Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera
A Charming Location on the Italian Riviera
By Scott Blatt and Lisa Burch
When I am researching where to take my next vacation, I have a set of questions I usually ask. Can I be active with activities such as hiking, biking or kayaking? Will the area provide the opportunity for great photographs? Is the region rich in history and culture? How is the food and entertainment? Are the local people tourist friendly? Are there places to get away and hide out on your own? Based on my criteria, Cinque Terre had everything I was looking for and more.
Cinque Terre (the 5 lands) is located on 6 miles along the northwest coastline of the Italian Riviera. It is made up of 5 vividly colored villages located on cliffs overlooking the Ligurian sea. The area has been incorporated into the smallest national park in Italy, Parco Nazionale Dello Cinque Terre. The towns are free of all motorized vehicles and each has its own charming character.
Searting in the north, Monterosso al Mare is the first and largest village with the most expansive beach that resembles a resort for sunbathing and swimming. Vernazza, the next town, which I personally feel is the most beautiful, has a large piazza on its harbor, an ideal place to relax in the evening, sipping the local wine while people watching. Corniglia, perched above the sea capping a hilltop in the middle of the 5 villages, is the only one without a beach, but it is known for its terraced vineyards and local wine production. Manarola’s tumble of buildings spilling down the ravine to its tiny harbor is the most photographed because of an easy access to a magnificent viewpoint. Furthest south is Riomaggiore, with a long, winding main street up the canyon lined with pastel-colored buildings seeming to lean on each other for support. You have access to each village by hiking trails, trains or boats. There are old castles, forts and plenty of small, secluded beaches. Fresh seafood is caught daily and some of the best wine and pesto in all of Italy is found here.
We chose to set up our base in the village of Vernazza and planned each day from there. Some people stay in larger towns to the north or south and visit each of the 5 villages in one day using the trains, but that does not allow you to truly immerse yourself and get to know the personality of each town. On our first day, we hiked to Cornigila, stopped for lunch and then went on to Manarola. This was my favorite section to hike because it traversed the terraced crops, mostly vineyards, on intimate narrow paths. Once in Manarola, we had an amazing dinner and took some evening shots of the colorful village and its harbor at twilight as the sun was ducking behind the clouds. Hiking between each village, especially on the high routes, must be taken when the coast trails are closed; there are nothing but steps up and down these coastal mountains trails. I love to hike and I will not shy away from any challenge, however, some parts of these trails are not easy. What pushes you through is the beauty of the Ligurian sea as you walk through the vineyards that wrap the hillsides. Knowing there is always something tasty to eat and drink in the next village doesn’t hurt to think about, either. Our second day, we decided to take the train north to the village of Monterosso and hike back to Vernazza. Monterosso is by far the largest of the villages with a thriving outdoor marketplace set up on the streets where all the locals bring their fish, produce, cheese, wines, pasta, etc., to sell. On our last day, we picked up where we left off in Manarola and continued hiking south to Riomaggiore on the high route, as the lower trail was closed for repairs. As I reached the top of this “trail” of nearly a thousand steps up, I thought to myself, this is the Italian version of a Stairmaster workout! Riomaggiore is my second favorite village because it had the smallest crowds and the most opportunities to photograph.
Each village offered its own unique beauty, all sharing the warmth and friendly hospitality of the locals. Exploring the narrow, winding walkways in each town gets you away from the main streets with all the shops and tourists, and is worth an hour or two to truly get a taste of what it would be like to live here. You can hike as much or as little as you want and see each town by boat or train. I would recommend you go on the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) and not mid-summer due to the heat and crowds. It is a great add-on to any Italian vacation to get away from the larger cities. Florence is the closest major city, only 2 hours by train to La Spezia to the south of Riomaggiore where you transfer to the regional train that travels through the Cinque Terre.