We went to Cinque Terre twice this month. The first time was over the Ferragosto holiday in the middle of August, and the second was with our friends, who came to visit from the US at the end of August. It wasn’t our intention to go twice, that is, we might have gone elsewhere the first time, had we realized we’d have a chance to go to Cinque Terre later in the month, but we didn’t regret the trips at all.
Cinque Terre, meaning “Five Lands,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park in Liguria, located on the Italian riviera, near Genova. It contains five coastal fishing villages, built up on the rocky Ligurian shoreline, strung together by a verdant hiking path winding its way through and above the villages. Each town has its own character, but they share certain themes, such as pastel-coloured houses, steep steps climbing through crooked alleyways, hole-in-the-wall fried fish joints, and lovely little beaches or swimming holes in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
From North to South, the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Portovenere lies even further south, and might be considered the “sixth” Cinque Terre, though it is not officially part of the park. The larger towns of Levanto and La Spezia lie to the North and South, respectively, of the park. Both times we visited, we found that it was easiest to find accommodation in La Spezia, which is the largest town in the area. I can heartily recommend both of our La Spezia AirBnBs (Tina’s House, suitable for one couple, and Wiwi, suitable for two couples). The hosts were incredibly welcoming, incredibly accommodating, quick to answer inquiries, and the apartments were both well furnished and conveniently located, including all the necessities (even AC). The first host whisked over to our place in just 10 minutes when we had some trouble with the power, and the second host brought us the freshest figs I’ve ever had straight from their garden for no reason at all! We did also stay one night in Corniglia with my husband, but the AirBnB we stayed at was basically just a normal hotel room with a nice view, and did not compare to the amazingly warm welcome we received at the two La Spezia locations.
La Spezia was a perfect base of operations. It is very walkable, has plenty of food/stores/gelato open at night, and provides connections via train to each of the Cinque Terre towns plus Levanto, via bus to Portovenere and Lerici, and via ferry to Portovenere, Lerici, Levanto, and each of the Cinque Terre except Corniglia. There are also bus connections to Portovenere and Lerici (the latter of which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit). The ferry (provided by the company Consorzio Marittimo Turistico) costs around 35 euro for a day pass, that you can use any number of times, or around 6 euro for one trip. Since I get seasick on longer trips, I only did a single ride from Vernazza to Monterosso using the ferry, and it was definitely worth it.
The train, on the other hand, is cheaper, and it goes way more often, although it mostly goes through dark boring tunnels. The cost is 4 euro per ride, but it’s way more worthwhile to get the day pass (at the Cinque Terre Point stores) for 16 euro, so you can hop back and forth using the train. The day pass also lets you access the lovely hiking trains that wind through and above the five towns. If the weather isn’t blazingly hot, and if the trails are open, hiking is probably the best way to travel between the towns. Each section of the trail takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours (depending on the section). Unfortunately, the days that we traveled there, two of the trails were closed due to mudslides, the rest of the trails were closed at some times due to thunderstorm warnings, and anyways, it was over 30 degrees C most of the time. Actually, I love weather over 30 degrees C, because it’s the perfect swimming weather, and swimming, particularly in the pleasant Mediterranean waters, is one of my favorite activities. We did wind our way through the staircases of each of the towns, and hiked a bit to see the main sights, but I have to admit, we spent most of our time in the water. I would love to return in the spring or fall, just to do all the hikes. I actually think there would probably be a few weeks in early September that could be perfect for both hiking and swimming, assuming the trails were open. You could hike to each town, and get a fish cone at each stop!
The largest beach that we visited was in Levanto. Much of it was dedicated to rent-a-chair type places, which we have taken to calling “vacation factories,” since you are packed in literally side-by-side to all the other tourist-goers, and you get the same perfect sun/beach/food/lounge experience. If that’s your thing, Levanto has a good amount of it, though it does have a small section of public beach, were you can put down your own towel as well. The beach in Levanto is made up of small rocks, which get larger as you start heading into the water. The day we went, the waves were actually large enough, that there were surfers stationed at the wave line, riding them in as they formed. The waves weren’t as big as what I’m used to in SoCal, but there was definitely a very strong undercurrent, and they started out pretty far, so that I just didn’t feel comfortable swimming out there without a flotation device. I did see some swimmers out there, but for the most part, it was just surfers.
