By Jay Moran
Do you like charming villages?
What about breathtaking views over the Mediterranean?
Would you like to hike through hillside vineyards, olive groves and wild flowers along a rugged coastline? When you finish hiking (or while breaking for lunch), would you like to sit down for some authentic pasta and red wine?
Did I mention that this place has no cars?
Overview of Cinque Terre
Let me introduce you to Cinque Terre, a series of five coastal villages located along the northwest coast of Italy in what is commonly referred to as the “Italian Riviera.” I first visited Cinque Terre in October 2007, and it remains one of my favorite destinations in the world.
When people who are planning a first trip to Italy ask me where to go, it is hard not to advise Rome, Venice or Florence. These are classic cities. But you can’t see everything in one trip, and if you decide to visit Cinque Terre instead of, say, Rome, I’d say you’re making a fair trade.
Actually, Cinque Terre is easily accessible from Florence or Pisa (or Milan), and it makes an excellent two-day add-on for those who are spending a longer time in Italy. By itself, Cinque Terre is an excellent weekend trip if you are coming from elsewhere in Europe. The closest major airports are Genoa, Pisa and Florence.
Cinque Terre is completely different from a big city, of course. Here you will get closer to nature and experience villages that were once so isolated from the outside world it is as if they were built up right from the sea. Indeed, before a small railway was constructed in the 19th century, these communities were almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Their main source of livelihood was fishing. Houses were built on terraces that rise up along the rugged coastline.
The entire area is part of Cinque Terre National Park, Italy’s first national park and a UNESCO protected site. You can hike from village to village on well-marked trails, or take a tiny train that connects each. In addition, there are multitudes of hiking paths that twist upward and circle around each village. These offer amazing views.
If you want to hike, you must purchase a special permit at any of the village train stations or the station in La Spezia. This permit is valid for hiking, local trains, picnic areas, museums, and special events. Carry this card with you at all times. If you do not plan on hiking, you can buy individual train tickets for travel between the villages.
Note: The authorities frequently close access to many of the coastal hiking paths due to risk of landslide. This usually occurs during or after heavy rains. Before visiting, be sure to check online for current status.
Cinque Terre is best visited during warmer months, when the hiking paths are accessible and all of the outdoor restaurants and cafes are open. During July and August, this area is inundated with tourists, however, and hiking trails can get extremely crowded. The best time to visit is probably May, early June or in late September. We visited during the early part of October. Temperatures were a bit cool and we had some rain. On the positive side, we had the hiking trails almost entirely to ourselves.
The five villages of Cinque Terre – from south to north – are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Each has its own unique character.
Riomaggiore is a town famous for its anchovy fishermen. The main street is called Via Colombo. It contains lots of small bars, eateries, and souvenir shops. This is a good place to stock up on fresh fruit, cheese, nuts and other snacks before beginning a hike to the other villages. The first and easiest hiking trail among all of those connecting the villages is from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Popularly dubbed “Via dell’Amore” (“Lovers’ Lane”), this path is paved for most of the way and will only take you about 20-30 minutes to walk. You can stop half-way for some wine, cheese or bruschetta. If you are with your sweetheart, bring a lock to attach on a wall along the path.
Along with Vernazza, for me this village is the most beautiful. It has a lower part that is filled with boats near the rocky cove. An upper part consists of multi-colored houses that rise steeply in a semi-circle around the village, almost like an amphitheater. An excellent eating choice is Aristide Café, located near the hiking trail that leads from the village to Corniglia. The ravioli with Bolognese sauce and fisherman’s mussels are delicious. You can eat upstairs inside the restaurant or outside on a large, rounded terrace that overlooks the lower part of town.
Corniglia is the only village that does not come down to sea level, and in many ways it feels like an odd member of the family. It is set high up on a cliff overlooking the sea. As you approach, you will see Corniglia perched above you, and the last part of the hike from Manorola toward Corniglia consists of 365 steps that climb switchback-style almost straight up the hill. This village feels smaller than the others, and there are few accommodation options here. There is a cool street, however, that winds through town toward a lookout point over the sea. For a nice photo and beverage stop, visit the tiny piazza about halfway along the street. You will see some yellow umbrellas and a statue of Corniglia.
To me this is the most quaint and picturesque of the five villages. It is set down in a cove, protected by the hills. Hiking from either Corniglia or Monterosso, you will get magnificent views below of the dense, pastel-colored buildings of Vernazza. It looks like a scene from a postcard. This place is popular with honeymooners, and is a must-visit destination even if you are staying elsewhere in Cinque Terre. There are several bars and restaurants surrounding the square in front of Vernazza’s tiny harbor, as well as a lively vibe at night. Book early if looking for accommodation here.
Monterosso al Mare
The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso takes about two and half hours. Like many of the others, this hike affords lovely views of the receding and approaching villages, as well as olive groves, grape vines and vivid natural landscapes. Monterosso is where we stayed. Along with Riomaggiore, it has the most accommodation and restaurant options. We stayed at Hotel Margherita, and it was great. It offers terrific value for money in an ideal location. Monterosso is much different than the other four villages, however. It has more of a modern feel, with a small beach. It is not as pretty as some of the others, but I thought it was a great base for hiking and exploring the other villages.