In every new place we travel I tend to make some grand announcement about how it’s my new favorite place and puts the last place we visited (that just days ago, received the same exuberance) to shame. Except I use much more colorful language than I’ll share with you here. After 20 minutes upon arriving in Cinque Terre:
“I’m calling it. I might as well turn in my passport and ditch my travel scarf, this is the most beautiful place on earth.”
That sentiment, however true about the unfathomable beauty of Cinque Terre, has already lost a bit of its fervor as I write this, staring at the magnificent Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. But lots more on that later.
Cinque Terre is located on a rugged six miles stretch of the Italian Riviera coastline. Cinque Terre means “the five lands” and is comprised of five unique and colorful hillside villages along the coast connected by trails, roads and a train. The coastline, the five villages and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cinque Terre is absolutely breathtaking and is on my short list of favorite places I’ve ever been. The ever-important caveat: Adam and I visited Cinque Terra during the winter and were lucky enough to get clear days, sunshine, cool breezes – and empty trails. In the warmer months, we hear that the crowds can be overwhelming which undoubtedly paints an entirely different picture of what we experienced as quaint and tranquil. You can’t blame people for wanting to visit this awe inspiring slice of paradise, plus the train system makes it accessible from La Spezia from the south and Levanto from the north. If you plan to visit, please just choose your timing wisely so you can have the best experience possible.
We stayed in a $90/night airbnb apartment with a balcony overlooking the ocean in the southern most town of Riomaggiore. Much like our Venice strategy, we spent more money on housing and kept it simple for meals. For dinner we’d pick up pesto (which originated in this part of Italy), pasta and veggies at the local market and cook at the apartment. Gotta love airbnb for making this style of traveling possible.
Although there’s a quick and easy train that cuts through the mountain to get you from town to town, the best way to go is by hiking from one town to the next. Although the trails were said to be closed in February due to landslides, we found that two of them were unofficially open (huzzah!) – From Monterosso al Mar to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia. Our first morning we enjoyed cappuccinos and pastries alongside half a dozen fishermen from the village of Riomaggiore and then hopped on the train to the northern most town of Monterosso al Mar to begin our hike south.
From Monterosso al Mar we took the trail along the edge of the rugged coast towards Vernazza. The trail weaved along the edge of the cliff and passed through shady groves and over waterfalls. The views were magnificent – vast panoramas of the sparkly Mediterranean and the sinuous coastline spotted in colorful towns.
Our time hiking in Cinque Terre were some of the hours of my life best spent. As exciting as it was to come across the next town (a momentary giddiness of exploration) I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that we were already one hike and two towns into our adventure, with only a finite number to go. Just like the Harry Potter series, it’s one of those things you wish you could experience again and again for the first time.
Once we descended into Vernazza we had a new picturesque spot to explore – one that promised pizza and beer and old men convening in a public square.
The next morning we took the train to Vernazza where we enjoyed early morning cappuccinos with a new group of fisherman. Then we hit the well marked trail to Corniglia, the town on the hill.
Since the lower, flatter coastal path was closed between Corniglia and Manarola, we took the steeper route, 7a, which took us over terraced hillsides of grapevines and was, what I can only assume, a million times more interesting.
Manarola was the most hopping of all the towns we visited – tourists and locals alike were enjoying the seaside restaurants and basking in the sun.
From there we took the train one stop home to the town we were staying in, Riomaggiore, to kick back and relax for the short remainder of our stay.
Next up, Montenegro!
- Timing is everything: First and foremost, go in the off-season. This would apply for all of Italy. Try to find a week in late winter/early spring and then wait for the best two or three days of weather and head to Cinque Terre then. It’s no more than four hours by train from most everywhere in Italy. And the biggest problem with finding a room last minute was finding places that were open.
- Get an apartment: I recommend utilizing Amy at Riomaggiore Reservations. She has listings on AirBnB as well and is about as friendly and helpful a host as one can find. An apartment keeps it less touristy and gives you an excuse to get lost in the backstreets and smile at the old ladies all dressed up and on their way to church.
- The Cinque Terre Pass: The Cinque Terre pass is necessary to hike on the coastal trails and it gets you unlimited free train transport between Levanto and La Spezia. It’s a bit expensive though, so with the trails closed along the coast and only needing to take one train, we only got the pass for one day.
- On closed trails: All the coastal trails were officially closed and we were told this by two information booths. However, as we hiked between Monterosso and Vernazza and Vernazza and Corniglia we realized closed meant that there was just no one checking tickets. We asked a third woman about those trails and she said, “They’re closed.” I replied with, “we actually were able to hike them this morning,” and she replied, “Oh great, they’re quite beautiful, right? I hiked them early this week too. They’ll reopen in April.” The trails between Corniglia and Manarola and Manarola and Riomaggiore were actually closed with gates and locks. As Molly mentioned, the 7a trail from Corniglia to Manarola is a great alternative and extremely gorgeous. Note: If you take the same trail going the other direction from Manarola to Corniglia, be prepared to walk up hundreds of steps – many more than the 350 you would have to climb from the train station in Corniglia.