Until about 15 years ago I had never heard of the Cinque Terre. Then one day a colleague of mine showed me an amazing photo of joyful, colourful houses on top of a huge rock rising from the sea. None of my friends knew this place, so it took us a long time to find out that the photo had been taken in Manarola, a tiny village by the Ligurian sea. Back then I did not think that soon I would know this place so well!
Manarola is even older than Riomaggiore, it was first mentioned in 1261. It is believed to have been founded by the inhabitants of Volastra, a village that existed already in Roman times. Volastra is located above Manarola, on top of the hill, and in Roman times travellers used to change horses here. The residents of Volastra farmed the surrounding terraces, planted olive, lemon and chestnut trees, as well as vines, then in the 12th century part of the population moved down to the sea and founded the village of Manarola. The name has a roman origin: it comes from a name of an altar dedicated to the Mani Gods, "manium arula". Other sources say that it derives from the words "magna roea", which means "a big mill wheel".
If you arrive on the path from Riomaggiore (currently closed), you will first see the back of the village. Once you get to the end of Via dell'Amore, you can descend to the railway station of Manarola. At the station you find a pedestrian tunnel, which will take you to the main street of Manarola. In the old days a creek used to run here and small bridges connected the two sides. In the upper part of the village you can still see the creek with some bridges. So when you exit the tunnel, turn right and walk all the way up to the square of the church (Piazza Papa Innocenzo IV) for an amazing view. Along the way you'll see an old mill wheel as well.
Once you pass the square, continue on the upper, quiet street of Manarola, Via Rollandi. You will also pass the best restaurant of Manarola, Trattoria dal Billy. At the end of the street you can return on Via Belvedere to the main street. Heading towards the sea from here, you will first come to Piazza Capellini. This piazza is not very old, it covers the railway lines, as trains used to rush through the middle of the village. On the other side of the square pay attention to the old photos.
I especially love the lower part of the main street, where fishing boats are parked just like cars in an average town. At the end you'll get to the harbour, which hides between two rocks. You can swim here, just jump off the rocks if you are brave enough or walk down the ladder. The water is deep, so for good swimmers only! The bay is full of fish, so take your snorkeling gear with you. This is one of my favourite spots for swimming. I love floating on my back and watching the colourful houses right above me, especially late afternoon when the colours are glowing. If you are lucky you can also watch how local fishermen pull up the boats from the sea with the crane.
Even though the Manarola-Corniglia coastal path is currently closed (to be opened soon), you should start walking towards Corniglia, to Punta Bonfiglio, as you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the village from the cemetery and the little park nearby. For kids there is a nice playground, for their parents there is a great bar called "Nessun Dorma". That's where the above mentioned photo was taken as well. Colours and lights are best here in the evening hours, before sunset.
Manarola – along with Vernazza – is registered among the most beautiful small villages of Italy (I borghi piú belli d'Italia). I'm not surprised. When I read an article about the Cinque Terre and there is one photo only, it is usually the well-known picture of Manarola.
Manarola is worth a visit during winter as well, as for the holiday season Mario Andreoli turns the hillside of Manarola into a huge nativity scene. The 300 characters are made of recycled materials, and are placed in a different way every year. Of course the nativity scene is the most beautiful at night, illuminated. You can see it from the start of December until the end of January. Different scenes are illuminated on August 10, the day of San Lorenzo, and at Easter time. It's possible to rent rooms with great views of the nativity scene.
The church, which was built in 1338, has a Gothic facade with a nice rose window, and a Baroque-style interior. On the facade, there is a bas-relief representing the martyrdom of San Lorenzo. On the 15th-century triptych, you can see San Lorenzo with other saints. The church can be found in the upper part of the village. On the same square you will find a 14th-century oratory and a bell tower from the 13th century, originally built as a watch tower.
Manarola's castle was probably built in the 13th century. Unfortunately, today, you can only see the remains of the bastion, surrounded by colourful houses.
In this museum, computer presentations, videos, photos and traditional objects will help you understand how this great dessert wine is made, and you can also learn about local life and the hard agricultural work on the terraces. (Currently closed.)