Cinque Terre


Terms such as ‘best-kept secret’ or ‘hidden gem’ in tourism seem somewhat ironic, as the very fact that someone has elected to write about such a place indicates either that it has garnered enough plaudits to be written or talked about before, or at the very least that they are about to let the cat out of the bag. There are parameters to such-named destinations - an impression of authenticity, not too homogenised, comparable to more well-known locations but preferred by some, perhaps not overcrowded, but with a bit of a holiday buzz to them… Cinque Terre in Italy’s Liguria region seems to fulfil that remit.

‘Cinque Terre’ translates as ‘five lands’, and this area is a quintet of villages dotted along an often rocky coastline, each somehow achieving its own distinctive character, but all possessing colourfully-painted houses. The arrival of the railway in the 19th century afforded many locals the possibility of migrating to bigger towns and cities in search of prosperity, leaving the area in something of a decline, olive and wine production notwithstanding. Yet the travel writer Rick Steves is sometimes credited as being the person who sparked off the tourist interest in Cinque Terre, thereby setting in motion its revitalisation. In 1997, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

Today it is also the railway that can be considered one of its best features, as it makes it easier for visitors to try their hand (or more precisely, their feet) at one of Cinque Terre’s biggest draws – the hiking. Hiking trailExperienced hikers and normally-non-walkers alike converge on the area most of the year round to wander its signed paths, where they can drink in the best views over the sea and the villages. You can choose a hike between villages and then conveniently catch one of the trains back to the village you are staying in or to any of the other four (this is not a great place for cars). Trains are regular and their practicality allows you to fit in both some decent walking and time for exploration of the villages themselves.

You can purchase a Cinque Terre card, one version of which is for entry to the walking routes themselves and the other of which also includes the use of trains. On our visit we plumped for the 2-day trekking card, which didn’t include trains, and it was a mistake – the trains are all the same price, whether you go from the village at the north end to the one at the south or just between two neighbouring ones. We ended up spending significantly on train journeys, so it is worth getting the combined trekking + train card. VernazzaIncidentally, do be careful when awaiting your stop. Stops are usually announced, but once, ours was not, so take a look out of the window.

From north to south, the villages are Monterosso al Mare (although all are ‘by the Sea’), Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. We based ourselves in Manarola and it turned out to be our favourite of the ‘Cinque’, neither too small to lack things to see at any time of day or evening or too large to feel like a village, its pastel-hued houses taking on a stream of varyingly-lit aspects that Claude Monet would be drawn to.

On our first full day, we took the bus uphill to the village of Volastra (included in the price of the Cinque Terre Card), which allowed us to get hiking the rest of the trail to Corniglia before it got too late in the morning and too hot (bear in mind that we went towards the end of August and we planned to do one more hike before lunch). We had skipped the Manarola to Volastra section because we had been told our intended part of the hike was more scenic. It was certainly a wonderful walk, sometimes tricky underfoot (do follow the guidance and rules and don’t attempt this in flip flops or normal shoes – use walking shoes or boots), but with excellent views forward and back across to the village we had come from. A note – some discuss which direction it is better to walk on these routes because of what you see over the horizon, but you don’t have to pay too much attention so it comes down to which direction is practical for you. After all, you can always turn your head to look back at something great. Passing olive groves above and the simplicity of the deep blue sea below, we descended into Corniglia. Looking down on VernazzaThe only one of the villages to lack a port (due to its raised position), there is something utterly untarnished and unaffected about this village, yet you can still visit its narrow shopping street and grab a gelato among the bustle of the other tourists.

After a panino, we were on our way again in search of Vernazza. Prickly pear trees abounded on this route and the rugged coastline could often be seen from a high vantage point in all its glory. Before even arriving in Vernazza, we were getting a bit dehydrated (be careful) and left the path in the hamlet of Prevo where the barman acceded to my request for a sprinkle of salt in my sparkling water (not a local speciality).

In Vernazza, you will be met by a port area in which you will probably relish the chance to bathe in the summer. After a decent swim that afternoon and some exploration of the village/town, it was back to Manarola for the evening to enjoy the sunset and then a late dinner.

Via dell'AmoreThe next day, we took the train to Vernazza and hiked to Monterosso al Mare. This was definitely the most town-like of the Cinque Terre, more like a resort, although it was still undoubtedly attractive and possessing character. There is a private beach that you can pay to relax on, whose primary feature (aside from being a beach) is a range of inflatable toys for children.

Catching a train to the other end at Riomaggiore in the evening, we were struck by how each village or town is quite different. You will find that life seems to continue among these unperturbed residents who have basically witnessed an invasion in their area, but whose livelihoods often rely on tourism now We most felt this sense of being a minority compared to the locals in Manarola, which might be partly why we enjoyed Manarola most. Riomaggiore had plenty of locals and tourists when we dropped in. We were then fortunate that we were able to visit a short stretch of the Via dell’Amore (‘The Path of Love’) a hiking route that has been suspended for years due to a landslide. It is undergoing maintenance, and it is due to reopen in summer this year. Hopefully that will be the case (although it is certainly worth visiting Cinque Terre without walking on this path). When we went, they had opened the first part from Riomaggiore with timed tickets and as we were among just a few others there, it made for a peaceful and picturesque sunset over the sea.

Porto VenereAfter leaving Cinque Terre, we also took in an afternoon in Porto Venere. Many visitors fall in love with this place – personally, we found it was worth a visit, but being like a bigger village of the Cinque Terre, it lacked as much appeal. Perhaps it would have been different had we visited this first. The elegant and pricey Portofino, however, was a pleasant surprise. Imagining its opulence would detract from its heart, we were glad we had a look. The way the port runs up close to the restaurants and cafés, creates a theatrical little stage for a memorable dining opportunity. It is a joy of travel that one must always be wary of expectations – or at least embrace the fact that the reality can often surprise you.

Now, one more note from this part of Italy that I didn’t mention elsewhere – eat pistachio cream-filled croissants for breakfast – they are delicious!

Our thanks go to Mark and Pilar for their own personal take on Cinque Terre.

Little Hotels close to Cinque Terre:
oliVenere Agriturismo
Hotel Piccolo Portofino
Villa Devoto
Casa Balin

27 Mar 2024, 16:46

 Search for Posts