(Editor’s note: Media reports last February quoted Italian officials as saying the number of visitors to Cinque Terre would be limited to 1.5 million starting this year. Like so many things in Italy, that decree was never actually put into effect.)
A vacation in Italy doesn’t make the prospect of exercise immediately spring to mind but a trip – in the quieter “off-season” – to the hills and hiking paths around Cinque Terra could change all that.
Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is on the Italian Riviera, the western coastline of Liguria coastal region of northwest Italy. The area surrounding the five fishing villages has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1997 and is a national park and a protected marine area, demonstrating that the Italians know a precious gem when they have one.
This ragged coastline was once a beacon for pirates and the five small towns, famous for their wine production, united to protect each other from attack. Now the only onslaught is from tourists but, if you avoid the peak season, this area will beguile you.
The five towns – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manorola and Riomaggiore – will astonish you with their beauty and believe me when I tell you, you will take endless photos!
My husband pleaded with me to stop, but around every corner was a picture postcard scene that begged to be captured on my camera. Pastel coloured houses hugging the coastline, vibrant blue water, vineyards and fields of olive and lemon trees clinging courageously to their terraced foundations.
Not only does this area scream to be photographed but it is also covered in a 120-kilometre web of hiking trails, which were once the only access between the towns. These afford you the opportunity to eat a lot of pasta without too much guilt!
The most popular trails teeter on the coastline between villages, but there are many less travelled in the area and when you get tired you can take the local train back to your hotel, as each village is connected by rail. The other travel delight are the small ferries that bustle between the towns, giving you an impression of what these pastel coloured villages must have looked like to the approaching pirates.
Bringing your car into the area is discouraged, and only locals can park in the towns, so train travel is the preferred way to visit Cinque Terre. This only adds to the delight of your vacation. As the train skirts the coastline, the cyan blue Mediterranean shimmers enticingly through the window.
Monterosso is the largest of the five towns and the only one with a sandy beach. We selected this as our base and were not disappointed. The town is nestled at the base of the hills, and split into two, the new and old town, accessed by a tunnel through the cliffs. In the 16th century, thirteen towers helped to defend the old town but today only three remain.
The old streets wind and meander providing endless delights, and after all those long hikes you can take a swim from the beach before sampling the fabulous local wine, and fresh fish dishes.
Vernazza is reputedly one of the most beautiful villages in Italy and deserves its accolade. The trail from Monterosso gives you tantalizing peaks as you skirt the coastline, but the best view of this picturesque town is from the sea. The softly coloured houses appear to be leaning on each other, rather like friends who have tasted too many bottles of the local wine, and you can only smile at the view as you head for the small port.
The restaurants gather around the harbour, each enticing you to sample their delights. The castle and church offer a sense of security to this once wealthy town. The hike from Monterosso to Vernazza is the more challenging end of the coastal trail with many uneven steps in places, but if you have sensible footwear you won’t have a problem, unlike the guy in a cast who was negotiating the steps when we were there.
Corniglia is the one town that isn’t accessed by sea in Cinque Terre. Its houses perch metres above on top of the cliffs, and are reached by climbing over 300 steps, the “Lardarina,” or for those less fit, a minibus is available.
The small village looks more like an inland Italian village but is blessed with stunning views of the coast. We hiked from here to Monterosso along paths that wound along stone walled pathways, through vineyards and olive groves draped with netting to capture the harvested olives.
Manorola’s houses cluster between the terraced hillsides and its small harbour provides a deep water swimming spot for those daring enough to try. The coastal path from here to Riomaggiore is known as the Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane) and is paved and carved into the rocks providing some stunning sea views.
Sadly this has been closed for some time due to a rockslide. The narrow main street provides a parking spot for the fishing boats when the sea is rough, and the rest of the streets provide a workout as they climb up the ridged vine-covered hillsides.
The final village is the most southerly, Riomaggiore. Again the pastel houses defy the pull of the sea and cling stubbornly to the cliffs. The station surely must have one of the best views for passengers waiting for a train.
The town seems to be more real than postcard and we were delighted to discover some stunning, although uncared for, murals by Argentinian artist Silvio Benedetto.
The paintings depict the connection between the people of this region and the sea, with captivating portraits in shades of blue. The main street, stacked with fishing boats, leads down to a tiny harbour and if you take the path skirting the cliffs, you’ll find a pebble beach from which you can swim or just sit and enjoy a scoop or two of gelato.
Hiking trails, bus, train or ferry and the coastal path link all five towns, but be aware that closures are always possible on the trails due to repair work. And be aware bad weather can effect the ferry service.
There is a Cinque Terre Train card available to purchase at every train station, which gives you unlimited use of the local train, access to the park bus service, all trekking paths and a wifi connection.
Don’t take your car…parking is limited.
Take a train to Genoa or La Spezia and from there take the local Cinque Terre train.
If you are flying, the nearest airports are Pisa or Genoa. Both have good rail links to Cinque Terre.
About the author:
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at re-inventing herself. Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News. She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.