South of Levanto is the first of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso. This is the most vacation-factory style town out of all of them. The beach, which is right outside the train station, is smaller than the one in Levanto, but similar to Levanto, it is sandy-ish. There’s a bit of a bay created by a jutting out of the land to the North, which seems to lessen the waves to a gentle roll, and the water is clear and warm, making this a wonderful spot to go swimming… as long as you can stand having your towel propped up right against another person’s on the teeny tiny public portion of the beach. Once again, most of this beach is devoted to the vacation factory, where you can rent a chair-umbrella combo, but when we were there, all the chairs were rented out already anyway. There are some food stands up near the train station, where you can get cones of deep fried seafood (I didn’t know I liked anchovies until I had them fresh here), French fries, and chicken wings. If you walk a bit further from the train station, you reach the older part of Monterosso, where tourist souvenir shops and restaurants line cute little streets. In short, Monterosso is pleasant, and comfortable, and a great place to relax, but in a land of touristy towns, it is touristy to the very max.
The next town over is Vernazza, a small town with one main road. The hiking paths just above Vernazza on both the Monterosso and Corniglia sides provide stunning views of the entire village below. The large pier creates a sandy (but also a silty) little beach, providing a sheltered enclosure, where hesitant swimmers can safely splash around. The outside of the pier has a ladder down into the water, so braver swimmers can dive right in off the edge to swim amongst the waves, and climb back up via the ladder. It’s just like swimming in a swimming pool, except your pool is the entire Mediterranean Sea. Another beach is located at the other end of the town, underneath an archway of the distinctive layered rock found in this region. This beach was apparently created by a recent flood that unfortunately claimed some lives, so it is superficially tethered off, but there are as many swimmers here as anywhere else. More delicious cones of fried fish, focaccia pizza, and farinata (chickpea flour based flat bread from the region) is available at stands along the main road.
The next town to the South is Corniglia. This one is situated on top of a hill. The train station is near the bottom of the hill. Therefore, you either have to hike around 1km up some stairs, or you take a bus that comes approximately every 20 minutes during the day to the top. Since it’s a tad bit harder to reach, less tourists make it up here, giving the town a bit of a cozier vibe. There is a lovely viewpoint inside the town, above a small soccer court, where you can see Manarola down the coast, and a nice view of Corniglia itself just up the road from the main square, next to a vineyard. There are plenty of lovely sit-down restaurants inside this town, with local pastas (e.g. trofie) smothered in local pesto Genovese, and more delicious fresh anchovies, as well as local wines.
Down the coast from Corniglia is Manarola, another pastel-coloured village with just one main street. There is a path here, which slopes upwards to a peak overlooking the entire little town. The wine bar at the top always has an incredibly long line. As lovely as the view is, the swimming is even better. It might be funny to see people setting up their towels on the long boat ramp, but you have to look further to see the real beauty of this swimming hole. The boat ramp leads down into a calm-watered pool, sandwiched between a rocky pier to the left, and a real treasure: a very climbable rock. The rock can be jumped from at various points, from varied heights, providing adventure for the more timid jumpers as well as the braver ones. The tallest point of the rock is around 4.5 or 5 person-heights high (I would guess around 10 meters or so), and juts out perfectly, to allow for a smooth and easy dive into a deep hole. I was too scared to jump off that height though, so the most I did was a jump from around 2.5 person-heights. For those who do not want to jump, there are ladders on both sides of the pier, the sheltered side, and the outside which faces the sea.
The Southernmost village of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore, which, like the others, has its own distinctive character. Here, I enjoyed walking around, and exploring the nooks and crannies of the hilly town, filled with steep and narrow staircases, winding up and down the cliffs. I didn’t get the chance to spend too much time here, though I believe there may be a beach off to one side that I did not visit. I suppose I will just have to come back another time!
Finally, South of all of the Cinque Terre, sits Portovenere. A bus connection from La Spezia (bus P) takes visitors to this small town, which follows the same architectural themes as the other five towns, though it is officially not part of the national park. The day we visited, a thunderstorm had come through in the morning, leaving a half-cloudy sky in its wake, and some breathtaking views for us to enjoy. The sea was a deep blue, and the setting sun cast its golden rays over the lush cliff side, whenever it peaked its head through the clouds.
We explored the church of St. Peter laid with striped bricks on the very tip of the town, and a pathway up to a fort on top of the cliff. The fort was was closed by the time we got there, but on the way we saw an homage to Portovenere by sculpture Scorzelli, titled Mater Naturae. The statue is of a voluptuous middle-aged woman, wearing a simple undergarment, gazing out at the sea beyond the town. It seems to me, that, tired from a difficult life, she looks out longingly at what might have been, but, also with some pride for the work she has wrought.