3 Days in Cinque Terre

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Visiting these five crazily stacked, colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre perched on the Ligurian coast seems to be entering in 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.

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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 offence).  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” that 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.

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Photo from chiestamontale.it. We would always pass by this small church on the way from Levanto to our hotel. After spending the afternoon at the beachside, we even stopped by to give this church a closer look, as well as the small village surrounding it.

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.

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We decided to spend the rest of our afternoon in 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.

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The photo here is taken at Prevo, a tiny hamlet of Vernazza. It’s the most high (at 200 meters above) and most impressive spot in Sentierro Azzuro that also overlooks on Guvano beach, a small and elusive yet popular naturist beach (no photo required!) 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.

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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 harbour where everyone can swim.  We were able to reach this strip of land a bit away from the harbour where most famous Cinque Terre photos are taken from.

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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.

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In the 16th century Monterosso erected 13 watch towers 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.

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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 sleep.

Thankfully, we got both.

Day 3: A Surprise Discovery of Hidden Ligurian Villages

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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 town. Only 50 slots available and if you get lucky, you’ve got 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.
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Vernazza & Corniglia, photos from wikipedia.org.

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 comfortable 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.

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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.



Click on the images to enlarge.

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

My Travel Notes
How we got there…

We continued driving from Genoa to Cinque Terre, which only took us over an hour.

If you don’t have a car, here’s also an extra tip – how to get to Cinque Terre by plane and train:

Fly into Milan, Florence or Rome and take a Eurail train to La Spezia. From there, switch to a regional train to one of the five villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, Vernazza and Corniglia).  The regional trains do not require a reservation, but some of the trains from Milan, Florence or Rome do require a reservation.

Where we stayed…

It was a difficult search for a good accommodation in Cinque Terre for us.  We’re concerned about our luggages and the car, so we’re particularly looking for a place to stay that won’t require us to leave the car elsewhere, and bring along our heavy suitcases onto the train and up to these rugged fishing villages (Corniglia is not an option).  We’re so lucky to find Hotel Abetaia in Levanto.

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Hotel Abetaia is absolutely the best accommodation we’ve ever had during our two-week honeymoon in Italy.  All praises I can ever say about this hotel.  Beautifully located in the middle of the woods, the hotel is set in calm and pleasant grounds with a gorgeous terrace to sit and relax.  The owners, Sonia and Michele, as well as the rest of the staff, are extremely kind, friendly and helpful.  Our modern-styled room is very spacious and always clean.  I also love the wooden beams and shower floors into the mix.  Breakfast is excellent.  And the most important of all, there’s a car park and it’s absolutely for free!

Where we had our Ligurian lunches and dinners…

cinque terre sept 20134Finding a restaurant for lunch is relatively easy in Cinque Terre.  Lunches are generally good, classic Italian cooking indeed.  Unluckily, we had an overpriced tourist-trapped lunch at a noisy and crowded restaurant in Manarola.  I liked our lunch in downtown Levanto though, good food in a reasonable price.

Nonetheless, the best Italian dining experience of all was at L’Antica Abetaia Ristorante.  You might have guessed it right.  Our hotel is just beside this restaurant, both sharing the same name.

Aren’t we really that lucky or what?

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Four nights in a row, we had our dinners at Abetaia restaurant.  Call it out of convenience as well, because we stayed away from village centers where the other restos are, but if this restaurant wasn’t worth it on our first dinner, we would definitely drive out to look around on our next.  Obviously, we were very happy and fully satisfied with its menu, the service and ambiance.

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L’Abetaia is the place where you can slowly enjoy the authentic Ligurian cuisines in a very relaxing and mellow atmosphere.  It’s almost a fine dining experience for me, only that the price is beyond reasonable!  If you ever come around in Cinque Terre, this is the best dining place to be.

What we did in Cinque Terre in 3 days…
  • Be a beach bum. Get a sun tan. Read a book. Dip in the water. Feel the rocky sand.
  • Visit the fishing villages of Cinque Terre by train.  We made it to 3 out of 5!  There’s a reason to come back then?
  • Discover more villages and beaches that are quite unheard of.
  • Relish on Ligurian seafood-filled cuisines. Savor Italian wines, of course!
Two extra days is what we wanted so we can unravel more of Cinque Terre’s hidden charm.  But we couldn’t.  Tuscany’s waiting.  Only if we had a few days more, we could have really done these…
  • Hike through the five villages of Cinque Terre.

The famous Cinque Terre footpaths are mostly not for the faint-hearted.  It is never dangerous or even difficult, but a good physical condition is required.  A full hike can take the entire day, and trails can go ziggy zaggy up and down, especially between Corniglia and Monterosso.

The Sentiero Azzurro is the most popular trail. For a rugged, more adventurous track, the walk from Riomaggiore to Portovenere promises a drop-dead spectacular view.  For the easiest and the shortest path, take the Via dell’Amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola.  The stretch from Manarola to Corniglia entails an easy hike, but due to the damage incurred from the floods and mudslides on October 2011, this hiking path was closed for repair at that time.

  • Visit Cinque Terre’s “cover girl” and “middle child rebel”, Vernazza and Corniglia. By now, you must know why we have to.
  • Visit the five villages of Cinque Terre by boat.  Also, visit other nearby cities like Portovenere, La Spezia or Lerici.  It definitely also offers unforgettable sights and unique sensations.
  • Taste more Ligurian food delights.  Big seafood fans like me remain thrilled, since seafood and fish are big part of the Ligurian diet.  The sea breeze and the mineral-rich soils also made the region famous for its herbs (basil and rosemary), wine, olive oil, pine nuts, porcini mushrooms, among others.

Here’s an exhaustive list of Ligurian must-try food finds: foccacia, paniccia, farinata, latte brusco, carciofi violetti, minestrone, cluppin, cappon magro, ravioli, ravioli alla genovese, corzetti, pesto alla genovese, pesto blanco, crema ai pinolli, tocco di funghi, torta pasqualina, cima all genovese, pacciugo, foccacia, castelnovese, ravioli dolci, meringhi genovesi, pandolce.  Anything else?

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Photos taken from kevinandamanda.com.
  • Take a wine tour.  Ligurian wines may not be as popular as the Tuscans, but given the steep rocky hillsides where the vineyard is, you’ll find a unique learning experience on how the wines in the region are made, starting from the harvest all the way to the actual fermentation.  Most of the wine farmers still do the most traditional process of wine making in this area.
  • Watch the stellar sunset over the harbor and see how the golden glow make Cinque Terre more irresistible.  Then, see a more colorful fishing village in a clear night.

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?

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