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Charming villages suspended in time

Glittering sea frames Cinque Terre, a world heritage site

Ironically, it's hard to be romantic on Via dell'Amore, one of Italy's most romantic locales.

Caught up in the crowds that frequent the Walk of Love, as it is translated, and prodded along by tour guides keeping a tight schedule, there's little time for lovers to linger or the enamoured to embrace.

But my wife - the hopeless romantic - made it work.

She researched. How else would we have known to bring along a dollar store padlock to attach to a Via dell'Amore gate and throw the key into the Mediterranean Sea to symbolize forever love sealed with a kiss?

And how else would we have known that Via dell'Amore even existed?

We're on a 10-day Holland America cruise called Mediterranean Enchantment and the Cinque Terre all-day excursion we're on that includes Via dell'Amore is touted in the brochure as being lifechanging.

That's a pretty tall order to live up to, but Cinque Terre delivers.

Located an hour bus ride from where the 2,100-passenger Noordam docked for the day in Livorno in northwest Italy, Cinque Terre translates as five villages.

These aren't just five cute Italian places on the sea. They are the type of remote, unique and perfectly picturesque communities that earn National Park protection and UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Until the gut-lurching switchback road from La Spezia was put into Cinque Terre in 1971, the region was totally cut off and accessible only by mountaineering or boat.

As such, the five villages - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - seem suspended in time, collections of colourful homes and shops stuck impossibly on the mountainside above a glittering Mediterranean.

All five have only a combined population of 5,000 with Monterosso considered the metropolis for its 2,000 inhabitants and the most hotels and sandy beach.

Our first stop, however, is Manarola, which still requires you hike the steep grade into town because no tour bus is going to fit.

It's utterly charming.

Homes, shops, restaurants, churches and curving lanes and alleys of classic countryside Italian architecture hug the slope overhanging the Mediterranean.

"The sea is a wonderful frame for all this," explains our tour guide Lorenzo Cattani. "But these people are farmers first and fishermen second."

The mountainside is terraced to grow grapes, olives and lemons to make the low production and wickedly good Cinque Terre wines, olive oil and limoncello liqueur.

After wandering the inclines and declines of Manarola, we make our way to the one-kilometre Via dell'Amore to walk to neighbouring Riomaggiore.

It used to be just a dirt path linking the two communities, but now it's a paved trail with high railings to cater to the tourist hordes that want ease of movement and safety.

The trail seems to be cluttered with singleton retirees and people pushing kids in strollers.

But some of its romance is restored when you see couples doing the padlock ceremony and spot the twosomes far below on the rocks spending the day secluded but in view as they sun and swim in the Med.

"The Via dell'Amore gets its name because young lovers would use the trail at night to meet each other," explains Cattani.

"If you can imagine this place years ago. Totally isolated villages and the only way to avoid having to marry your cousin is to find a boyfriend or girlfriend in the next village."

Cattani observes there's an increasing number of combination locks on gates, fences and railings bordering the trail.

"Some love isn't forever if you can open the lock again," he says with an Italian shrug of the shoulders and tilt of the hands.

After retracing the steps of so many lovers before us we end up in Riomaggiore and take a ferry to Monterosso, passing Manarola (our favourite), Corniglia and Vernazza in all their sun-drenched glory.

Monterosso is definitely more bustling with its concentration of hotels, restaurants, seaside shops and umbrella festooned beach clubs.

We lunch at Ciak on grilled swordfish and pesto gnocchi accompanied by Cinque Terre Sassarini white wine and have a postmeal paddle in the sea (no, we did not wait the recommended hour).

It was all hopelessly romantic.


Holland America's Noordam plies the Mediterranean on 10-day cruises alternating eastern and western routes. The eastern swing we did includes not only Livorno for Cinque Terre, but also Naples, Monaco, Sicily, Barcelona, Mallorca and Tunisia. The western itinerary has ports of call in Italy, Croatia, Greece and Turkey.

All cruises start and finish in Rome.

Fares start at around $1,200 US for stateroom and food per person based on double occupancy.

Check out

The Cinque Terre excursion is a Holland America recommended specialty.

Cost: $175 US per person.

Steve MacNaull visited the Mediterranean as a guest of Holland America Cruise Line.