ExperiencePlus! Blog

History and Geography of the French and Italian Riviera

History and Geography of the French and Italian Riviera

Our book review this month is an essay on the geography and history of Italy’s Cinque Terre. We have also included some resources to help you find hotels or other lodging in the event you want to just stop by for a day or two on your own. We then include a brief reading list to help you get started on anticipating your journey. But first here is a little background.




The Italian and French Rivieras have been famous for almost two centuries for their mild climate, Mediterranean vegetation, and chic resorts. Indeed, our modern fondness for the suntan was born on the French Riviera in the 1920’s when Coco Chanel introduced the shocking idea that the suntan was a sign of health and wealth, not low class laborers. The French cities of Nice, St. Tropez, Cannes and their Italian counterparts of San Remo, Rapallo and Portofino became the "in" places to be year round, not just in summer.


This stretch of coast, roughly from Marseilles in France to La Spezia in Italy frames "the Riviera". The famous places familiar to us all are separated by long stretches of coast that were little known fifty years ago and very difficult of access by land. Indeed, this entire coast is nothing but the ends of the French Alps and Italy’s Apennine Mountains colliding and plummeting into the Mediterranean Sea. With no coastal plain and no beaches to speak of (many of the existing beaches are actually made by humans who haul sand in explicitly for the purpose), land access along this coast has been very difficult throughout history.


Many people assume that the Mediterranean coasts have long been settled and that the lives of Mediterranean civilizations were centered on the sea. This latter part is true, insofar as trade and commerce came by sea, while the former is not at all correct. Except for a few centuries under the extensive Pax Romana throughout the Mediterranean basin, it was not safe to live on the coast or even within sight of shore. All manner of evil came by sea, including marauders, pirates, and slave traders. In ancient Greece the famous palace of Knossos on Crete was located several miles from shore. Athens and Sparta were well inland. The Etruscans located all of their twelve cities well in from the sea and Rome itself was built a full twenty kilometers up the Tiber River.


Only around 1000 AD when the rise of Pisa, Genoa, Venice and Amalfi created a new era of Mediterranean "pax" did farmers and fishermen begin to inhabit the coasts of the Italian and French Rivieras. These maritime empires made the seas safe for trade and they made coasts safe for settlement. The turn of that second millennium in the Christian era also marked the beginning of a spreading agricultural revolution and increase in population throughout Europe. The result was a demand for "lebensraum" throughout Europe. In north central Europe the Germanic peoples began to move east. In the Mediterranean basin farmers began to settle the coast. During this era the villages on the Italian and French rivieras and on the Cinque Terre were built.



What Makes the Cinque Terre So Unique Today?


A variety of coastal mountain regions in the Mediterranean basin are similar to the Cinque Terre. The area from Nice to Monte Carlo and Menton on the French Riviera, Cap Corse in Corsica, the Amalfi Coast in Italy and many of the Greek Islands are very similar to the Cinque Terre. They all have villages surrounded by olive trees and vineyards on laboriously built terraces. And the villages were all once connected by footpaths and donkey paths. But all of these places have succumbed to the automobile with the construction of roads during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Only the Cinque Terre retains the charm of an automobile-free environment . . . for the most part! (Beware the automobile as it slowly encroaches on the Cinque Terre!)


Where else in Europe can you find five villages with a total population close to 6,000 people better connected by trail and train than by roads? While not completely free of automobiles (all the villages have roads TO them although they are not well connected BETWEEN them by road) these villages retain a major component of that idyllic past lifestyle that we all seem to yearn.


Experiencing the Cinque Terre (or Hiking and Walking the Cinque Terre)


The Five Villages of the Cinque Terre are, from north to south, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The total distance by train (i.e., a straight line) from Monterosso to Riomaggiore is but nine kilometers, so the villages average just under two kilometers apart by train. According to the train schedule, the southernmost villages are only one kilometer apart. The others are separated by two to three kilometers.


