Trails connecting five villages provide sweeping views while testing hikers' knees.

PHOTO BY SUSAN MATHENY - The village of Manarola is perched on a cliff above the Ligurian Sea.The Italian Cinque Terre region, with its picturesque villages clinging to high cliffs above the sea, is a favorite feature of calendars and jigsaw puzzles – but it is also an exotic hiking destination.

I'd been captivated by the photos for years, and after learning that you could hike from village to village on a coastal trail from our daughter-in-law, who had done it as a college student, I was sold on the idea.

The Cinque Terre, or "five lands," is a beautiful remote area on the Italian Riviera, which contains five cliffside villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. I picked the village on our jigsaw puzzle – Manarola – because I felt like I already knew every inch of it after putting the puzzle together.

The villages do not have cars, so the transportation is by boat, train or on foot. Armed with a "Rick Steves Italy" book, I was able to book a room at Aria di Mare, at the top of the town, which had a terrace with a stunning view of the entire Cinque Terre coastline.

The book said to go in May to escape the blistering heat and hordes of cruise ship tourists that clog the trails. The area is a national park, so trekking cards have to be purchased to hike its trails.

We flew into Florence, then took a train to Manarola. The confusing Italian train system is a whole story in itself. Our trip had three stops, where we were dumped out on a platform without instructions on what to do next. We asked other passengers, or just followed the tourist crowd, which usually knew where to go.

We figured out later to check the electronic reader board at each stop to see which train to board, because the transfers are not listed on the ticket. The Italians and other tourists were good-natured about helping us, except for one woman who thought my husband, Ron, was a gypsy trying to steal her luggage.

Arriving in Manarola, we rolled our suitcases up a main street so steep that the back of my legs were cramping and I was out of breath. Maurizio greeted us at Aria di Mare and took us up two towering flights of stairs to our room – but the breathtaking ocean view was worth the pain.

Handing us a hiking map, he gave us the bad news that the leisurely coastal trails to Riomaggore and Corniglia were closed due to landslides. But no problem, he said, we could take the high road. Other trails might close if it rains, he warned, because stone-lined paths become slippery and dangerous.

MATHENY PHOTO - The author takes in the view on the high road from Manarola to Corniglia.Maurizio also gave us tips on where to dine, and told us to keep our passports in the wall safe. "You will not need your passports anywhere on the trail," he said, noting it would take two weeks to contact the embassy for replacements if we lost them.

We woke early the next morning to the sounds of roosters and villagers tending their gardens and chickens. The whole town of Manarola is surrounded by terraced gardens and vineyards, held up by handmade stone walls.

We located the locals' path to the high road, which cut through the terraces, going straight up the mountain without switchbacks. As I was huffing and puffing up the trail, I noticed villagers, who probably walk up there every day, out pruning the vineyards.

I had read that Italians built Cinque Terre towns high on the cliffs because of pirates who used to raid the coast in the old days. It was a smart move, because any pirates lugging swords would have passed out before getting up there, let alone having to pack out any booty.

The 6-mile trek on the high road from Manarola to the mountain village of Volastra, and down to Corniglia was the hardest hike of the week, but once we finally reached the summit trail, it was mostly flat, with exhilarating views.

After lunch in Corniglia, we walked down a 343-step staircase to catch the train back to our home base. That night, we enjoyed some of the region's delicious seafood, and sat on the patio watching the sun set over the Ligurian Sea, as the twinkling lights of the other villages came out, along with the lights of fireflies flitting through the garden next door.

Our biggest problem during the trip was that our VISA card worked in restaurants, but wouldn't work in the ATMs to get cash. Other tourists were getting cash, but not us. They advised us to carry a Master Card, also. So, for spending money, we had to take the train to Corniglia, where the ATM liked us.

Our next hike was from Corniglia to Vernazza. This was one of my favorite trails, with beautiful broad stone steps and stone walls, but it had rained that morning and they were slippery. The rain dried off as we walked narrow trails held up by terrace walls, where a misstep would have meant a nasty fall.

The path wound through dusty olive groves, vineyards, and wild forest areas, with a lot of ups and downs.

At Vernazza, which still has the remnants of on old castle tower, we walked straight from the trail into a restaurant on the cliff above town, and dug into swordfish and the best pesto spaghetti I've ever eaten.

We took the train back to Manarola, where I noticed I could now walk up the main street without my legs hurting. I was a seasoned hiker. That night, we enjoyed visiting with four lively Australians while having catch-of-the-day at Trattoria dal Billy, which Maurizio had recommended.

The last hike, from Vernazza to Monterosso, is the most challenging of the coastal trails, because of its steep, knee-straining steps. This is where we ran into cruise ship tours, so on the narrow trail you had to plaster yourself against the rock wall to let people headed the other direction squeeze past.

The view was beautiful, however, with sheer cliffs plunging down to an aqua-colored sea.

When we reached Monterosso, the largest of the villages, we were delighted to find they were celebrating a "Limon Festival," where little kids and their moms had booths full of lemon-themed items to sell to the tourists. "It's a way for the locals to get rid of all their lemons," one vendor told us.

MATHENY PHOTO - Two young girls staff a booth selling buttery lemon cake during the Limon Festival in Monterosso.We helped the effort by sampling a buttery lemon torte, lemon pizza, lemon gelato and lemon prosecco, and I bought a ceramic bowl decorated with lemons. Everyone was dressed in yellow, and one vendor was even building an Eiffel Tower out of lemons.

Bidding goodbye to Manarola the next day, we stopped briefly in Riomaggori, the town we weren't able to hike to, then rode for hours on the train to the castle town of Lucca, where we were spending two days.

As we checked into the hotel, we were shocked to discover we had left our passports in the wall safe in Manarola! I was in a panic, but my husband called Maurizio, who said he would mail them to our hotel in Florence, where we were headed next.

The passports arrived in Florence the same day we did, and thanks to Maurizio, our hiking adventure had a happy ending.

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