Cinque Terre. Five lands. Countless impressions. Gales, mudslides and floods have taken their toll on this aquamarine haven but there’s still a myriad of stony walkways and coves of crushed sand to stroll. These sparkling gems on Italy’s craggy Ligurian coast remain steeped in tradition – fishing, wine, cuisine, religion. Amid strumming music and fragrances spilling out of amiable cafes, gossip spills from third story windows, merchants refresh their street front displays with fresh flowers, herbs, pine nuts, fruits, sundries. Spired churches small and large, time worn monuments of marble with centuries old stained glass, beckon worshipers with open doors. And the lemons! The local citrus stars in drinks and cuisine, refined into soaps, candles, carvings, T shirts, dried herbs, and textiles. My tea towel purchase had a tasty recipe for Limoncello, the trademark native cordial.
Attention wine lovers: whites are the specialty here. Even CabSav devotees will find it hard not to love native harvests. Vineyards spill over the mountainside, blanketing the verdant terrain. Each village produces its own unique blend, delightfully palatable, even when served right off the shelf, as is the custom.
On Day Three after knocking off 2 hikes, we took the train to Riomaggiore, the Easternmost of the five villages. Since it’s the 1st stop from La Spezia on the regional train, it was expectedly busy. Meandering the long tunnel to reach the town, we walked to the pinnacle, mesmerized by the animated town and captivating view from above. Perusing many shops and markets, we followed a familiar fragrance to the takeaway restaurant we’d read about. Crispy fish and chips served cone style with crunchy fries – for 5EUR, a delish dish!
Getting our fill of photos and food, we moved onto Manarola, the next rail stop. Such a charmer! Up a flight of steps to a rooftop bar, riveting views emerged up and down the coastline. No surprise, Manarola is deemed the poster girl for CT and a favorite among repeat visitors. Intent on conquering the Wine Walk, our ramble was interrupted with stops to several intriguing shops. Since Venice, I’d been hat hunting for Eric. He not only found a swanky one for himself but a second for our year old grandson Sam, ever the fashion savvy toddler. Filling my satchel with lemony souvenirs, we finally embarked on the lush vineyard path, a serpentine ascent among espaliered vines with caretakers tenderly snipping spent fruit and twigs. Scattered wood benches and stone slabs provide hikers a respite to enjoy the sweeping Ligurian sea views hundreds of feet below. After lingering awhile, we were energized to walk onward for a church visit before descending. We next explored the beach, featuring a zero entry cove with flat rocks swimmable to reach and practice swan dives. Enroute back to our cozy casa in Corniglia, we picked up fresh tomatoes, greens and herbs to prepare the sea bass purchased that morning from the fishmonger. After a sumptuous sunset meal on our balcony, the day ended as it began – blissfully.
Shopping tip: the local cantinas, coffee shops and wine bars are treasure troves of packable mementos. In Manarola, we found a coffee/wine bar with a retail section of yummy treats. They created and sold their own “soup in a bag”, a colorful mélange of rice, legumes, and herbs; just add water. In Corniglia, we picked up dried pasta, herbs and local coffee. Riomaggiore featured its own local pasta, lemon extracts, olive oil in small cans and bottles, all nifty souvenirs or gifts to share.
Day Four, multiple missions. Eric wanted to capture a Manarola sunset; I couldn’t leave without a swim at Monterosso. Post breakfast and a 15 minute train ride, we arrived at Monterosso with all day for both. Walking from the rail station, old town meets new with a gorgeous fountain as centerpiece in the town square. After buying boat tickets for the 3pm multi stop ferry including Manarola, we hoofed the steps to the castle for an expansive coastline view. Filled on touring and a fresh pasta lunch, it was time for my ocean swim. Water temps in October are chilly but so worth it! I held my breath and took the plunge. Exhilarating! Closing my eyes, I’m there again, afloat in the Ligurian Sea on gentle waves.
