Visiting these five crazily stacked, colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre perched on the Ligurian coast seems to be entering a world drawn only for a storybook. Grape terraces, lemon trees, the ocean, and steep cliffs will corner you; yet still, it’s a great place to get stuck after all.
A UNESCO world heritage site since 1997, Cinque Terre consists of five villages dating from the early medieval period: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Cinque Terre’s unique feature is attributed to the carefully built houses and terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean sea. The “five lands” form part of Italy’s most rugged coastline, isolated and inaccessible for centuries until a railway was completed in 1874.
Day 1: Relaxing at Levanto
After a short 1-hour drive from Genoa, we arrived in the hotel earlier than we’re supposed to. It was lunchtime, and the reception was closed. Good thing, the receiving area outside is pretty and cozy enough, for us to hang around and patiently wait.
At last, we made it to Cinque Terre – that’s all we ever could say.
We made a good choice on Levanto as our home base for our Cinque Terre trip.
Situated around 20 kilometers north of Vernazza, Levanto is a part of La Spezia province and the Cinque Terre National Park. It may not be one of the five lands that make up the Cinque Terre, but Levanto is just as charming. Yet, this town is more easygoing and relaxed than being in one of the five villages, which truth be told, are getting crowded each day.
Cinque Terre may have the lion’s share of tourism, but it has become more of a kiss-me-quick kind (no offense). While in Levanto, the town is living slowly. It is where to go to get away from it all.
It was really a good choice.
Levanto is derived from the word “levanter” which literally means “the land situated east of Genoa.” This town, with its ancient name Ceula situated on the hills, has been around since the early medieval times. In the 9th century, the bell tower of its church, the Chiesa di San Siro, was once a watchtower to defend the settlement against dangers from the sea. From the 13th century, Levanto began to expand further to the coast.
During the 11th century, Levanto became the feudal stronghold of the Malaspina, before passing to the Da Pasano, and then, in 1299 to the Republic of Genoa. Thanks to its geographical location, Levanto has thrived over centuries as a center of commercial activity and maritime trading in the area.
We decided to spend the rest of our afternoon on the beach of Levanto.
Just chill out.
Read our books.
Bask in the sun.
Smell the sea breeze.
Enjoy the view.
Day 2: The Visit to the Tre Out of Cinque Terre
We somehow wanted to hike between the five villages of Cinque Terre the whole day. The Sentierro Azzuro, the famous walking trail that connects all these five villages, is what we wanted to take. But after a week in Denmark and the long road drive from Switzerland to Italy, we eventually wanted to take things slow in Cinque Terre.
We overheard that most walking routes are closed, particularly between Monterosso and Vernazza, and Vernazza and Corniglia; and up to this time of writing, it still is. Nonetheless, the Sentierro Azzuro offers stunning views of the sea and villages from afar; passages full of lemon trees, olive groves, vines, lilies and vegetation of all kinds; and sometimes steep stairs and uneven dirt trails in between. If you’re fast enough, the trail takes about 5 hours.
Since hiking was no longer an option, we ended up with the other two.
There’s a passenger ferry that runs between the five villages, except that it doesn’t stop in Corniglia. This ferry also goes further to other towns outside of Cinque Terre such as La Spezia, Lerici, and Porto Venere.
Local trains, on the other hand, can take us to all the five villages. Plus, the trip from one village to another could only take around five minutes.
We decided to go for the train ride. It was already 10am when we left the hotel (it’s our vacation, we can catch some extra sleep!). We thought then that taking the train would be faster and easier for us.
From Levanto we first went all the way to the southernmost village of Cinque Terre – Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore is the closest to the main city of La Spezia. It has Via Colombo as its main street, where you can find numerous restaurants, bars and shops. There’s the Castle of Riomaggiore originally built in the 13th century that’s worth a visit.
Riomaggiore has a shoreline on the Mediterranean with a rocky beach and a wharf framed by brightly colored tower houses. Also from here, you can take the easiest walking path, Via dell’Amore, that connects Riomaggiore to its fellow Cinque Terre village, Manarola.
It was past noon when we continued our train ride en route to Manarola. Since Manarola is not that big (it’s actually the smallest village out of the five), we decided to go around it first before we headed for late lunch.
Manarola is incredibly small.
It is a quaint one-street town with a small harbor where everyone can swim. We were able to reach this strip of land a bit away from the harbor where most famous Cinque Terre photos are taken from.
The pricey regular lunch at Manarola didn’t seem to help keep our energies up. It must be the Italian heat, as we started to feel tired and weary.
We took the train again and dropped off at Corniglia.
This time, we found ourselves in a much larger group of tourists who look more enthusiastic to seize this ‘village-in-the-middle’ sitting far above the ocean on the cliffs. To get there, we had to take these 365 steps, which represent days of the year. It sounded interesting alright, but unfortunately, we weren’t that eager.
There’s a glimmer of hope somehow when we saw a bus shuttle arriving, ready to pick up the visitors from the train station. And yet it got so jampacked right away, as such that the tourists squeezed themselves way in – by hook or by crook – just for them to reach the high Corniglia!
By then, we gave up the idea of ever reaching the center of this village.
“Perhaps we can reach Vernazza by car tomorrow, and from there we can try to visit Corniglia as well,” hubby suggested.
It was already late afternoon, and a nice aperitif along Monterosso al Mare started to linger in my mind.
