Once five small villages accessible only from the sea, the Cinque Terre – “five lands” – is now so flooded with tourists that there’s been talk of limiting the number of people allowed in the area. But they haven’t done that yet (as of August 2017), so if you have the chance to make the trip, do it. Soon.
Now recognized as the Cinque (Chin-kweh) Terre (Tehr-ay) National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region is on so many travelers’ lists because of its beauty and the 7.5-mile trail that for centuries was just a mule path connecting the towns. Now called the Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail), it is hiked by thousands of trekkers each year. More about that later.
Let’s start with a brief overview of the towns and some restaurants. Details about getting there will be followed by a little more information about the trail itself.
From north to south, the towns are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In the olden days, Monterosso was known as a fishing port, while the others were more known for vineyards and olive oil.
As all the towns (except Monterosso) are built on hillsides that rise precipitously from the sea, the houses seem to have been crafted one on top of the other as they make their way up and back. The homes are painted in a unique rainbow of colors that are the stuff of most of the postcards you’ll see, although painting the houses didn’t happen until the tourists started coming in the 1970s.
Monterosso al Mare is the only town with a wide, sandy beach, which in warmer months is popular with tourists and locals alike. Other sites include the church of St. John the Baptist, the convent and the “Monterosso Giant.”
Vernazza’s main street runs from the train station, down the hill and out to the harbor. Plenty of shops sell clothes, jewelry, food, wine and the ubiquitous “5 Terre” t-shirts. There are two restaurants that I’d recommend here.
Just as you get to the harbor, look to your left and you’ll find a stone staircase that leads up to Belforte, a restaurant perched high on the hill overlooking the sea. Call ahead to be assured of a table. The view is the best reason to go, followed closely by the seafood dishes.
For the other restaurant… instead of going left at the harbor, turn right and over toward the corner. There you’ll find Pizzeria Vulnetia.
Get there early or make a reservation, especially if you want outside seating. I first went there when we were traveling during Thanksgiving week.
The whole town was our oyster (so to speak) as the crowds were gone and the locals anxious for the business. We just happened into this place because it started raining and we were standing in front of the door. The owner waved us inside, and I’m so glad he did.
On the waiter’s suggestion we had the Antipasti di Mare (Seafood Appetizer). We were going to order more, but he urged us to hold any other orders until after the appetizer. Good thing.
The plates started coming, and seven platters later we were happily stuffed. Mussels, pasta with clams, seafood crepes, fresh fish, shrimp and – to my initial dismay – sardines and anchovies.
I’d never eaten either before, but since everything else had been so delicious I decided to try. I picked up a piece of bread, plopped a sardine on top with some olive oil, and bit into it. Love. Same with the anchovies. All washed down with the regional white wine.
I’ve tried them in the U.S. and just NO. But in the sunny harbor of Vernazza with the blue waters just a few yards away, I could eat them all day.
On to Corniglia. Or not. The train platform is down the hillside just above the water. The town, on the other hand, is way, way up the hillside – 368 steps up, to be exact. There is a shuttle, but once, so as not to appear a wimp, I took the stairs. Ouch. I took the shuttle back down. The town is lovely! Lots of nice shops, and several restaurants, although I’ve not eaten at any of them.
Manarola is small and quaint. I always buy pesto here, mostly because I did once and it was the best I’d ever had. As for eating, try Il Porticciolo – small but very creative in atmosphere and recipes, and always delicious. Or there’s Nessun Dorma, out on the point with views back to the village. We love to get their antipasti dishes with meats, cheeses, olives, served with crusty bread and a spritz. A wonderful way to spend a sunny afternoon.
The town at the southern tip of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore. Coming in from the trail, or the train station, you walk through a tunnel that dumps you out at the bottom of “main street.”
You can go up from there to find shops for food, clothes, jewelry and more. About halfway, on the left, is Bar Centrale, a nice place to stop for a beer or a snack and watch the world go by.
You can also go down from there to find the harbor and, further around the point, a “beach” of sorts – a cove with water washing up onto smooth black stones. It’s a fabulous place to swim. And don’t worry about looking like an idiot trying to get over the stones and into the water. NO ONE looks cool wobbling and sliding their way in. Or out. Just roll with it because the water is clear, crisp and heavenly.
Trains, Boats & Trails
The towns are connected by a train line that runs from Genoa in the north to La Spezia in the south. The train runs through tunnels most of the way, but the times when the train comes out of the tunnel it’s a huge, beautiful splash of water, hills and sky. The trains run pretty regularly, and times are posted at each station.
There are boats that cruise between the towns and it’s a nice, breezy way to travel. Be sure to check your ticket, however. They don’t always go to “the next” town but might skip a few.
You can, in theory, drive to both Vernazza and Riomaggiore, but the roads are narrow and/or curvy, and the parking when you get there is practically non-existent. If you insist on driving, start very, very early.
As for the trails: The Sentiero Azzuro is narrow, rough and steep along the northern portion, so a lot people prefer to start from the south, in Riomaggiore. From there to Manarola, the trail is a wide, paved path called the Via dell’Amore, or Walk of Love. Along the way, you’ll see metal netting wrapped on the rocks with small locks hanging from it, symbolizing two people whose hearts are “locked in love.” NOTE: Due to damaging floods and landslides in 2011, this part of the trail has been closed, awaiting repairs. Check with the Park website before your visit to find out about that and other possible closures.
From Corniglia to Monterosso is the more difficult portion of the hike. Lots of steps, rougher pathways, and you have to negotiate around lots of other hikers on narrow trails. If you plan on tackling the entire 7.5 miles, be sure you’re in good shape, have the right shoes, lots of water, and ideally, someone to walk with you. Along these steep trails, more than one person has placed a wrong foot along the way and ended up a good ways down the hillside.
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