By trail the villages are all more distant than these mileages suggest. The direct path between villages, in most cases, will take one to two hours to complete. This totals seven to ten hours to hike the full distance. It is a rigorous hike, though, with lots of climbing. The paths are generally well marked and the surface is good, though some of our customers have described this as "Alpine hiking" with lots of steps and lots of climbing. While most trails are safe with few sheer drops some of the trail edges have drops of ten to fifteen feet. Also, at certain times of the year mudslides can wash out trails. Normally the trail is closed in those instances.



The following website has pretty good maps of the Cinque Terre that include different hiking trails. If you are serious about hiking in the Cinque Terre, keep the following geography lesson in mind. All the villages were once connected to inland villages better than they were to each other. So each village has a trail or series of trails that go straight up the mountain, through the vineyards to the ridgeline. These are the green trails on the map. The trails shown in blue are the easiest trails that connect each village close to sea level. Finally, the trail shown in red on the map is the major ridgeline trail. A good day’s hike is to start with an easy walk from one village to the next (or to the one after), then hike up the mountain to the ridgeline trail and back along the ridge before dropping down to your point of origin.


The ExperiencePlus! walking tour that includes four nights in the Cinque Terre uses just this type of strategy for our daily walks. Those who want easy walks do the village walks, then take the train back to base. Those who prefer more rigorous walks join us as we walk village to village and then they hike the ridgeline back to base. This leaves plenty of time to enjoy villages along the way, take photographs, and take the train back or it gives those with energy to burn plenty of exercise.



A few books about the Riviera or the Cinque Terre:



  • Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes


  • Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera by David Downie, Alison Harris (Photographer)


  • Love and War in the Apennines, Eric Newby. One of my favorite World War II accounts of the war in Italy. I frequently refer people to this book and they enjoy it every time. Though not set in Liguria, it is set in the Apennine Mountains just east and north of the Cinque Terre. Read my review of this book.


  • Portofino a novel by Frank Schaeffer


  • The Alps of Tuscany : Selected hikes in the Apuane Alps, the Cinque Terre and Portofino, by Francesco Greco. Amazon.com reports very enthusiastic reviews of this guide to hiking and walking this area.


  • The Italian Riviera: A Complete Guide to Liguria, including Portofino, Cinque Terre, Portovenere, Genoa and Sanremo, by the Touring Club of Italy. The Touring Club Italiano (TCI) has published the premier books on interpreting Italian history and geography for over a century, mainly for an Italian audience. In the past decade the TCI has begun publishing their wealth of information about Italy for a foreign audience. I have always enjoyed TCI books because they’ve been doing this for over one hundred years and because they include the geographer’s perspective on landscape, urban development, agriculture and history.


  • Cuttlefish Bones (1920-1927) by Eugenio Montale, William Arrowsmith (Translator). If you enjoy poetry this collection was written by Italy’s premier 20th century poet (and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, 1975). Reading this will transport you to the coasts of Liguria.



Websites to help you plan:



  • www.Baranin.com – Good maps and general information about the Cinque Terre sponsored by the B&B "Da Baranin" in Manarola. If you seek lodging and they are full, they will help you find a room somewhere else. Site in English and Italian.


  • The Cinque Terre – This is a personal page by a Cinque Terre lover from Switzerland. A bit of everything. In English.


  • Consorzio Turistico Cinque Terre – Perhaps the best local web site. This is the "official" Cinque Terre consortium web site with maps, climate information, and other general data. It is not very useful for perusing hotel or lodging options.


  • Italian State Tourist Board This is the web site of the official Italian State Tourist Office (ENIT = Ente Nazionale Italiano per il Turismo). It has a searchable data base for hotels by town and province throughout Italy. This is useful in finding hotels in specific towns and sometimes there are links to individual hotel web sites.


  • Hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre This site has good photos and a pretty good hotel list by town. The fellow who maintains the site will also apprise you of local political issues!