Around 245pm, we joined the line at the dock, boarding with tickets displayed. Boat boy absently waved us on without a glance. Such a stellar day – blue skies, gentle breezes, dazzling seascape views from our water craft. While engaged in lively conversation with an Aussie couple, we watched the coastline and Vernazza slip away along with Manarola, then realized we had no idea where we were headed. Wrong boat! Fellow passengers advised the destination was Porto Venere, the peninsular tip South of La Spezia, over an hour further away. What else to do but enjoy the ride? Our diversion gifted us with spectacles of jagged limestone cliffs, tall masted sailboats skimming by, local fishermen hauling in their nets as we cruised uncharted waters, inhaling the views. Mishaps are simply unplanned adventures.
Upon arrival, we explored Porto Venere. Less foot traffic but much like its coastal sisters, this medieval town’s harbor is a picturesque scene of fishing boats and private vessels with cafes aplenty along winding streets. Since Porto Venere has no rail station, we were obliged to buy new tickets for Manarola, staying long enough to amble through town, have drinks, snap a few pics then board the next ferry. We’d no sooner departed when the captain announced all passengers had to disembark at Riomaggiore, the first stop. A medical emergency in Manarola had shut down the port, everyone off. Rerouting again and losing daylight, we navigated our way to the rail station and bought train tickets back to Corniglia in time to catch our final balcony sunset. We dined that night at Cantina de Mananan, managing to snag a last minute reservation with an upstairs table. The fresh fish, local greens, and recommended wine lived up to reviews, fantastico!
Day Five: departure day. We spent the morning drifting through Corniglia, absorbing every last bit of local color. Everything about Cinque Terre is vibrant – the splashy Crayola colored casas and cameras (homes and apartments), clotheslines filled with laundry spilling over balconies, the engaging ciao! greetings from grocers and café waiters, the vineyards, lemon and olive groves crowning each town. The sea reigns as star of this magnificent coastal mecca. Onward to Florence! No sad goodbyes. Ciao presto, mi amore!
Notes on logistics
Getting there: TrentItalia trains run from major cities such as Rome, Pisa, and Florence to La Spezia or Genoa to Levanto (from the North). A separate ticket is needed to take these regional trains. Not all trains stop in all cities, check schedules! Most importantly, be sure to get the ticket validated using a posted machine to avoid fines onboard if a conductor checks tickets (rare, but expensive if overlooked). When in doubt which track to get on: North/Westbound trains run adjacent to the coast; South/Eastbound trains run city side. For Self Drivers: except for early AM deliveries, all vehicular traffic (cars, buses) is relegated to the outskirts, so driving in/out takes some planning, and may involve long walks with luggage from carparks.
Accommodations: a few ways to go here. If a stylish hotel with AC and cushy amenities are preferred, stay in Pisa then day trip into Cinque Terre by rail. From Genoa or Florence, also possible, longer rides. But for a true cultural immersion, plan a 3 to 4 night minimum stay. We were intent on living like locals. Given the remote locale and that most inns, rooms and small hotels are family run operations, dealing directly with proprietors is essential. There is one small resort style hotel in Monterosso which was unresponsive to my inquiry. After extensive research, checking countless photos, property reviews, we found an ideal apartment on Air BnB. I’ve heard woeful tales about duplicitous advertising, stock photos, properties misrepresented or already rented upon arrival with no help from online booking sites. My fellow travel advisors typically shun using Air BnB but I have to say, in Cinque Terre that option must be considered. We enjoyed five nights in a top floor apartment including a full kitchen and pullout sofa bed (comfy!) with a peerless view of the coastline offering idyllic sunsets – for less than $600USD (October 2017). The only surprises were an unusually small corner shower and wonky washing machine (bonus for even having one!). We fared just fine. Homework required.
Yes, it’s off the beaten path. Worth it? Unquestionably! Go see for yourself. For me, I’m back there with every photo, bracing swim, sniff of olive oil or sip of Limoncello.