By Eleonora Dell’Aquila
The Cinque Terre are five villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – that lie in a stretch of eighteen kilometers along the rocky and irregular coast of eastern Liguria. In 1999 this territory and the marine environment have been declared a protected area.
WHY GO THERE?
The scenery is gorgeous, but what makes the Cinque Terre special is not just the natural beauty. The place has a special charm, that you will feel when you are away from the crowd and observe all the signs of the hard work that, through the centuries, has made this impervious strip of land accessible and habitable.
NEW! In 2016, a new parking facility was built that allows people to park at La Spezia Centrale train station and avoid the traffic and tough parking situation at Cinque Terre.
Even nowadays the Cinque Terre are hard to reach, except by train, and this contributes to preserve intact the surroundings in their characteristic Mediterranean appearance. Parking at the train station is a very good idea.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
The best way to reach the Cinque Terre is by train: Riomaggiore is about two hours from Genova and two and a half hours from Firenze. For information and train schedules, see the official website of the italian railways.
The train also serves as quick transportation within the Cinque Terre area. It might be convenient to purchase the Cinque Terre Card, a pass that includes access to the paths and unlimited train trips between Riomaggiore and Monterosso. A daily pass for one person costs 5.40 euros and it can be purchased in La Spezia train station or at the information offices in Riomaggiore and Monterosso, near the train stops.
The Cinque Terre are linked by a network of paths that offer the best opportunity to truly enjoy the unique landscape and to discover the different sides of a territory that preserves the mark of its past. You can get a map of the paths at the information office.
The Coast Route, known as “sentiero azzurro” (“blue path”), is the most popular itinerary. The path goes from Monterosso to Riomaggiore and it can be completed in about five hours, but it is nice to devote a whole day to this walk taking breaks to visit the villages and enjoy the sights. Hiking shoes are not really necessary; a pair of comfortable sporty sandals will do.
The starting point is Monterosso. This is the biggest of the five villages and it has a nice medieval center, surrounded by more modern residential areas that are built in the characteristic style of seaside Liguria.
There is a large sand beach and walking along the promenade that faces it one reaches the remains of the castle of Monterosso. The coast route begins here: it goes up to the top of the promontory and then descends again on the other side, towards Vernazza. This and the one that follows are the most challenging stretches of the itinerary, but also the most rewarding.
As you walk, you will notice the typical terraces created on the steep slopes with dry-stone walls, built in the old times. The hills are covered by a mix of spontaneous vegetation, the typical “macchia mediterranea,” small vineyards, olive trees and bright lemon plants – the renowned lemons of Monterosso.
At a relaxed pace you will reach Vernazza in about two hours. From here the path goes up again and winds around the terraced hills. It takes another hour and a half to reach Corniglia. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the hike.
Corniglia is a good place for a longer break. It is different from the other villages in that it is above the sea, on the top of a promontory, and it has a very peaceful atmosphere. In the main square there are a few cafés, where you will mostly meet other hikers, or local people.
From Corniglia the route continues along a long brick stairway, that leads down to sea level right next to the train station.
From here the landscape is a little more ordinary and it is an easy walk to Manarola, on mostly flat ground along the beach. Manarola is perhaps the most picturesque among the five villages. From a distance it looks very compact, as if it were made from a single block of stone. It has a cute small harbor and a few good seafood restaurants.
Riomaggiore is only twenty minutes away from Manarola. The two villages are connected by a relatively broad pathway mostly carved in the cliff, known as “Via dell’Amore” (“Road of Love”). This is the last stretch of the itinerary and it is usually more crowded. The path overlooks the sea the whole way, so you will get a nice view of the rock formations along the coastline.
Once in Riomaggiore you might choose to drop by the small rocky beach, a nice place for a well deserved swim at the end of a tiring – and hopefully fulfilling – day…
Each village of the Cinque Terre has its own sanctuary, located higher up on the hills. There is a bus service or, if you prefer, you can walk. You can follow the Sanctuary Route, that connects the five sanctuaries, or you can opt for a shorter and less demanding walk.
For example, from Monterosso you can reach the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Soviore in about an hour and a half. It is an easy walk in the woods and it is a relaxing alternative to the coast route on a sunny day.
If you are an experienced hiker you might also want to try the High Route, the most challenging itinerary in this area. This is a longer route that connects Levanto to Porto Venere, crossing the Cinque Terre territory. Since there are quite a few alternative paths along the way, it is highly recommended to pick up a map at one of the tourist offices before you start. The walking time is about ten hours.
WHEN TO GO
The Cinque Terre are a very popular destination in the summer. May and June, or September, are preferable because it shouldn’t feel too hot. The villages are always going to be crowded, but the hiking paths are usually quiet enough. If you can, try to visit on a weekday.
A trip out of season is a bit risky if you plan to hike, because the pathways are likely to be closed if the weather is bad. However, if you happen to be in the area in the fall it is still worth dropping by Riomaggiore and Manarola for half a day or so, to experience a different atmosphere.
WHERE TO STAY
For backpackers or travelers that are looking for a cheap place to stay – families with kids included – a good option is the hostel “Cinque Terre”:
Ostello Cinque Terre
Via B. Riccobaldi, 21
19010 Manarola (SP) Italy
tel: +39 (0)187 920 215
fax: +39 (0)187 920 218
A very helpful list of hotels and B&B’s in various locations can be found at www.parconazionale5terre.it. The choice is likely to depend on the availability of rooms more than anything else, but if you are not traveling light you should probably avoid booking in Corniglia, because the village is situated a hundred meters above the train station, at the end of a long brick flight of stairs.
If you prefer to stay in a bigger center, or if you have planned the visit at the last minute and are unable to find a room, you might consider staying in the nearby town of La Spezia, only ten minutes by train from Riomaggiore.
One of the most appreciated local specialties is a hearty type of bread called “focaccia,” which also happens to be an excellent choice for a quick and cheap snack. You can buy slices of focaccia to take away in any “panetteria” (bakery) or “forno” (litterally “oven”).
The choices range from plain focaccia, simply seasoned with salt and extra-virgin olive oil, to richer versions with any kind of toppings. An alternative is “farinata,” a simple variation on the theme made from chickpeas.
If instead you are sitting down for lunch, then try a dish with pesto. This is one of the most widely appreciated creations of this region: a thick green sauce made with basil, garlic, salt, extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts and parmigiano. Usually it is served on pasta – ideally trofie or linguine – or in sandwiches with tomato and mozzarella.
Finally, you can’t visit the Cinque Terre without tasting a glass of freshly made lemonade, minimally sugared, for which this area is especially well known.
The website www.5terre.com is very informative and well made, in addition to having an English translation available for all the sections. The history section is highly recommended. The website also contains information about nearby destinations which are less well known but definitely worth a trip, if time permits.
Eleonora Dell’Aquila was born in Torino, Italy, and is now a physics graduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In her free time she likes to travel and take pictures.