Monterosso is the biggest village of Cinque Terre, and the most modern and resort-like of all the towns. It is too large to be considered part of the historic trail, that it was briefly excluded in 1948; but was re-introduced right away in mid-1949. The landscape is not as vertical as the other fishing villages, hence there’s not much of climbing hills and stairs.
In the 16th century, Monterosso erected 13 watchtowers to defend itself from Vikings. Only three remain today, and one of these buildings is the Aurora Tower that separates the old part of this village from the new one.
Monterosso actually consists of two towns – a bustling, rustic old town built behind the harbor; and a modern resort town that stretches along the sandy beach. Standing atop a tiny hill in the old town is Convento dei Cappucini where the work of the famous Flemish artist, Anthony Van Dyck, Crucifixion, can be found.
We were ready to call it a day when an unfortunate event happened at the train station. Almost everybody was speaking Italian, but in between murmurs and high pitch voices, we managed to understand what was happening.
There’s no definite news as to how soon the train services would get back to normal; for how many minutes or hours we should wait until the train arrives (yeah, I got spoiled by the Swiss). All we could hear was the voice prompt consistently repeating the same apologetic excuse on the train delay. There seemed to be nobody in-charge, so we asked a local who was also waiting for the same ride.
“It happens here most of the time. Just be patient and a train will arrive soon,” he casually said.
But the train station was getting too crowded and it seemed everyone just wanted to finally retire and go home. My husband and I were already becoming anxious, impatient and weary. We strolled in the seaside promenade several times, and we didn’t want to do some more.
After three long hours, finally, the first local train arrived. We luckily got ourselves in, and got back to our hotel before sunset.
It was truly a long day. That night, all we’re yearning for was a rewarding dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Thankfully, we got both.
Day 3: A Surprise Discovery of Hidden Ligurian Villages
After having a sumptuous dinner and long relaxing slumber, we woke up fresh and renewed – ready for our final day in Cinque Terre.
We’re set to visit Vernazza and Corniglia, these most isolated villages in Cinque Terre, by car.
Yes, you heard me right. We paid no heed on what most people suggested, that it’s not easy to reach Vernazza by car. The last part of road to get to Vernazza goes downhill and is very narrow (only two, and even possibly small cars could pass by).
Cars are completely forbidden within downtown Cinque Terre. Of all the villages, Monterosso has the closest parking area to the town center.
The parking area for Vernazza is about a kilometer above the town. Only 50 slots available and if you get lucky, you’ve got to pay a whopping 23 euros a day. There’s a shuttle that runs between the parking and Vernazza, anyway.
We wanted to try our luck, so off we drove away to visit Vernazza and Corniglia.
Vernazza is a one-street town with a church on a rock in front of the sea. It was said that this church, Santa Margherita d’Antiochia was built because the bones of Saint Margaret were found in a box on the beach.
Vernazza also has the Doria castle, which its remains on the old wall protected the village from pirates. Vernazza has the only natural harbor in Cinque Terre, with a spit of sand that locals would consider a beach and a gorgeous waterfront piazza.
Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre village that is not reachable by boat as it sits comfortably on a steep cliff, surrounded by vineyards. The Baroque-styled Church of San Pietro and the ruins of a Genoise fortification located on the cliff are the sights not to be missed.
We somehow got lost along the way, and ironically even the GPS couldn’t figure where we were. A few meters more and we stumbled upon a road sign – ROAD CLOSED. The road to Vernazza was under construction.
That’s it. We didn’t make it to Vernazza and Corniglia. Oh well…
Do you know that in October 2011 a devastating disaster battered Cinque Terre hard that it wiped out its small villages entirely? Torrential rains and storms caused flash floods and mudslides pouring down from the hills to the villages. Particularly, Monterosso and Vernazza were severely affected. That’s why, several hiking trails and roads are closed for repairs.
We may have missed visiting Vernazza and Corniglia, but that didn’t stop us from exploring Cinque Terre. It turned out to be interesting too, as we continued our journey by exploring nearby villages that we were not familiar with.
We went on a spontaneous road trip on the mountainous side of Cinque Terre.
We ended in quiet villages that seemed to be deserted; only until you hear cheerily chats between old folks and later find them sitting comfortably in their benches, just as if waiting for their another fine day to end. In every mountain village we would come across a quaint, rustic, typically Italian church. Then, of course, the pastel-colored houses set the final touch on what defines these classic Ligurian villages both in the mountains and at the seacoast.
As we drove further down, not so far from Levanto, we surprisingly found ourselves in Bonnassola, a very Italian village gifted with a sandy beach in the Mediterranean coast, which I’d say much better and more family-friendly than in Monterosso and Levanto. We spent the rest of our last afternoon in Cinque Terre by the beach.
As for me, I love the roads that shrivel
into parched, weed-cluttered
ditches where boys
catch a skinny eel or two in a puddle;
the paths that follow the banks and sidle
down between clumps of cane
and put you down in the lemon groves, among the trees.
– The Lemons by Italian poet and Nobel Prize laureate Eugenio Montale, a poem which he wrote during his stay in Monteresso
WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
Do you want to include Cinque Terre on your travel bucket list? Why do you think this is amongst the best destination to visit in Italy? Or have you been to Cinque Terre? If ever you have a chance to visit it again, how will you spend your days in Cinque Terre?