect sunset shot, simply set up your camera anywhere along its cliff side.
Corniglia is the smallest village and arguably the most unspoilt. It boasts one of the most interesting Ligurian Gothic style monuments in the region. The San Pietro church, built in 1334, has attracted many visitors to its shores.
Significantly raised from sea level, Corniglia is the only one of the five villages not accessible by boat. You can either climb about 400 steps from the train station or, like me, take a shuttle bus.
Vernazza is my favourite.
I was taken in by its energy, and the many shops and cafes that lined the promenade. My romantic side was also drawn to the castle that surrounds this small town.
Vernazza had undergone extensive repairs after a catastrophic landslide and flood in 2011. With a church built on the water and a gorgeous waterfront piazza, it is easily the most photogenic village.
Monterosso al Mare is the biggest and northernmost village. It stands out among all the villages for its beach properties. The beach here is larger and has a wider sandy area with a long seaside promenade.
Riomaggiore is the southernmost village.
It has just one main street, and there are no luxury hotels or big-name chains. But like the other villages, it has the signature colourful houses perched along the coastline.
There are several hiking trails that will give you stunning views.
The trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore, also known as Lover's Lane, is by far the easiest and shortest hike - only 2km.
The coast, villages and surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Cinque Terre has few roads, but the villages are so well-preserved, they truly transport you to a simpler time.